The O Stands For Nothing
I swear. This is my last Hitchcock post for a while. But, well, this is my big paper on the subject. I personally think it's far superior to my thoughts on Rebecca, but that's up for debate.
One of the most dominant motifs in Alfred Hitchcock’s work is the search for identity. Sometimes, this search is shown through a literal journey, as in The 39 Steps. Sometimes, the attempts at creating a new identity can only be accomplished once another, more dominant identity has been thrown off, as in Rebecca. North By Northwest differs from the rest of Hitchcock’s work in that, instead of the main character alone lacking an identity, every major character in North By Northwest lacks an identity. This lack of identity is presented cinematically in a different way for each character. Nevertheless, for each character, the fake identity must die in order for the true identity to form.
Roger Thornhill, the main character of North By Northwest, lacks a true identity. This is shown in several different ways. One of the most important is his reflection. Thornhill is shown either looking in or being looked at through a mirror at four different points during the story. In each case, he is pretending to be someone he is not. Three of the four times, he appears in the mirror as what he is pretending to be. This is not true the final time, but here it is not Thornhill looking in the reflection.
The first incident occurs in George Kaplan’s hotel room. At this point, Thornhill, who has been mistaken for Kaplan, looks through Kaplan’s personal items. When he looks in the bathroom, he glances in the mirror. From the camera’s perspective, the mirror shows nothing but a blank wall. That is because Thornhill, in order to get into Kaplan’s room, pretends to be Kaplan. However, Kaplan is not a real person. He is a fake spy created by the government, and as a non-person, he has no reflection. Thus, when Thornhill pretends to be Kaplan, he pretends to be no one. By showing Thornhill without a reflection, the camera is implying that Thornhill is successful in his pretending.
Thornhill looks at a mirror again when he pretends to be no one – in essence, to disappear. At this point, he is hiding in Eve Kendall’s room on the 20th Century Limited train from New York to Chicago. By hiding from everyone outside of the room, he is pretending to be a person who does not exist. And so, when he looks in the mirror, the camera shows only Thornhill with no reflection. Again, he is successful in his pretending.
Thornhill’s third encounter with a mirror happens in the train station in Chicago. When the police search for him, he enters the men’s restroom and lathers up for a shave. Finally, Thornhill is shown with his reflection. However, this achievement is dubious, since the role he is playing at this point is that of a man. The camera, by showing him as what he pretends to be, implies that he is simply a non-descript man. He is not a man by Hitchcock’s terms because he does not have an identity. He is still pretending to be a man, even though he will not become a man until later in the film.
When Thornhill is shown in a reflection for the last time, he has finally attained his identity. He is sneaking in the upper level of Phillip Vandamm’s house when he is spotted in the reflection of a television screen by Vandamm’s maid. Here, like in Eve’s room on the train, Thornhill tries to go unnoticed by pretending to be a person who simply does not exist – to disappear. However, unlike his previous attempt, he fails this time. He is not able to pretend to be someone else because he has a fully formed identity. Once he is unable to fulfill his role, he has what he needs to be a true man – a full-formed identity.
In order for Roger Thornhill to attain his true identity, his various pseudo-identities must be eliminated. This is accomplished when Thornhill, in each of his fake identities, dies. Thornhill is figuratively killed at two points during the course of the film. After each “death,” he takes a new identity, one that suits him until that identity is no longer useful to him. At first, he is a man without identity and without knowledge. He does not know anything about the spy games around him except that he is not George Kaplan and that he is not guilty of the crimes of which he has been accused. This persona is run over by a truck during the cornfield scene allowing Thornhill to come back to life with a new identity.
When Thornhill comes back from the death of his first non-identity, he assumes the identity of George Kaplan. While Kaplan, he learns Eve’s part in the spy games, Vandamm’s real name, and what he must do to be George Kaplan. He plays the part expertly, only coming out of character briefly when meeting the Professor. Nevertheless, when he and the Professor go to Rapid City, it is George Kaplan, not Roger Thornhill, who meets Vandamm and is killed by Eve. From the dead body of George Kaplan arises Roger Thornhill with a fully realized identity. Thornhill does not work for the government, he is not George Kaplan, and he is not guilty of the crimes of which he has been accused. However, he is not the mere victim of circumstances he was at the beginning of the film. Now he controls his own destiny, and he is able to save himself and Eve. Since his previous incarnations were fakes, they needed to be eliminated. Once Roger Thornhill finds his identity, he can survive in the world and make his own decisions.
As Thornhill sheds his false identities to create his true one, Phillip Vandamm must rid himself of the mask he wears to find his true identity. Vandamm uses a false identity, only to have it fall away, revealing his true identity. When Vandamm first meets Thornhill, he uses the guise of Lester Townsend, a UN diplomat. At this point, Thornhill does not have any solid identity, and neither does Vandamm. Like the identity-less Thornhill, Vandamm is not the complete master of his surroundings. He is the subject of his wife’s wishes, unable to take time out of his dinner party to properly do away with Thornhill. The next day, when Vandamm’s plot to kill Thornhill fails, Thornhill tries to find the real Lester Townsend. Upon the meeting of Thornhill and the real Townsend, Townsend is murdered. Since Townsend’s identity could be used by Vandamm, he does not have a secure identity. Without a secure identity, he is vulnerable to the attacks. Like George Kaplan, Lester Townsend must die in order for the man pretending to be him – Thornhill for Kaplan and Vandamm for Townsend - to arise as a fully formed individual.
Even Eve Kendall has a false identity that must die. Her entire existence is as a spy, so she lacks a coherent whole inside. She is just an actress, playing the role of girlfriend of Phillip Vandamm. Her nothingness is symbolized, not by a fake name or the presence of mirror, but by the juxtaposition of her face with nothingness. The closest close-ups Hitchcock gives of Eve’s face are always near some great emptiness. The last shot in the train station in Chicago shows Eve’s face in extreme close-up. This is followed by a dissolve to a large expanse of empty land. This is a cornfield with no corn, only a dirt road and a highway. By placing her image next to this open area, Hitchcock equates her with the emptiness of the land. This ultimately shows the nothingness at her core. Similarly, Eve’s final close-up shows her face with a horrible drop behind her. She is hanging by her fingers, inches from her death, at Mt. Rushmore. Figuratively, Eve Kendall does fall here. This woman with no identity except the roles she played for the government is dead at this point. The woman who is finally saved from the abyss is Eve Thornhill, Roger’s wife. This is the identity she must take in order to survive.
Throughout North By Northwest, characters must assume false identities in order to accomplish what they want. However, each false identity must be killed in order for a true identity to form. George Kaplan must die so that Roger Thornhill can live. Lester Townsend cannot survive in the same world as Phillip Vandamm, and Eve Kendall was just a woman waiting for Eve Thornhill to come along. And each of these characters’ lack of a true identity is represented in a different manner. Eve is equated with nothingness by juxtaposition, Vandamm uses fake names, and Thornhill is shown in the mirror as exactly what he pretends to be. However, when the picture ends, the two protagonists happily ride off in a train with each other and their identities. This is the archetypal Hitchcock story, showing people go through terrible ordeals to get what is most valuable to them, their identities. It has been used in other Hitchcock films, but never quite so effectively as in North By Northwest.