Horror Education of the Week: ‘North by Northwest’

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That’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.

Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest tells the tale of Roger Thornhill, a successful advertising executive in Manhattan. Thornhill, a man grounded in his life and ways, becomes the vulnerable, isolated victim as he is abducted, framed for murder, and continuously pursued without prevail in a conspiracy all result of mistaken identity.

It is easy to say that Hitchcock’s 1959 film can be considered horror.

Roger Thornhill is thrown from his cozy life into that of George Kaplan. Immediately, he is isolated from the world he knows and cannot escape the world in which he is now confined. Seeking help from anyone who will believe him, Thornhill finds that everyone is either in on the conspiracy or passes it off as a drunken fantasy.

- The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”.

- For the central idea, Hitchcock remembered something an American journalist had told him about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy. For the finale, Hitchcock had always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmore.

- Suspense, being a key aspect to the horror genre, is emphasized in North by Northwest.

- The main suspense scene in North By Northwest is Thornhill’s wait at a bus stop for the infamous Kaplan. Thornhill is unaware that an attempt on his life has been arranged.

- He stands, a man in a suit, dislocated from the city in the vast countryside, as multiple cars and buses pass with no sign of Kaplan. It is when a man comments on a crop dusting plane yards away and then boards a bus, that Thornhill is attacked by that very plane, pelted with machine-gun fire.

- Hitchcock further pushes suspense with his use of irony. The audience always knows something that the character does not.

- North By Northwest relies on this irony. Thornhill is pushed through the strange world of being a fugitive, victim and ultimately a criminal.

- Though the audience is aware that Thornhill is not the murderer of Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat, a photograph is snapped and the world is on the hunt for Thornhill who is reportedly using the alias ‘George Kaplan’.

- The pattern of ironic situations – from being forced to drink so that a fatal car crash can be staged – which ultimately leads to Thornhill being arrested for drunk driving and no one believing his story – to being photographed holding a murder weapon he innocently has pulled from the back of a murdered man – is what keeps Roger Thornhill in constant isolation from the world he once knew.

- This overwhelming sense of isolated terror is exactly what pushes North By Northwest from being a simple suspense film to being considered horror.

  • Canucklehead

    Saw this on the big screen recently, what a great film.

    • Lauren Taylor

      That it is!!