While hand imagery in North By Northwest has a practical aim, being to show the main character’s emotional state at a given moment, the film’s face imagery has more to do with expressing an idea, the loss of identity.
There is a moment in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, after the animals have decided that four legs are good and two legs bad, when Snowball the pig tries to determine exactly what it is to be four-legged. After all, determining a standard of “leggedness” is important when basing a whole system of government on how many legs one has. He comes to the conclusion that, even though birds only have two legs, they are still “good,” because their wings are “limbs of propulsion,” rather than “limbs of manipulation.” That phrase “limbs of manipulation” has always seemed appropriate in distinguishing one of humankind’s most distinctive features as a kind of moral flaw.
One easily hearkens back to this description watching Alfred Hitchcock’s film, North By Northwest. Here, the director makes frequent symbolic use of hand imagery. Except here, hand imagery reflects not “manipulation” but the inward emotional response of those being manipulated. Or rather it reflects manipulation, but as hands framed for symbolic effect are most often done so in this film when said hands are least active, their inert manipulation comes to a kind of impotence that in the end speaks loudly for the virtue of zen-like passivity, culminating in expressions of profound emotional vulnerability.
The film’s main character, Roger Thornhill, is at all times under the influence of manipulating forces, performing a standard Hitchcockian trope of the solitary man at the mercy of shadowy forces outside his control. And Thornhill’s hands are pointedly framed in several instances, showing them as humankind’s second most expressive physical attribute just after the face. Hitchcock makes significant symbolic use of face imagery in North By Northwest, too, except this much more abstractly. While hand imagery in the film has a practical aim, being to show the main character’s emotional state at a given moment, the film’s face imagery has more to do with expressing an idea, the loss of identity. Face imagery in the film is expressed mostly through the absence of faces, more masks than faces, really -- the mask being both an abstraction and a performative loss of the human face.
At one point, Thornhill conceals his identity in a public bathroom by hiding his face behind a mask of shaving cream; his travel-sized safety razor is a running joke that carries thematic meaning in its facility to comically enlarge Thornhill’s face, highlighting the importance of identity to those who would hide for the sake of survival. In the film’s iconic final scene, where Thornhill escapes his pursuers by scaling down the grotesquely enlarged faces of Mt. Rushmore, identity becomes a treacherous obstacle from which some do not survive. Both involve enlarged, still faces, unmoving in their significations.
Other losses of identity behind “masks” include those that are willingly performed by characters for higher aims -- the voluntary assumption of burdens that had been previously enforced in some manner is almost always a signal of characters’ growth in these types of stories. For instance, Thornhill initially has no interest in adventures, but he must adopt the mantle of adventure to save his own skin, then to save the life of a woman he falls in love with along the way. Eva Marie Saint plays this woman, who feeds the secrets of her lover, a Russian spy, to the American government, herself having adopted the identity of a patriot. James Mason plays this lover, a man who also has several names, several identities throughout the course of the film. Also, it should be noted that the film’s senior-most officials in both the American and Russian intelligence agencies have British accents, as if to highlight the irrelevance of nationality in comparison to the ideological loyalties played out in Cold War stories. All this is necessary is that We are against Them; the specifics of what that difference entails is less important than the identities we assume to enact it.
The films’ main conflict centers around Thornhill being mistaken for an American agent called George Kaplan, but Kaplan himself is an imagination dreamed up by the good guys as a way to distract the bad guys from their real work. When the audience learns of this fact, the film changes from a Kafkaesque “one against the many” story, in which a man must maintain his identity at all costs, to a more conventional adventure story, where a man must determine what is most important about his own identity, must redefine it. Questions shift from “who am I, literally?” to “what kind of person am I?” And with this shift of theme also comes a change in plot trajectory from “what is the problem?” with a distinct flavor of existential isolation, to “how will the problem be solved?” a problem based in logic. That Thornhill’s adversaries employ such unconventional methods as assassination by crop-duster -- Thornhill is famously dive-bombed by a plane in a cornfield -- somewhat reinforces their mysteriousness, even after they are unveiled as very conventionally foreign spies. The bad guys seem to protest the story’s shift into considerations of logic, identity based on the performance of good deeds.
Alongside these comparatively difficult considerations of identity as reflected in face imagery, the film’s hand imagery is fairly straight-forward, though no less evocative. Here are the six major instances, as they appear chronologically:
Hands Abduct Roger Thornhill
In this only scene in which a deliberate framing of a character’s hands also features those hands overtly “manipulating,” in Orwell’s sense, Roger Thornhill is abducted at gunpoint by thugs and rushed into a waiting car. We see Thornhill framed from the shoulders up, and a hand comes from out of frame to grab him, possess him. But even though the thugs are in positions of relative power to Thornhill, their blank humorlessness positions them below him in the audience’s eyes, thugs against an intelligent man of the world. Their “manipulation” is but brute force, and the audience knows Thornhill will be in no danger from them; they even acknowledge themselves as mere “errand boys.” They may physically have the upper hand, but as with all shadow puppets, they are faceless, devoid of real character beyond being generally sinister. Their boss, however, is the picture of refinement; he is Thornhill’s true adversary, though not once do we see him put hands on his enemy—their battle is “face to face.” Whosever identity is truest will win.
