Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest

Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest


Howard Adelman

I am home, but not entirely in one piece. I had developed an abscess in one tooth and on Thursday obtained an immediate appointment with my dentist because of my aching gums on my left side. The result: two abscesses and two root canals. I am now on antibiotics. Much better than a toothache. Actually, it was not a toothache, but a tenderness in my upper gum on the left side. I thought I had a gum infection. But that is the nature of pain. It often misdirects as it diffuses.

Since I knew I would be writing about Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, I was reminded of his mastery of the techniques of misdirection. The Wrong Man (1956), created three years before North by Northwest (1959), opens with a scene in a posh nightclub as we watch couples dancing as the credits roll. Gradually, the dancers thin out and all the couples eventually disappear from the dance floor. When the credits end, the camera focuses on the bass player, Manny, played by Henry Fonda. The band had heretofore been vaguely in the background, but suddenly ordinariness is in the foreground. So in the usual trope which leads us first to believe we are going to watch a gangster movie, we are jolted by the focus on something other. Presumably, we are moving from the usual highly stylized Alfred Hitchcock movie to a realistic docudrama.

After all, the film advertised itself as based on the true story of an ordinary bloke who went to borrow money from his insurance company using his insurance policy as collateral. He had a wife, Rose (Vera Miles), and two sons. He needed the money to pay for Rose’s dentist bill. (After last week’s experience, the latter is absolutely true to reality.) But Manny is identified as a robber who held up that branch a few weeks earlier. He is arrested. Hitchcock’s usual obsession with mistaken identity can then proceed. But only after we are misdirected again and again as when Manny is shown to be totally familiar with the doorman at The Stork Club, as he marks a page on the daily racing form and as he is stared at suspiciously by a police officer only to reveal his ordinariness after we are led to believe he is somewhat sinister. When he returns to a dark house, gropes through the rooms and stumbles into what turns out to be his bedroom, to our surprise, instead of being up to something nefarious, he is confronted by his wife in bed nursing a toothache. What appeared so menacing turns into an unfamiliar, for Hitchcock, domestic drama with an experience familiar to everyone. But the movie soon quickly reverses itself once again.

The toothache is a central symbol in the movie, at once totally familiar while, at the same time, totally destabilizing. You cannot eat. You cannot sleep. North by Northwest also relies on constant misdirection, but it is really about the monumental rather than an ordinary toothache and ordinary humans, though the movie also begins with the hotel band playing, but the music is “It’s a most unusual day.” The film, as I will try to demonstrate, that is ostensibly an ironic comic spy thriller, is really about idolatry.

The movie begins with a sharply-dressed man in a gray flannel suit, a man in advertising, a field described in the film, as not about lies but just “expedient exaggeration.” Are the faces of the presidents on Mount Rushmore not inflated visages and both outsized and mis-directed tributes to the American spirit? This motif would be extensively elaborated upon in the television series The Mad Men. Cary Grant plays the role of a man without even an ordinary identity, for he has no identity whatsoever. He is the archetype of the advertising executive with two divorces behind him as he fails to learn repeatedly what is behind it all as he pursues the only identity he knows, his role as a sexual seducer – James Bond Predux.

The movie is about foreign agents and the American intelligence service as parodies. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) heads the unit of the intelligence service. The spies are led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). They target the unrecognizable Christ figure or sacrificial lamb, Roger O. Thornhill because they mistake him for an invented counter-intelligence agent named George Kaplan who is really a decoy created by the American intelligence agency. Thornhill effectively becomes Kaplan and, in temporarily suspending what he believes is his real identity, in the romantic comedy, he discovers what it really is. He plays along to “clear his name’ and gains clarity in the process.

Though I have no intention of exploring the psychic and interpersonal dimensions of the film, I cannot help referring to the relationship between Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) with his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the context of America’s and Hitchcock’s love affair with Freudianism at the time. The film opens with Thornhill snapping his fingers at a bellboy to send his mother a telegram just when the bellhop is paging for George Kaplan. Two nefarious characters, who turn out to be U.S. security agents, mistake Thornhill for George Kaplan, another character who really does not exist, thereby setting the plot in motion. The metaphorical larger plot is ostensibly set in motion by the hard-headed hard-drinking men of America who are at heart just mothers’ boys.

Thornhill as a heavy drinker refers to his mother as sniffing his breath like a bloodhound. In a very comic scene in an elevator, Roger Thornhill whispers to her that the two men in the elevator are trying to kill him, and she blurts out loudly that no one would want to kill my son. Thornhill calls his mother at Grand Central Station and insists, “there is no place to hide.” However, everything is revealed in spite of the repression, the intrigue and the conspiratorial proceedings.

