North by Northwest explores contextual concerns of the Cold War Era by the deliberate depiction of domestic law enforcement agencies as corrupt and suggested that law enforcement agencies are imbued with evil. By capturing the social and political changes through the Cold War, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest questions the democratic and political values of the American Government.
During the early stages of the Cold War, late 1940’s, the reform and modifications of society to which these changes affected government, security and mentality of common people. North by Northwest critiques these controversial changes and questions the purity of the American Government’s internal security apparatus, particularly pertaining to corrupt law and order men. As Roger Thornhill, a metaphor for the Atomic Age everyman, is mistaken for an American spy the close up of him and the two henchmen highlights the man-hunt Thornhill is now trapped up in, and captures the evil that can penetrate the life of innocent members of society. As controls slips away from Thornhill, the non-diegetic symphonic score coupled with the point-of-view medium shot of a fused, distorted road accompanying his escape conveys a sense of danger and vulnerability, and echoes a precarious nature of the Cold War. This is similarly conveyed through the CIA agent revealing that George Kaplan is a decoy and suggesting to leave Thornhill on his own implies that the CIA are willing to sacrifice a common man for the greater good of the nation. The irony of CIA’s lack of concern towards Thornhill challenges the morality of the systems of government that people rely on for their safety and suggests the presumed representative of American purity and moral authority are tinged with evil. The immoral actions of the CIA questions the culture during the Cold War and the use of atomic power sustained by inherent corrupt systems of government that controlled it.
Situated within an era full of uncertainty and unreliability, NNW echoes sense of misdirection of the individual being isolated from ‘corrupt’ systems of government. Addressed early in the film, the gradual crescendo of the frantic and upbeat non-diegetic score captures the ever present danger of society, and emphasises the mystery and suspense of the movie. Rejecting the surface tranquillity of Eisenhower’s America, Thornhill’s confused amalgam of rhetorical questions, speculating ‘Who?’ ‘What’ ‘Are you’ misdirection and a state of endless confusion, searching for clarity in the Atomic Age. Furthermore, the semi long shot of Thornhill and an unknown man in the middle of an empty, dusty road highlights the vulnerability, anxiety and alienation of the individual during the Cold War. This is emphasised through the various jump cuts of point-of-view shots of an empty arid corn fields and panning shot of vehicles passing Thornhill evoking a sense of isolation and contrasts the busy, crowded city to the large empty area communicating vulnerability. This is emphasised through the panning shot of the knife thrown at Mr Townsend suggesting the omnipresent threat during the Cold War, and critiques the ongoing use of atomic power. Moreover, the use of UN building coupled with the aerial shot of Thornhill fleeing from the UN building captures the controvert illusion of peace through the UN, and accentuates a sense of François Lyotard’s notion of “Post Modern vertigo” that captures the intrusion of the political into the personal sphere as Thornhill escapes from the law in a society described by William Styron as “a world unhinged.”
North by Northwest reciprocated ideas of freedom and happiness still present throughout the Cold War era, emphasising the responsibility of the individual to persevere through the forces of evil. Stated in the Declaration of Independence, “Establish governments to protect their rights,” but due to the CIA’s complete disregard towards Thornhill, Thornhill is prohibited of his rights to ‘freedom, liberty and pursuit of happiness,’ through evil entering the innocent life of an average American. However, Thornhill triumphs evil and indifference, recognises the importance of the individual and advocates a need for action against institutions of power in the Cold War. This is similarly conveyed through Thornhill stating, “I don’t like the way Teddy Roosevelt’s looking at me,” resonates ideas of freedom and the principles of the founding fathers of America yet conveys the ever present danger in the Cold War. Furthermore, the use of Mount Rushmore in the final scene critiques the changing values of society during the Cold War, and emphasis the power of the average man being able to conquer evil.
Ultimately, North by Northwest is a Cold War text that reflects the social and political change through an ongoing presence of danger and complete annihilation of men through Atomic power. Through questioning the morality of nuclear warfare and the systems of governments controlling it, North by Northwest symbolizes an era of open dissent and emphasises the need of the individual’s person actions. Nonetheless, throughout these changes in society North by Northwest echoes feelings of despair and isolation within the Cold War and is suggestive that the individual’s actions will champion the evils in the Cold War itself.