Thornhill’s Hands Embracing Eve
After Thornhill has become a fugitive and takes up with Eva Marie Saint’s character, Eve, a fast romance ensues. Hitchcock has frequently spoken about his use of constricted frame in love scenes, long scenes of dialogue shot in close proximity between actors, which is uncomfortable to shoot yet looks terrific on-screen. At this point in the plot, Eve knows that Thornhill is wanted for murder, and he tells her so, remarking between kisses that she doesn’t really know that she safe in his company. But it is lovers’ banter; they are perfectly comfortable with each other. His hands creep up behind her, as if to do her harm, but instead he, fills his hands with her blonde hair. Thornhill’s hands do not symbolize his agency as much as provide counterpoint to the vulnerability inherent to his own strong emotions. That the next scene shows Eve’s loyalties to the sinister Vandamm only highlights this counterpoint.
Thornhill Embraces Eve With Empty Hands
The next scene where Thornhill’s hands are pointedly framed also feature an embrace between him and Eve, though this time he believes she has betrayed him. He has followed her to her hotel room and is resigned to pantomime their previous affections as a way to control her. As the activity of hands symbolizes agency, the passivity of Thornhill’s hands in this scene, again, provides an interesting counterpoint to his resolution to control Eve. It’s as if the film has set up an opposition between the agency of the heart and that of the head; where Thornhill’s reason leads him, his heart cannot serve him, and vice versa. This opposition is predicated on a lack of knowledge, that Thornhill doesn’t yet know that Eve is actually one of the good guys, which is not revealed until after Eve has irretrievably endangered herself. That the bodily danger represented in the climax of adventure stories so often undoes the mind/body dichotomy is one of the reasons why the adventure story is such a vital medium for romance. Love stories which in peace time are represented in terms of a conflict between head and heart are, in danger, simplified.
Thornhill Holds Up His Hands In Desperation
In this same scene, we again see the pantomime of affections between Thornhill and Eve, of which they are both aware. It comes to a head, when Eve asks him to leave and to not come back. Thornhill’s reaction has several layers of meaning. His words express the aforementioned pantomimed affection with the not too subtle subtext of wanting to keep Eve where he can see her. But his hands convey an even deeper meaning, that the pantomime of his affections is, of course, sincere. He feels deeply for her, and the play-act which is meant to be parsed as menacing is, in fact, performed (and interpreted) at face value. The subtle menace intended, scanned in terms of this desperate, hands-up posture, comes to a very straight-forward expression of need. He holds up his hands in surrender, waiting for them to be filled again as they once had been. The hand imagery here symbolizes a kind of double-pantomime that somehow adds up to sincerity.
Vandamm’s Hand on Eve’s Neck
The next hand image is that of Vandamm asserting possession over Eve by placing his hand on the back of her neck, as they sit in the auction house. The gesture is meant to be casual but is telling in its composition of frame. And viewed against the already established construction of “hands symbolizing agency, yet contextually signifying impotence,” we should be able to predict what will happen soon after, plot-wise. Vandamm will lose Eve “by his own hand,” so to speak. He will abandon her, once he understands that her loyalty is with his enemy. Since we know that Vandamm is bad, we know that his vulnerability will be bitter and wounded, where Thornhill’s is self-sacrificing. That Eve is, even at this moment of asserted possession, aligned with the Americans undermines his supposed agency, as well as precludes his eventual realization of his own impotence. But it does not preclude how he behaves in response to it; this is what separates the good from the bad. In the same scene, Vandamm witnesses Eve’s emotional reaction to Thornhill’s allegations against her honor; she weeps, betraying her true loyalty, and the camera follows Vandamm’s hand as it slowly withdraws from the back of her neck.
Leonard’s Foot on Thornhill’s Hand
Here Thornhill hangs from the precipice, with Eve hanging on, and we see a close-up of the henchman Leonard stepping on Thornhill’s hand. This is the final culmination of the squashing of the symbol of the individual agent. All other hand images had built to this moment, where the one is under the foot of the many. Thornhill’s hands had willingly succumbed to passivity, thus vulnerability, in being filled and then emptied of Eve’s hair; Vandamm likewise was made impotent by the emotional stakes involved in the activity of his hand on Eve’s neck. Both have been subjugated by this point. Here, the hand is finally being killed as it makes a final grasp. But help comes “from on high,” as had been predicted by Vandamm in an earlier scene; a sharpshooter takes Leonard out, and we see his foot topple over and off of Thornhill’s hand. We do not see any super-human feat in hoisting both himself and Eve from their precarious position on the side of the cliff. Instead, the director cleverly cuts to Thornhill politely helping Eve up to the elevated bunk of the train car they had ridden in earlier. The moment, again, highlights not Thornhill’s activity, but his passivity; the gesture is one of deference, not strength. The film seems to suggest that, even if hands are “limbs of manipulation,” they are most effective when least manipulative.