The picture quickly drawn is of an overprotected and smothered son of a mother who refuses to recognize who her own son really is. So he never matures to develop an adult identity but, instead, becomes an advertising executive wallowing in the projection of appearances, a person who tries to drown his misbegotten soul in alcoholic spirits, and who pursues women as possessions and seems incapable of the sacrifice required of true love. However, this is a romantic comedy. So, at the end of the movie, the hero and the heroine enter a tunnel of love. Is the hero really a symbol of America at the time?

I owe most of my knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock and his films to my former colleague at York University in the film department, Robin Wood, though I take full responsibility for this interpretation. North by Northwest is an allegory and a statement about the politics of place. Mount Rushmore is located, not in a particular place, but “north by northwest,” a direction that has no location, for north by northwest is an invented direction with no grounding in reality. No such direction exists. Northwest north does. So does west by north or north by west. But not north by northwest. So the film is about giving content and meaning where there is none and, at the same time, revealing the flatulence of claimed meaning.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act II, Scene II), before Polonius enters when we hear the repartee about men being great babies “not yet out of his swaddling clothes,” and Rosencrantz refers to man as “twice a child,” Hamlet tells Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern that, “I am not mad north-north-west.” Hamlet knows a “hawk from a handsaw.” When the wind is north-north-west in the morning in Britain, the sun is in the hunter’s eyes and the hunter cannot distinguish between two different kinds of birds – birds of prey and birds preyed upon. Hamlet is insisting that most times he is not mad and can distinguish true friends from traitors – like Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern. North by Northwest goes one step further in alluding to a time when one cannot even distinguish one direction from another and a person is flying in a fictional direction that does not even exist so one can never distinguish the predator from the victim.

North by Northwest is not just a comic thriller full of both suspense and witticisms, it is not just a comedy about spies and a love tryst, but is and was an allegory for its age. After visiting Mount Rushmore, I understood the film much better, and having watched the movie a number of times (I was unable to get the movie on Netflix to watch it once again to make sure my recall was accurate), the film is not just a play on mistaken identity, misplaced trust and betrayal – themes I have written about previously. The movie is an allegory about the U.S.A.

There are at least three levels of the allegory in the film: the personal and the interpersonal (that I referred to above); the social and the political; and the metaphysical and mythological. I will focus primarily on the latter two sets of categories. I do so to enhance the understanding of the monument at Mount Rushmore. The mistaken identity and the shifts in the virtues each of the presidents is claimed to embody when their bodies were never carved in stone. (To this day, the sculptures remain unfinished.) These disembodied, abstract and displaced identities on Mount Rushmore are so evident that they cannot be ignored. Rushmore is a symbol of 1920’s American crass materialism and the film is an allegory about that materialism. The film is about a man in a gray flannel suit, the Mad Men in advertising in the fifties, a field dedicated not simply to advertising the virtues of this or that product, but to consumerism, to the vision that if you consume this or that product, your identity as a sexual being will be enhanced.

In the 1959 movie, Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive caught up in an identity confusion, or really a series of identity confusions – beginning when he raises his hand just when a bellboy in a hotel lobby is calling out the name of someone with a Jewish name called George Kaplan. Henceforth, the two American government agents will be fixated in the belief that Thornhill is Kaplan. After all, this is very suitable since the O as the ostensible initial for Thornhill’s middle name, as we are told in the movie, stands for nothing – both in the sense that he has no middle name and in the sense at the centre of this man’s character there is nothing. Is this an underhanded dig at Hitchcock’s partner/producer, David O. Selznick, at M.G.M. whose middle initial also stood for nothing?

Thornhill is obviously a reference to the crown of thorns on Christ’s head that he wore when he was crucified on Mount Calvary (Golgotha). The mad rationalist “professor” who has created Kaplan as an invented figure to draw away suspicion from his counterspy, Eve Kendall, played with such magnificence by Eva Marie Saint, is quite willing to sacrifice Roger Thornhill to advance the goals of America. He is even willing to sacrifice his own agent, Eve Kendall. I have never been able to sort out what the name “Roger” symbolized, but I did speculate that it stood for the famous Roger II, the Count of Sicily and the Duke of Paglia in the twelfth century who had been a dramatic icon of idolatry, for he embodied the doctrine of both being God’s representative on earth and an embodiment of absolute sovereignty.

