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North by Northwest to Psycho: The Breakdown of Moral Order on the Edge of the Sixties…

In the space of three years, Hitchcock produced Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Each of those three films is (rightly) regarded as a classic, and it is astounding that a single director could produce three such films back-to-back with only a year between each. Each of those films is massively influential, each of those films is loved by critics and audiences alike, and each of those films is radically different than the other two. Hitchcock remains one of the most influential and respected film directors of all time, and these three consecutive classics demonstrate his remarkable control of the form.

The road to nowhere.

It is important to separate the modern perception of these films from the reaction to them upon release. Very few classics are accurately identified as such by contemporary critics, often settling into that role over time. Vertigo was originally met with a somewhat muted critical response by critics and struggled to break even on release. Pyscho was largely dismissed by critics as the time as something crass and inelegant. In contrast, the contemporary critical reception of North by Northwest was a lot warmer.

However, time has arguably been kinder to Vertigo and Psycho than to North by Northwest. Vertigo is frequently identified as one of (if not the) best films ever made. Psycho is frequently cited as one of the most formative (and perhaps the best) horror films ever made. In contrast, North by Northwest can feel overshadowed by the films that flank it, even if it is hard to feel too sorry for a film that have been described by both Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich as “perfect.”

A shady deal…

Still, there is a sense that the lightness of North by Northwest has been held against it. Ben Oliver has stated that North by Northwest is “not typical film-school fodder.” Nathan Rabin explains that North by Northwest is a “glorious trifle of an adventure film” placed “between two of Hitchcock’s heaviest and most tormented films.” David Shariatmadari has speculated that “perhaps the lack of Freudian handwaving leads people to rate it poorly in comparison.” There is a sense that North by Northwest is somehow lesser than the heavier films around it.

Of course, this speaks to broader trends in how critics talk about art. There is a tendency to prioritise drama over comedy, to dismiss superficially lighter material in favour of weightier content. (Genre fare faces a similar bias, although it seems that science-fiction and horror are more likely receive a revaluation in the medium- to long-term.) North by Northwest is a lighter and fluffier film than either Vertigo or Psycho, but does that make it inherently lesser than either of them. More to the point, there is a surprising amount of Psycho to be found in North by Northwest.

The final curtain.

North by Northwest was famously cobbled together by director Alfred Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman from a collection of vague images and ideas. North by Northwest has been described as “the most Hitchcockian” of Hitchcock’s films, encapsulating many of the tropes and conventions associated with his films from “the wrong man” to “the Hitchcock blonde.” In Hitchcock/Truffaut, François Truffaut suggested that North by Northwest could be seen as “the compendium of [his] American pictures.”

Hitchock famously built the film around his idea for its climax, with his leading man forced to climb down Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock originally imagined his leading man hiding inside one president’s nose, his location given away with a sneeze. One of Hitchcock’s original titles was “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose.” The film’s iconic crop duster chase was originally quite different, with Hitchcock initially suggesting that the villains could try to murder the protagonist using a weaponised tornado.

A new crop of fears…

With all of that in mind, it makes sense that the plot of North by Northwest is essentially a loose collection of set pieces and narrative cul-de-sacs that hang together based on contrivance and coincidence. Madison Avenue executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for an American spy who doesn’t exist, and quickly gets caught up in an espionage thriller centring on a mysterious microfilm that is never explained. At no point do any of the characters stop to contemplate the absurdity of what is unfolding, merely running with these absurd set-ups to their ridiculous conclusions.

However, North by Northwest is fundamentally a film about chaos and disorganisation. It is a film about confusion and disorientation. Roger Thornhill is mistaken for an American spy named Kaplan. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Kaplan does not actually exist. However, despite the fact that Kaplan is a figment of the United States government’s imagination, he still has all the hallmarks of a living and breathing person. His travel is accounted for, his suits are sent down to the cleaners, there is even dandruff on his comb. Kaplan may not be real, but he has a life.

Cary Grant in his grey suit wearing sunglasses is like Superman wearing Clark Kent’s glasses.

In some respects, the fictional Kaplan from North by Northwest might be compared to the deceased Norma Bates from Psycho. Both are figments of the imagination that spur the plot onwards, setting in motion a sequence of events with very real consequences. Both characters are living busy lives, at least as far as outside observers are concerned, despite the fact that Norma is dead and Kaplan never existed. However, Kaplan is a fantasy concocted by committee, while Norma is a ghost living inside the head of one particularly tormented individual.

