North by Northwest

North by Northwest Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Faces (Motif)

Playing into the theme of identity is the motivic use of the face throughout the film. The image of the face aligns with the shallow but all too common tendency for characters to judge situations at face value. Identity is loosely held in the film, and faces are consistently misconstrued, becoming a primary means of Roger's misidentification. After he is photographed holding the knife that killed Townsend, Roger's face becomes a dangerous burden to him. He is forced to conceal it in various ways, wearing sunglasses and covering his face with shaving cream in the restroom at the Chicago train station to evade policemen.

When Roger meets Eve, he claims he has the sort of face that make people think they have seen him before. Eve responds, “It’s a nice face.” This statement has a double meaning. The surface meaning of course is that she is attracted to him. The underlying meaning, however, is that she doesn’t think he looks like a killer, and that she is somehow already convinced of Roger’s innocence.

Another scene that makes use of the human face as a motif is at the train station, as policemen and detectives frantically search for Roger among the various red-capped porters. One by one, they whip the red caps around and the camera captures each and every individual face, none of which belong to Roger.

Finally, most evocatively perhaps, Eve and Roger's only means of escape at the climax of the film is via Mount Washington. The couple literally has to slide down the carved faces of American presidents.

Mount Rushmore (Symbol)

When seen in the light of the prevalent face motif, Mount Rushmore becomes deeply symbolic. The presidents engraved on Mount Rushmore are almost certainly the largest faces in the United States of America. They are literally hewn into the mountain itself. They represent, rather straightforwardly, the legacy of the American political experiment; they are the faces of the men who founded and led the country through crisis. In a movie whose central action and conflict concerns the political tensions of the Cold War, they serve as poignant symbols for American history and a sanctimonious vision of the American dream. Additionally Mount Washington represents the expansive scale and natural wonder of the country itself.

Roger and Eve's Relationship (Allegory)

The relationship between Roger and Eve can easily be interpreted as an exaggerated and comic allegory for romantic unions and heterosexual courtship more generally. This allegory is made all the more pointed by Eve Kendall's given name, which hearkens back to the first woman in the Old Testament story. After Roger is isolated by his circumstances, with no one believing him about his seemingly hopeless plight, Eve wanders into his life, and seems like a sound ally. We eventually learn that she works for Vandamm, but she is initially a confidante for Roger, the closest thing he has to a sidekick. Their union is at once sexual and intellectual, as they admire one another's wit and savviness, and simultaneously cannot wait to get into bed together. When they hang off the side of Mount Rushmore, Roger tells Eve his previous marriages left his ex-wives thinking he was dull, but after the drama of their shared adventures, Eve could hardly mistake Roger for dull. Thus the movie itself, a suspenseful and complicated thriller, becomes a romantic caper, a boy meets girl story, which stands in as an allegory for heterosexual courtship. The path to becoming a couple is a long and tumultuous one, exaggerated by the hairpin turns of the plot and the near-fatal dangers that they must navigate, but in the end the viewer is left with the image of a happy engagement, as the hopeful couple finally climbs into bed together.

The Statue (Symbol)

The Asian statuette which Vandamm purchases at the auction can be seen as a symbol of Vandamm himself, and his deceptive powers as a villain. Outwardly, the antique appears to be a classic piece of art, however the audience learns that it contains stolen microfilm, a symbol of Vandamm's deceptions and political disloyalty. Vandamm is a seemingly suave and sophisticated gentleman, but in reality he is a ruthless villain, willing to shed blood if necessary to get what he wants. He looks like an art dealer, but he is actually a criminal, just as the statuette looks like merely a statuette, while also carrying classified stolen information.

Facelessness & Anonymity (Motif)

Similar to the theme of identity and the motif of the face is the concept of anonymity and facelessness, the absence of identity. Roger wishes to return to his normal life of anonymity as a New York professional, but he finds his own identity has become overdetermined, and falsely accused. As Roger finds himself beleaguered with these unwanted identities—assassin, government agent, and drunken liar—he struggles against a number of faceless and mysterious entities along the way.

Within the first few minutes of the film Roger is kidnapped by two men whom he does not know, questioned by a man who is impersonating someone else, and accused of being a man he has never heard of. The facelessness of Kaplan continues to haunt him throughout the movie, as indeed Kaplan does not exist. When he believes he sees Kaplan emerge from a car alongside the road in the cornfields of Indiana, Roger cannot quite make out his face across the street, and neither can the viewer. As it turns out, this man is simply waiting for the bus, and is not Kaplan at all. When Roger runs from the crop-duster, part of the horror of the scene is that neither Roger nor the audience has any idea who is flying it.

Another anonymous individual is the Professor, a mysterious individual whom we never fully know, and whose name we never learn. This point is emphasized when Roger comments, “I don’t believe I caught your name,” to which the Professor replies, “I don’t believe I pitched it.”