Conflict, control and coolness: Rebecca McCallum continues her regular series examining gender in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, focusing this month on his seminal spy thriller…
A secret agent, an accomplice to a gang of kidnappers, or a woman falling in love with an advertising executive? Throughout what is often referred to as the most Hitchcockian of all Hitchcock films, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) slips to and from these roles, creating a beguiling mystique.
In North by Northwest, Eva plays an undercover spy who is gathering information on criminal mastermind Van Damm (James Mason), a man she also happens to be in a fraught relationship with. When Van Damm’s henchmen accidentally misidentify the unwitting Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) as George Kaplan – a man who is top of their hit list – he finds himself caught in a hot pursuit. On the first leg of his epic journey, Roger meets Eve who shows mercy by hiding him from the authorities in her cabin. However, she is also seen to be in cahoots with Van Damm, rendering her loyalties and true objectives (initially at least) as questionable.
Eve is a highly competent agent who is measured, meticulous and devoted to her work. However, what she does not count on is falling in love with Roger and his ability to reach beneath her detached persona. While it is ostensibly Roger who travels across state in almost every form of transport imaginable, it is Eve’s journey that is the most tense and unforgettable as she finds herself endangered by the demands of men, eventually leading towards a conclusion where her life is under threat.
All About Eve
Following in the footsteps of many Hitchcock women (see Madeline Elster in Vertigo and Lisa Fremont in Rear Window) Eve Kendall’s arrival into North by Northwest is delayed and we do not meet her until the forty-five-minute mark. Unlike her counterparts however, there is no mention of her nor any teasing glimpse into how she is perceived by others.
Instead, ahead of her collision with Roger aboard the express passenger train, the director gives us no warning or clue as to what to expect and we are given the opportunity to form our own opinion of a complex woman as we begin to observe her many layers unfold. Upon first watch, the viewer could be forgiven for believing her initial encounter with Roger is a chance happening: however, as the many dimensions of Eve’s character are revealed, it is clear that this is far from coincidental. Rather – like much of Eve’s life – it is carefully crafted and planned.
Although much younger than Roger, Eve is cool, self-assured, and confident, always looking him directly in the eye, fixing her gaze upon him (a note that Hitchcock himself gave to Saint himself). In contrast to this Roger wears sunglasses, not only as a means of concealment but arguably also as a symbol of him being blinded, both by Eve’s beauty and her false identity. Roger is a social creature, as the build up to their encounter shows – he liaises with colleagues, drinks with friends and spends a great deal of time with his mother. In short, he is surrounded by people: Eve on the other hand masks feelings of intense loneliness and isolation with her measured demeanour and ability to put work ahead of her personal life. Her occupation and lifestyle dictate a detached existence and a guardedness that prevent her from building meaningful relationships.
An Underestimated Power
Although she is often governed by men, Eve is very much a woman in control in her interactions with Roger, particularly in the early scenes of the film. In one of the most expertly crafted exchanges in the Hitchcock canon, Eve and Roger share a scene of scintillating dialogue in the dinner cart. During their conversation, Roger makes a remark that is loaded with irony: ‘Oh you’re that type? Honest.’ Eve’s reply of ‘Not really’ is an early indication of her duplicitousness that will only become apparent later, and indeed may be more of a guilty admission than a mere statement.
Sexually confident, when he is seated opposite her in the cart she looks at him longingly and declares ‘It’s going to be a long night and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started…if you know what I mean?’. It is evident that Eve enjoys thrills, adventure and is attracted to danger through her profession, but she is also underestimated by Roger in this respect. Roger believes that it is down to sheer luck that he happens to have been seated in such close proximity to her, however we discover it was Eve herself who engineered this by tipping the waiter five dollars. Furthermore, by conceding this fact to her new acquaintance she is demonstrating her power, subverting his expectations and watching how he reacts. Forthright and direct, she leads the conversation using seduction and sex appeal to achieve her goal of keeping him exactly where she wants him. As they share several romantic trysts in the privacy of her cabin she offers to find Kaplan for him, but he initially resists, claiming this is too dangerous for he: little does he know that she is far more capable than he assumes.
Eve’s ability to maintain control can also be seen in the various directions and instructions she issues to Roger – from convincing him to allow her to contact Kaplan, to advising him to change his clothes in the bathroom at the station. One could argue she almost fulfils a mothering role now that his actual mother is removed from the film, something which could even be considered an unconscious attraction on Roger’s part.
Despite her cold exterior Eve also has great moments of vulnerability, such as when she and Roger part at the station before his meeting with the assumed Kaplan. As she delivers the details of the planned rendezvous, even after only knowing Eve for a short time Roger can detect a change in her, observing that something is wrong: but before he discovers what that is, he darts off into the crowds of commuters and it is only when Eve is alone that we see the conflict etched on her face.
Dressing For Meaning
Every leading actress in Hitchcock’s films has an accompanying wardrobe that is not only elegant and beautiful but offers a reflection of what is going on in their internal world, what’s happening at any specific moment or how they are being perceived. Eve Kendall is no exception, her clothes an outward representation of her thoughts and feelings. Saint’s entire wardrobe was picked out personally by Hitchcock due to him disapproving of the original costumes selected for her by MGM studios: as he sculpted Eva Marie’s style – from the kitchen-sink actress that she was famed as into a Hitchcock woman – one wonders if the notion of him enacting the disturbing makeover scene from Vertigo ever came into his mind.
When Eve first graces the screen, she is dressed in a black skirt suit. Contoured to her body enough to suggest an erotic silhouette, this reflects her mysterious nature. Black also speaks to her occupation – being an agent, this colour is symbolic of slinking around quickly and delicately like a black cat. In the cabin scene she will remove her jacket to reveal a white blouse, the black and white of her outfit here not only recalling the colours of a chess board (and therefore the various moves and strategies that will be deployed throughout the film) but also the duality within her. In the white blouse, her face is framed like a diamond, echoing Lisa Fremont’s first entrance in Rear Window – and like Lisa, Eve is romanticised in this moment as she and Roger embrace.
Perhaps Eve’s most memorable outfit is the red dress which she is seen in at the Ambassador Hotel. A striking garment that is tight at the waist with a full skirt, the dress is adorned with luxurious red roses. But where there are roses there are thorns (and in this case, a Thornhill!) and the delicateness of the red flowers (a colour associated with danger) acts as a meditation on the polarity of Eve’s character and how Roger views her in this scene. Red is also synonymous with love and passion, and thus reflects the intense romantic feelings circulating between the pair. Finally this dress, with its high neck and plunging back (see also Alicia Huberman in the party scene of Notorious for an earlier example), provides an echo of both Eve’s vulnerability and exposure, as well as the constraint she is under: a theme supplemented by the choker she wears around her neck.
At the Mount Rushmore cafeteria Eve returns to her dark colour palette seen earlier in the film, wearing a grey ensemble: this is indicative of her feeling in control and being undercover. At Van Damm’s house and on Mount Rushmore, Eve wears an orange suit – a reflection of and turn around from the colour palette she wears at the start of the film, signifying a change in her. The orange, like the red of the rose-covered dress, also links to danger, and therefore is in direct correlation with the threat to her life.
Rebecca will return soon with the concluding part of her analysis of Eve in North by Northwest.