Director Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is a thrilling tale of mistaken identity and Cold War espionage. Charismatic advertising executive Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, is mistaken for a fictional American intelligence agent known as George Kaplan. Thornhill is soon kidnapped by mysterious agents and his cross country adventure begins. Taken to a large rural home where several men, later to be found to be Soviet sympathizers, try to interrogate him. Thornhill is forcibly inebriated and an attempt is made to kill him. He escapes after a humorous car chase which sees Thornhill arrested. After failing to convince anyone of his incredible story, Thornhill begins to pursue the non-existent Kaplan. After bluffing his way into Kaplan’s hotel room he once again encounters Soviet agents and is forced on the run. Tracking down the owner of the rural home at the U.N.’s General Assembly building, Thornhill soon becomes even more entangled when the man is murdered while he’s talking to him and Thornhill has his picture taken with the murder weapon. Once again on the run, he encounters an attractive woman (Eve Kendell played by Eva Marie Saint) who helps him avoid police capture. Then in a plot twist she sends him on an fake errand which almost results in his death. Finally a spymaster known as “The Professor,” (played by Leo G. Carroll) lets him in on the whole story. Eve is in fact the real government agent that the fictional Kaplan was supposed to protect. The Professor then asks Thornhill to continue the ruse and keep Eve Kendell’s true role a secret to the Soviets. He agrees but later finds out he was manipulated into putting Kendell into even more danger. Thornhill escapes from The Professor’s custody and tracks down the communists to a rural mountain home and interferes with the whole operation to great effect and a happy ending. Thornhill, though he got lucky finding out about the antagonists’ true intentions regarding Eve Kendell and ends up saving her life, did not act appropriately by defying the existing government command structure.
Roger Thornhill is an unlikely candidate to be making deep decisions involving ethics. He is a successful advertising executive, charismatic, a superb wit and a smooth talker. His profession suggests he’s capable of bending the truth when need be and that he works from a more flexible frame of morals. As the movie goes on we see a change in Mr. Thornhill. At first it appears just curiosity which pushes him to pursue the non-existent Kaplan. After the incident with the crop dusting plane it becomes something much more than curiosity which drives him to pursue the mystery he was in. His cool exterior and wit never changes throughout the movie but his actions tell us what he is really made of. In the end he weighs his own life against that of someone his actions put in danger and decides to try to save the life of another.
Thornhill’s actions had put Eve Kendell in danger because their relationship created doubt in the minds of the Soviet agents as to her loyalty. At first, when Thornhill is finally told the entire story by The Professor and asked to participate further, he wasn’t interested in continuing the farce. Thornhill is convinced to cooperate because it’s clear his actions had complicated Kendell’s job immeasurably and had put her life in danger. After what looked like a successful scene in which the Soviets see Kendell gun down Thornhill (as Kaplan), Thornhill and Kendell meet a final time. At this meeting, Thornhill finds out he was used by The Professor not only to keep Kendell undercover but to force the Soviets to bring her along on their escape. Thornhill feels he was manipulated into sending Kendell to certain death. While The Professor is very cool about it he doubtless has sent many agents to their deaths. The situation being unbearable, Thornhill escapes from a hospital and goes to the Soviet safe house in order to save Kendell. His only alternative was to sit on the sidelines and allow everything to play out naturally.
Presented with having to deal with the fact his actions would likely lead to the death of the woman he has fallen in love with, Thornhill takes a taxi to the mountain hideaway. Serendipity helps Thornhill find out Eve’s true nature had been discovered by the Soviets. With a little luck, Thornhill saves Kendell and stops the Soviets from escaping with state secrets. Had Thornhill just let Eve go on her mission she surely would have been killed. Even if her true nature had not been discovered by the Soviet agents it was very unlikely she would not survive very long. The KGB would not treat an unexpected passenger on a secret flight well, even if they really thought they were a sympathizer. In this light it’s easy to see Thornhill’s actions as moral. His interference, accidental as it was, had put Kendell in danger. After he is manipulated into further endangering Kendell he takes action and his decision was likely just. Had he not been lucky things might have worked out differently.
Hindsight tells us Thornhill did the right thing but in the end he should have left the espionage to the professionals. North by Northwest is a wonderful film which combines humor and espionage in a form of cool which wouldn’t be matched on screen until Sean Connery made his first appearance as James Bond three years later. It is a great movie because there are many changes in loyalty between the characters. Pretty much everyone Thornhill encountered along his journey was either trying to kill him, manipulate him or deceive him. There really was no right answer for Thornhill at the end except to pursue his own ideas of right and wrong.