North by Northwest (1959)


I was not very well-acquainted with the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  Due to his lasting influence on film and pop culture, I had absorbed most of my information about him and his films rather than having seen the films for myself.  For some reason (Psycho and The Birds, probably), I had him pegged as a director of horror movies.  I do not like horror movies, so I did not bother to watch Hitchcock films.

It was not until the opening credits of North by Northwest that I learned that in fact, Hitchcock made a wide variety of films.  Rather than horror, they could better be classified as “suspenseful”.  North by Northwest is an identity-theft caper about an advertising executive (named Thornhill and played by Cary Grant) from New York in the late 1950s.  The executive, approaching middle age with an overbearing mother and two divorces behind him, is mistaken for a government agent by foreign spies and ends up on the run for his life.  Along the way, he meets a fashionable, suave, young woman who alternates from being his saviour to being his liability.  It seems to end all well and good, although his overbearing mother will still be in his life.

Thornhill is a decent everyman hero.  In 1959, that meant being clean-cut, wearing a suit, drinking heavily, smoking, and holding patronizing attitudes about women.  He grows more sympathetic as the plot progresses.  As for the woman, Eve Kendall, she goes from being the epitome of the liberated woman to being a damsel in distress, subservient and taken care of.  It is seen as the natural order of things.  When we are introduced to her, she is travelling alone, sexually-liberated, and fashionably dressed.  She is confident, mysterious, and seductive.  As the story continues, we discover that she is “kept” as a possession, her sexuality is closely guarded, and her clothes are a statement of her objectification.  She is nervous, meek, and whiny.  Everyone is playing with her, even (to a lesser extent) Thornhill.

Initially, I was heavily bothered by the change in Eve’s character arc.  The message seemed clear: women who are liberated need to be brought back into line by a strong, wholesome man.  Even if that man was not very wholesome, as is the case with Thornhill.  However, I came to realise that instead, the liberation that Eve seems to have when she initially appears is only an illusion.  She is nothing but a puppet, which Thornhill clearly realises at the climax of the film.  Only to him is she a person worth saving.  Ultimately, she gains liberty by becoming his love interest – although I’m not too sure what Thornhill’s mother will think of her!

Does this mean that this film is unbearably misogynistic? Absolutely not.  It is a product of its era and of its creators.  In fact, it is an enduring story because identity theft is an all too common threat in the modern era.  We could only wish to have the travel freedom that Thornhill has if our names and faces were to become associated with crime or foreign terrorism!  A modern remake of this film would have to have Thornhill not only try to account for newspapers, but also 24-hour news networks, Twitter, and online articles with his face splashed over them.  He would definitely spend a lot more time hiding and disguising himself.

Like many older films, North by Northwest suffers by being distracting.  It is purportedly a contemporary film but ever so obviously dated to the 1950s.  However, I was intrigued by the caper and it was a good mystery.  The story was suspenseful and the cinematics were thrilling for the era.  It was a treat to watch.

I’m thinking more Hitchcock films should be in order in the future.  Apparently, I was wrong about the horror.

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