North by Northwest (1959)—Up from Action

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In watching North by Northwest, I was struck by how well society functions. At least, society as portrayed in this film.

In the course of this film’s events, we encounter porters, telegrams, comfortable trains, and visitors enjoying a pleasant time in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) wears a gray flannel suit all through the movie and does so happily, a model of conformity to this system that hums along so well.

The film is a thriller based on mistaken identity. Thornhill, a thriving advertising executive, is mistaken for “George Kaplan” by two men looking for this person in a hotel bar. Thornhill simply raises his hand to summon a waiter in seeming response to the waiter calling out Kaplan’s name. The mistake proves harrowing, as “Kaplan” (an identity later found to be fictional, a ruse advanced by U.S. government agents) is the object of the machinations of international spies. Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by the thugs and swept into a drama that his captors and pursuers throughout the movie assume he understands.

Grant’s character is interesting for what he does not do, for the role I have been conditioned by modern movies to expect that he will take, but to which he never succumbs. Within this action movie, which features explosions (well, one explosion), a chase scene on the very faces of Mount Rushmore, and the pursuit of a running man by an airplane in the movie's signature scene—through all of this, Roger Thornhill never becomes an action hero. The character never embraces the action of the events, never relishes it or becomes excited by it as an encouragement to our excitement. Thornhill stands up to his captors more out of indignation than out of becoming a heroic adversary to their aims. There is nothing brash, combative, or dynamic about him. He keeps that gray suit practically all through the movie, shedding it at one point only to get it laundered.

And he does not fight. Today, the routine convention of the action movie has the hero discovering some previously unknown skill or inclination for fighting his antagonists. By contrast, in this movie, we have a scene with Grant in which he judges that he can’t overcome his captors and refuses even to try. The message of the modern action movie is that physical action is a better way, the transcendent way, and the ending of such a movie typically has its hero transformed into discovering he is better and more powerful than the banal and conforming way of his workaday society. Cary Grant discovers no such thing. To the contrary, he doubles down on his everyday world in the end. Once the villain is defeated and his character is free, he not only returns to his old life, but he pulls spy and female lead Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) into that life with him by marrying her.

It wouldn’t last. The time of this movie’s release was just 17 years away from Taxi Driver’s portrayal of the same society as something festering, something in decay. Maybe either portrayal is exaggerated and maybe both are, but why these two portrayals? Why the change, across less than two decades? What did the moviegoers of 1959 believe, or what did they know?

I wrote in a previous post about how World War II casts a long shadow over the films I have been watching.

When North by Northwest was made, did people hold their society in higher regard? Did they appreciate society more than Taxi Driver’s audience did and more than we do now?

It would seem they did. And with reason: In the real world in which this movie was made, as recently as 14 years prior to the movie, the chance to move forward peacefully and flourish by wit within a smoothly humming society was denied to most. Families were separated and careers put on hold as soldiers and sailors served far away. Thus, our action heroes of today—including the violent protagonist of a version of this movie if it had been made today—would offer a transparent fiction to the audience of 1959. Presented with such a character, those viewers would have seen right through him.

For that audience, fighting was not transcendent. Fighting would not have made the movie interesting. The people then knew all about fighting. They knew what fighting looked like and what it could and could not accomplish. Violent action was not exotic, not drama.

Instead, strikingly, the theme of this movie, the predicament that apparently spoke to them and captured their attention, had to do with how to resist action being forced upon them.

The drama of North by Northwest turned on this question: Can the man brought into a dangerous situation against his will—in a way, drafted into that situation—find his way back home safely? And more than that, can he find his way up out of that action into living peacefully and living nobly once again? Living and thriving in society once again? Compared to these questions, the aspirations of our modern fantasies unfortunately point downward, point southerly, aiming the opposite way from this film’s direction.