Rebecca McCallum concludes her analysis of North By Northwest, part of her Hitchcock’s Women series.
Degrees of Deception
Themes of reality and pretence pervade North by Northwest with Eve (Eva Marie Sant) herself leading multiple lives of the secret agent, a kept woman of Vandamm (James Mason) and the love interest to Roger (Cary Grant). Both Eve and Roger have occupations that require varying degrees of deception – he is an advertising executive, while she is an agent – and during their encounter on the train they are pretending to be alternative versions of themselves. However, whilst Roger believes in Eve’s introduction as an Industrial Designer, she is aware that introducing himself as Kaplan is false and this knowledge gives her power in their relationship.
At the Ambassador Hotel where Roger finds her after the crop duster scene, Eve pretends to be completely ignorant of what has taken place. Making him a drink and asking causal questions, she cannot look at him (a motif that will reoccur at the art auction). Here she seems a far cry from the confident and certain woman on the train, an audible fragility and nervousness in her voice: for someone who is a secret agent, she does not seem at ease with this façade. In another moment where Roger again seems to unconsciously understand Eve more than he knows, he asks: ‘How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you? Wicked, naughty-ever kill anyone?’ and her face grows cold as she fears discovery. She responds by taking back control and issuing him with a warning to stay away from her – which he reluctantly agrees to – only after they have shared a final dinner.
While Eve believes she has the upper hand by convincing Roger to have his suit valeted so she can leave unnoticed for a meeting with Vandamm at the art auction, he watches her leave and obtains the address from a notepad. At the art auction, Hitchcock shows Eve from behind when we are in Roger’s perspective, but gives us a side profile and front facing shot too in order to reveal her true reactions (a technique he repeated with the newly married Marnie five years later). The choice to shoot Eve this way and the accompaniment of Bernard Herrmann’s score communicates that she is in great danger, and acts in tandem with Roger learning that she’s in fact working alongside his kidnapper.
The audience too come to see Eve in a different light here as the film takes an uncharacteristically dark turn with the suggestion of her being wholly under the control of the sinister Vandamm. As Roger learns that Eve has been deceiving him, she is clearly battling a multitude of emotions – shocked, hurt and unable to verbalize the truth. He makes a cruel and cutting remark that bares a Hitchcockian nod to the art gallery setting: ‘she’s a little piece of sculpture-she puts her heart into her work, in fact her whole body’. Trembling and unable to look him in the eye, Eve eventually turns around to try and make a connection but he will not allow it: ‘Who are you kidding? You have no feelings to hurt.’ With tears in her eyes Eve remains silent for the duration: again, her face coveys all the information we need to know.
Mistress of Misdirection
Throughout the course of the film, Eve is surrounded by men who direct her and impose their objectives on her. However, she still manages to fool them on many occasions. Through her skills as an agent, Eve manipulates and ensnares Roger, the police and even the waiter on the train from whom she steals the tool for opening the bunk in her cabin. Adept at misdirecting the authorities (who enquire about Roger whilst she hides him in her cabin) and Roger himself (in concealing her true identity and almost sending him to his death) Eve is a force to be reckoned with and a highly skilled professional. At the Mount Rushmore cafeteria she appears unsettled, but this is just another performance where she will outstep Vandamm again by shooting at Roger with blanks to mislead him.
Life Really Has Been Like That
After the incident, the couple meet briefly in a wooded area reminiscent of Scottie and Madeline’s visit to Redwood in Vertigo. Stood at opposing ends of the frame, the distance between them feels expansive. However, they soon come closer together, mirroring their unity through costume (they are both wearing grey) which also acts as a physical representation of how they have drifted apart before coming together again.
With a running time of one hundred and thirty-six minutes, North by Northwest is the longest of Hitchcock’s films and MGM issued the director with orders to trim it down. One of their suggested cuts was Eve’s backstory scene but Hitchcock fought to keep this included, knowing that it added weight to her character – in this moment, he showed a firm commitment to his female lead. Within the scene Eve’s past is revealed and she is candid and honest with Roger in a way we have never seen her be before. She recounts the story of how she came to meet Vandamm with tragic pathos: ‘it was the first time anyone in my life had asked me to do something useful’. Seeing her vulnerable and exposed, Roger asks tenderly ‘Has life really been like that?’. She details how her one desire is to have something to believe in and something (or perhaps more specifically, someone) who believes in her too.
However, she is shackled by the requirements of her job as an agent and just as her reconciliation with Roger is taking place she is once again denied happiness by the orders of men as the authoritative Professor (Leo G. Carroll) looms in the background, giving orders for her to leave with Vandamm to continue her mission. Although Roger is the man on the run, it is worth remembering that Eve is the one who is taking all the risks, something which Roger himself even concedes in his remark ‘It’s back to the hospital for me and danger for you’. In emotional turmoil at the prospect of her future life, Eve shows her vulnerability again when she cries but she does not allow this to interfere with her responsibilities, telling Roger she must keep up pretences.
A Mutual Bind
At Vandamm’s house in the final act, Eve cajoles him once more into believing that she is upset following the shooting of Roger. Echoing Alicia Huberman in Notorious (not least for sharing the same onscreen romantic partner) she is successful in her job, but this is always at the mercy of the men around her as she sacrifices her own desires in service of her country. Although she has formed a hard skin and grown accustomed to concealing her innermost self, a softer side of Eve emerges which Roger is instrumental in bringing to the surface.
In the dramatic climax, which sees the couple scale the faces of Mount Rushmore, Eve is left dangling (both literally and metaphorically) from the precipice. As Roger holds onto her tightly from above, she finds herself in the greatest danger she has ever been in. However, their mutual bind signifies that, as much as she is reaching for his hand in order to save herself, Roger is equally holding on tight to her too – Eve has finally found someone to believe in, who also believes in her.
Rebecca will return soon with the next instalment of her Hitchcock’s Women series.