As with a lot of Hitchcock’s films, both North by Northwest and Psycho are obsessed with the idea of travel across America. Hitchcock was fascinated by the American continent. He would famously bill the major studios for his vacations, treating them as “research.” However, there are very specific similarities to the travel in both North by Northwest and Psycho. In both cases, major characters push westwards; Marion Crane drives from Arizona into California, while Roger Thornhill charts a course from New York to Chicago to South Dakota.

A driving fear…

This push westwards is the most fundamental of American journeys, evoking the doctrine of manifest destiny. It conjures up the romantic myth of the North American continent, the story of how the European settlers carved out a nation from the Atlantic to the unyielding Pacific. This westward push has been documented and explored in countless westerns and historical epic. These films would would have been more popular and less cynical as North by Northwest and Psycho made their way into cinemas.

The westward journey engrained on the national consciousness as an adventure of discovery and enlightenment, which makes the subversion in North by Northwest and Psycho all the more unnerving. On a more basic level, both Marion Crane and Roger Thornhill depart the ordered world of the city to set foot in the more chaotic wilderness. In both North by Northwest and Psycho, the city is presented as a place of structure and civility. Saul Bass’ opening credits to North By Northwest reinforce this sense of an ordered framework; lines and diagrams that serve as a blueprint to the city.

Straight lines…

In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill can navigate the surroundings of the city. He is perfectly at home there. He hops in a taxi to travel two blocks, nonchalantly shows up late to important business meetings in hotel lobbies, walks while dictating messages to his secretary. Thornhill is quite explicitly a product of New York, an advertising executive who works on Madison Avenue. This is his element, this is the place in which he belongs. He is adapted to survive in that particular climate.

Over the course of North by Northwest, Thornhill is gradually removed from his element. He is taken to upstate New York to meet with Van Damme, an environment with which he is familiar but slightly uncomfortable. However, as the film continues, Roger wanders further and further out of his comfort zone. His suit stands out on a dusty Indiana highway, where the camera treats even the most mundane details of country life as inherently suspicious or hostile; a car on a highway, a lone stranger waiting for a bus, a cropduster. This is to say nothing of Roger’s trip to Mount Rushmore.

What a corny stunt.

This mirrors the journey in Psycho, with Marion Crane living a mundane and safe existence in Phoenix. Marion then decides to transgress, breaking the rules and absconding to the country with the money entrusted to her by her employer. Marion seeks to escape into the countryside, to become anonymous along the long stretches of highway that crisscross America. However, while traveling these roads, Marion comes into contact with something more primal and more random than she ever imagined. Appropriately enough, Marion’s car is eventually swallowed by that wilderness.

Both North by Northwest and Psycho suggest that the American wilderness is a chaotic and hostile place, one unburdened by reason or rationality. The crop duster chase in North by Northwest is one of the most iconic scenes in American cinema, but the sequence works because it borders on the uncanny. It accepts at face value any number of absurd premises. Why is that cropduster trying to kill Roger? Does Van Damme have a bunch of henchmen who are trained to operate cropdusters for just this scenario? Why does it try to run Roger down before it tries to shoot him?

“Howdy. Looks like we got ourselves an Indiana stand-off.”

In its own way, the cropduster scene in North by Northwest is just as surreal and inexplicable as the shower scene in Psycho, if not moreso. However, North by Northwest chooses to play the absurdity as comedy, while Psycho plays this incongruity as horror. Both films suggest a world that makes no real sense, especially to the people living within it. Roger never gets to attend the exposition-driven briefing early in North by Northwest that explains what Kaplan is, while Marion is murdered before the psychiatrist shows up to explain Norman’s pathology in Psycho.

Indeed, both North by Northwest and Psycho are anchored in the idea of a world that simply doesn’t make sense. Chaos is an integral part of both films, even on a narrative level. The plot of North by Northwest is complete nonsense, even as the audience understand’s Roger’s journey. Psycho begins as a film noir before taking a (literally) sharp left turn into horror. Neither Roger nor Marion (nor Lila) understand what is happening to them. They lack any context for the chaos unfolding around them.

Dressing to impress…

North by Northwest and Psycho suggest a world in which nothing and no one is safe. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill visits the United Nations building to investigate a piece of evidence he saw at Van Damme’s house. North by Northwest was filmed less than a decade after the building was completed; Hitchcock was famously refused permission to shoot on the premises, so employed a number of creative (and cheeky) techniques to get around that restriction. He shot the exteriors from inside a van, and he designed the interiors from photographs taken while posing as a tourist.