The play on names extends to women, more in this film than in any of his other movies – Eve for the woman who is both the slave of men – Alfred Hitchcock’s obsession with both portraying women under the control of men and his insatiable need to do so in real life  (see Hitchcock and The Girl) – at the same time as he portrayed them and actually pictured each blonde as a femme fatale, a person  with only a sexual identity, both as an agent of seduction and an instrument of manipulation. The film is about humans whose individual personal identity has been lost for iconic purposes in service to abstract ideas and dreams rather than self-expression and self-realization.

The movie is an allegory about a story driven by capturing space without finding a real place or centre of gravity. America has been a quest for space and for place by resettled immigrants who have fled the old world. Thus, the iconography of chase scenes and flight so well captured in the pursuit of permanence by a people with no grounded sense of place and placement. America evinces a vertiginous sensibility as its inhabitants never can find a place that is then really one’s own.

When Cary Grant utters those weirdly hilarious, but very ironic words, as he and Eve are climbing down Mount Rushmore, “I do not like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me,” we get some glimpse into the sense of American identity as a negotiation between an unachievable ideal and everyday reality that on the surface seems so practical and grounded, but in truth is so abstract, displaced and misplaced. As Cary Grant is located in the crossroads among those same cornfields that Nancy and I just drove through, a crop dusting plane flies overhead when there are no crops to dust. The pilot tries to shoot Cary Grant.

The move is an allegory of mistaken identity and of identity that needs to be created, and of an ostensible struggle between good and evil but in practice, it is difficult to distinguish the difference. In the Cold War between the arch villain spy, Phillip Vandamm and the defender against those spies, The Professor, the domestic “evil” upholder of America with the corresponding determination to use whatever means necessary and to sacrifice whomever in service of American preservation. In this allegory, the war between these two Cold War icons is really a war between two evil twins both domestically and in foreign affairs.

Who supposedly held those ideals? If the movie is taken seriously as an allegory and not just as a suspense spy thriller, then, on one side, it is the foundation of American consumerism. In the area of foreign affairs rather than domestic policy, the film is an allegory about the foundations of American imperialism, but without making any coherent critique of the relationship between consumerism at home and imperialism abroad. Certainly, it is at the very least an indictment of both. The combination is embodied in the hero as the benign and stumbling anti-hero in the figure of Thornhill played by Cary Grant. Whatever else he is, Thornhill is a survivor par excellence. The Professor, who uses both Grant and Eva Marie Saint to advance American global interests in its war, against communists, is the strongest embodiment of the American spirit. Lest humanitarian universalism be seen as a solution to international conflict,. Townsend, the diplomat in the UN, is killed at the very beginning of the film. Townsend’s death really sets Cary Grant off in full flight as he is considered the suspected killer. The UN is also a place that is no place, where the town ends.

The film is, in addition, a critique of a surveillance culture that over fifty years later has become so much more invasive. It is a critique of the uninhibited exercise of power.  But mostly in the imagery and use of Mount Rushmore, the movie is a critique of misplaced trust in some forms of authority that embody vices projected as virtues. As Cary Grant ironically remarks as he and Eva climb down a face on Mount Rushmore, “I don’t like the way Teddy is looking at me.”

In the other iconic scene in the movie, the attack by the crop duster airplane against Cary Grant’s Thornhill stranded at a crossroads in the American prairies, possibly Nebraska or more likely South Dakota, is where America is. When Thornhill is placed in the heartland of the real America, and not in an office in Manhattan promoting consumption to American citizens based on the misuse and abuse of the creative impulse, at the crossroads of the international and the domestic, we are presented with an adumbration of the use of agent orange in the Vietnam War to kill innocents on the ground. The airplane in the picture is equipped with machine guns of a warplane as well as poisonous pesticides. The crop duster, or, as it is more commonly referred to in agricultural areas as top dresser, is also a play on words about the superficialities of the top and the surface presentation in juxtaposition to true reality revealed by the action versus the static presentation.

North by Northwest is a film about no place and no body, about Manhattan that is not the antithesis to the heartland of America, but is its most publicized expression, about propaganda as the presentation of disembodied faces turned into iconic idols of vices presented as virtues. And all of this is founded on a misogyny in which women in the form of Eve are reduced to the dialectical interplay of erotic seduction and women reduced to pure instrumentality.  In the face of this assault, Cary Grant, as the master actor conveying befuddlement in a character that is the exemplar of attenuated maturation, is presented as incredulous and naïve in the extreme, as one who is oblivious to what is really going on all around yet will insist, “I get the message.”

Do the viewers?