North by Northwest
The Cold War in Film
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.
Transformation Through Love and Travel: ‘North by Northwest’ in the Context of Iyer’s “Why We Travel”
Contemporary American society expects that a person reaches specific destinations as they move through their life’s journey. Gender is the major factor that determines these “normal” destinations for people, which are so ingrained in every aspect of life that it is uncomfortable when anyone deviates from the expected path. In Alfred Hitchcock’s film, North by Northwest, a case of mistaken identity introduces the audience to the main characters, Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill, who are initially isolated from society as they do not act according to their expected societal roles. Eve is 26, and unmarried, without children. Roger is also unmarried, twice divorced, and no children as well. They are thrown together as the story progresses, initially working towards two separate goals, but eventually bonding into one. The journey the two characters take, both across the country in search of answers and in their developing relationship, is a metaphor of life’s journey from outside to inside society.
From this journey, a connection can be drawn to travel writer Pico Iyer’s essay “Why We Travel”. Iyer states “Travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed”(Iyer 10). Both Eve and Roger through their love are able to return to traveling along society’s path. North by Northwest utilizes the characters Eve and Roger to depict the isolation from society that comes from failing to reach the expected destinations along the journey of life, and the joy of realigning with those norms. While the film serves as a subconscious reminder to settle into the expected societal roles, or risk isolation and unhappiness, it also provides hope that finding love at any point on one’s life journey can return them to society.
Eve and Roger are thrown from their paths in life and experience isolation from society due to their failure to reach destinations expected of them such as marriage and children. In the opening of the film, Roger is depicted as a successful advertising executive, but he is completely dependent on women to organize his life. His secretary appears to run the professional, family and love aspects of his life in the opening scenes. She documents his appointments, calls his mother for him, and sends chocolates with a love note to a girl he is seeing. Men are expected to be independent in society, the strong hero, successful breadwinner. They are expected to be married and carry on the name of their family through children. Roger is not married and has no children as it is revealed he has been divorced twice, so he is not on the expected journey of life for a man of his age. His lack of a wife and friends beyond business associates exposes his isolation from society. The character’s detached manner and wry wit further demonstrate his isolation and “separateness”. Eve has also failed to reach her expected destination. She is “26 and unmarried” without children, when women were typically expected to be married before the age of 22. When introduced to the audience, she appears sexually aggressive towards Roger, and completely independent as she travels by herself. She appears to have no friends or support group of any kind. Acting in such a way was unusual for a woman of the era, and she experiences the isolation from society as a result of falling off of her path in life.
Both Roger and Eve must be “transformed”, as Pico Iyer states, through love to return to their life journey accepted by society. Only finding love while traveling through life will allow them to discover themselves and their ability to rise to the roles society requires of them.Both Eve and Roger experience mistaken identity in the film causing them to feel isolated, which mirrors the isolation they both feel from society as they have fallen off of their designated paths in life. Roger is mistaken for a government spy, while Eve is mistaken as a seductress traveling alone with no ties to anyone. Eve initially flirts with Roger stating, “I tipped the steward five dollars to seat you here if you should come in”, something no single woman of this time would normally say to a stranger. She continues seducing and teasing him until he agrees to come back to her sleeping compartment, where after kissing him she hides him from the police. Entranced by her, he does not catch on how suspicious it is that she is helping him even though he has been branded as a murderer with his face on every paper. Hitchcock leaves a clue for the audience in her name. No one at this time would believe that a woman would act so outwardly sexual; her sexuality is supposed to belong to a man. So, Hitchcock names her Eve, alluding to the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Eve wanted more than she could have, and betrayed Adam and God by eating the devil’s fruit even though she knew better. Eve in the film represents not only the biblical betrayal, but the betrayal of all men by women who do not conform to societal roles. Women must be subservient and obey who they belong to in society. All women outside of their roles are bound to betray someone, as their lack of sexual independence causes them to constantly betray themselves. Eve’s betrayal, that her name alludes to, in the film is the sexual betrayal of Roger. She did not really care for him, but she had to get him to trust her so she could complete her task of sending him to his death.
As the audience learns more about Eve, the viewers (approximating Roger) mistake her for an evil seductress with the sole purpose of manipulating men. With her spy status revealed, and her advances towards Roger proven to be an act, Eve’s sexuality no longer belongs to her, but to Vandamm, the man using her to kill Roger. Later, when she is revealed to actually be an agent for the United States working for the professor to arrest Vandamm, her moral alibi is secure. The audience is no longer focused on the unconventional woman who actually desires sex. She is now interesting enough to keep them engaged, but not enough to make them question the film and societal roles themselves. By utilizing Eve to represent all women, and their betrayal of men when they fall from their societal roles, Hitchcock subconsciously reminds them to mind their place in society or face isolation. While Pico Iyer compares travel to the transformation and awareness that comes with love affairs, Hitchcock uses love to return those lost while traveling through life to their designated paths determined by their gender. The message is the same through both sources, love and travel are one in the same. Both can cause one to be “ready to be transformed” and have a “heightened state of awareness” that helps the understanding and appreciation of this transformation. Hitchcock takes it a step further by depicting the transformation as one that returns the characters to their societal roles and their life journey.Happiness and acceptance come from the fulfilling of one’s role in society, as a society role outlines one’s purpose in life giving meaning to one’s life journey. Initially, both characters are superficial, isolated and unhappy. Their lives have no meaning as they have no purpose outside of their expected roles. The film begins as a flipped version of the audience’s reality; the man is dependent on women and incapable to taking care of himself while the woman is outwardly sexual and completely independent.
At the end of the film, however, Eve devolves into the subordinate model of a female who needs rescuing, while Roger becomes the brave hero by saving her as society expects men to. Upon her rescue, they fall into the roles that society accepts and the audience is comfortable with. Their love for each other that developed along their journey together allowed for this role reversal and return to normal gender roles. Without being “transformed” by their love as Pico Iyer describes in his essay, the couple would have fallen off the face of Mt. Rushmore instead of falling into their roles as men and women. Hitchcock further proves that their love saved them from societal isolation by cutting immediately from her rescue to their joyful honeymoon on the train where their lives have purpose once again. Eve has finally redeemed herself through love to return to society after not only being independent and sexual but also by being the lover of an enemy agent. Roger has overcome his dependence on women and is able to make deep enough connections to live up to his role in society. They are no longer lonely and unhappy as they have accepted their roles in society by getting married. The central goal in life is to be happy within the construct of society.
In 1950s America, a key part of this construct is a successful heterosexual relationship. North by Northwest depicts this journey to happiness by portraying a real journey across the country to nominally resolve a mistaken identity. The two protagonists, Roger and Eve, have individually fallen off the common path on this journey to happiness, but have returned to it together through the triumph of their love. Thus the film’s real ‘mistaken identity is the gender “identity” of each character, and how their earlier incorrect actions are corrected, and they assume the positions expected of them by society. It is this allegory of human relationships that gives the film some of its strongest and deepest meanings that still hold true today. These meanings can be connected to Pico Iyer’s essay, “Why We Travel”, as he discusses the connection between travel and love. There is a “transformation” he describes that comes from both experiences. The main characters travel together literally, and each transforms into a new entity through their love. Roger is no longer the aloof, withdrawn business man, but now is a risk taking hero. Eve becomes a loving, willing partner from the initial enemy agent seductress. Hitchcock makes it is clear that love caused this transformation in each of them, and now they can combine their separate journeys together, now both realigned with the norms of society.