In the United Nations, Thornhill visits with the real-life Townsend, just in time to see the diplomat take a knife in the back. Needless to say, North by Northwest never explains why exactly Van Damme would want to publicly assassinate Townsend by throwing knife. The United Nations was supposed to represent postwar idealism, a commitment to a more ordered and reasonable world in the wake of the Second World War. With one very quick act of brutality, North by Northwest suggests that the United Nations cannot impose order on its own grounds, let alone in the wider world.

The mother of all fears.

In terms of Hitchcock’s filmography, North by Northwest and Psycho marked the transition from the fifties to the sixties. These were turbulent political times. The conservatism and cohesion of the fifties was giving way to social unrest that challenged the established order of things; the civil rights movement, the counterculture, second-wave feminism. The fifties had been a prosperous and stable time; the sixties would be tumultuous. To many observers, it felt like the postwar order was being disturbed, and that the rules that governed society were no longer in place.

In this respect, it is telling that North by Northwest shares a lot of creative DNA with the sixties television series Mad Men. Creator Matthew Weiner has acknowledged that debt, but it would be clear even without his confession. Mad Men is the story of advertising executives in New York struggling to make sense of the chaotic social change of the sixties. More than that, it features a grey-suited mama’s-boy named Roger, who later goes on to experiment in LSD in a manner that directly evokes Cary Grant’s later life.

All hail the Don.

Mad Men unfolds across the decade of the sixties, many of its episodes set against the backdrop of momentous and radical social change. The characters frequently feel out of step with the world that they claim to understand, struggling with Kennedy’s unexpected victory in Nixon vs. Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis in Meditations in an Emergency, the Kennedy assassination in The Grown-Ups, the Richard Speck murders in Mystery Date, among others.

The show even touches on less momentous challenges to the social order, whether the beatniks in Babylon, the civil rights movement in The Inheritance, the Hare Krishna in The Negron Complex. The show’s publicity material plays up this idea of characters lost in a radically changing world, whether in photoshoots of Don Draper trying to stay afloat in a flooding office or the opening sequence depicting Don Draper hurdling through space as gravity pulls him from his skyscraper office. The sixties were chaotic, particularly from the perspective of the white middle-class.

Fair cop.

Perhaps Mad Men is more overtly and consciously about the awkward transition of the sixties than North by Northwest, operating at a five-decade remove from the era in question. Nevertheless, this anxiety and uncertainty still simmers through both North by Northwest and Psycho, a recurring sense that the world does not make sense to the people inhabiting it. North by Northwest might touch on that theme more lightly than Mad Men or Psycho, but it is definitely there.

Of course, these ideas are not unique to North by Northwest or Psycho. This breakdown of social order was a recurring fascination within Hitchcock’s films, especially around this time. Indeed, The Birds could arguably be seen to extrapolate on these themes even further, imagining a breakdown of social order that extends beyond civilised society. Nature itself seems to rebel against mankind, suggesting that humanity’s understanding of even the natural world was incomplete.

One for the Birds.

This could be seen as an extension of the themes in North by Northwest and Psycho. North by Northwest imagines the breakdown of government, with its illogical twists and developments driven by the Cold War politics and the military industrial complex; the events of North by Northwest make little sense to Roger Thornhill, but maybe they make sense to the Professor. Psycho pushes the idea further, suggesting a more fundamental breakdown between people. The monster is not a political system, but a lonely man on a deserted road. The Birds goes even further, pitting mankind against nature itself.

Critics have frequently speculated about the title of North by Northwest, which applies to no direction on any compass. But its seems quite clear in what direction the film is pointing, towards Psycho and beyond that into the sixties.

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting analysis (I am not so acquainted with Hitchcock, unfortunately).

    P. S. “Corny stunt” :)))

  2. Great essay Darren, I love a good Hitchcock analysis!

    >At no point do any of the characters stop to contemplate the absurdity of what is unfolding

    …Except for the unnamed character who comments, “So horribly sad. How is it I feel like laughing?”

    Other ‘people who don’t exist’ characteristics in the materials you mentioned include Thornhill and his middle initial which stands for ‘nothing,’ and Don Draper himself, a character living a stolen life.

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