North by Northwest was greeted with sighs of pleasure and relief by those numerous admirers of Hitchcock who were perplexed by the romantic obsession of Vertigo (1958). Following North by Northwest, Hitchcock made Psycho (1960) and viewers were again confronted by a work they did not quite know how to take - a Gothic extravagence, as black comedy or as an appalling lapse of taste.
Superficially, North by Northwest is a divertissement between two emotionally disturbing films, a colourful spy frolic starring the amiable Cary Grant; a chase movie told with a gleeful disregard for plot but with immense professional skill and good humour. But the film, which Hitchcock described as the culmination of his work in America, contains many darker elements within its genre framework that place it alongside Vertigo and Psycho as a comment on the character or American society.
The project came about by chance. Before shooting began on Vertigo, Hitchcock was hired by MGM to direct The Wreck of Mary Dreare to which screenwriter Ernest Lehman was also assigned. Both men soon realized the problems in adapting Hammond Innes' novel. They began instead on an original story, a spy thriller, which apparently started with Hitchcock's wish to film a sequence on Mount Rushmore. The Man on Lincoln's Nose was an early title and Hitchcock conceived an irreverent scene (never shot) in which the hero hides in one of Lincoln's nostrils and gets a sneezing fit.
In the intial stages of preparation it was was intended as a James Stewart film but as the main character developed it became a Cary Grant film. This is a crucial element in the film's well-oiled mechanism. Whereas Stewart's persona is one of integrity and dedication to cause, Grant's is one of cynicism, independence and flamboyance.
Grant's Roger Thornhill is the classic adman; smart and shallow, a believer only in himself, unshakably complacent, unattached and on the make. His personalized bookmatches, inscribed with the intials ROT, emphasize the zero in his life. The film charts a moral and spiritual growth by stripping away what identity he has and by forcing him to adopt the identity of someone who does not exist.
Thornhill's commitment at the end is not to the ideals of America, as embodied by the paternalistic head of the CIA (Thornill already has a dominant mother who keeps a check on his drinking), but to Eve Kendall, another in his long line of women. The survival of his species of American male is a dispiriting prospect just off the edges of the frame.
The opening scenes establish Thornhill as being master of his environment - his ease at comandeering someone elses's cab; his relaxed charm in smart cocktail bars. Thornhill is every inch the American man-about-town and, appropriately, it is a man called Townsend who propels him from New York into a world of chaos.
The plot's physical and spiritual trajectory is a north-westernly one and a historical one, with Vandamm's Old World suavity adding a cultural perspective to this satire of the New World. From New York's Plaza Hotel and United Nations building (symbols, respectively, of material success and Utopia) we travel on the Twentieth Century to Chicago, with its memories of gangsters (now the CIA and spies). The justly celebrated crop-duster sequence, when Thornhill is attacked by the swooping plane, takes place on the wide prairie complete with farmers who might have stepped out of the pages of John Steinbeck. Mount Rushmore's presidents carved in stone is the ultimate symbol of order and tolerance but is used as the setting for betrayals, homosexual jealousies (Vandamm's sadistic henchman) and violence. The American Dream has turned into a horrifying nightmare.
Against this is a palpable background of moral ambiguity and world tension - 'Trouble in the Middle East', cries a prescient New York newsboy. Hitchcock's slow dissolve from the violated United Nations building to the bronze CIA plaque seems now to encompass the cynicism of the Seventies and Eighties and perhaps should not be taken as lightly as Thornhill's flip comment early in the film. 'This is ridiculous'.