‘North by Northwest’: The Un-Oedipal Narrative


Alfred Hitchcock has long been a fixture in the canon of film. Never repeating himself in his many films, Hitchcock instituted a direct correlation between himself and psychoanalysis (vice versa). His style is ubiquitous, images still reprocessed within culture universally and work still discussed. If you felt like you’ve seen the same imagery multiple times in different uses but aren’t too sure where it comes from it may well be from a Hitchcock film—this, too, speaks all the more of Hitchcock’s legacy. One of Hitchcock’s most infamous films, North by Northwest, is at once a Cold War operation and a romance (in both senses of the word). The images of North by Northwest are on scale with Psycho in the collective’s imagination from its plane scene to the film’s ending atop Mount Rushmore. While North by Northwest begins with a kidnapping, the film plays out an un-Oedipal narrative which cruxes both Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall in its motives as hero and heroine strive toward their realized desires of union.

North by Northwest is a meditation on mistaken identity shoved upon Roger Thornhill. He is not George Kaplan, yet he becomes Kaplan in various ways because of a series of irrational incidences which would have anyone jumping ship. Within the narrative, Kaplan is no one—a ploy in covert operations amidst the Cold War. While Kaplan is no one in the film, when Thornhill takes on Kaplan’s guise, he becomes oedipal: Courting his mother around, trying on clothes that are too small for his tall physique and being entirely impotent in his life, etc. (The film might be onto something with its absence of tragic and irony filled Oedipus and how modernity objects/defies him—the main role of incest even when Oedipus Rex first appeared.) Yet, the suggestion goes further that though Oedipus’ incestuous, etc., actions are absent from the film, the film is a direct descendent from Oedipus Rex and points back to it with no shame even though it reaches an adverse conclusion.

North by Northwest’s vision of the modern man and woman is, well, modern and is still a motif used frequently in films and television shows. But, North by Northwest is a notable meditation because it is un-Oedipal. The film does not deal with the realization of one’s guilt within previous actions while believing to be innocent. It deals with misplaced guilt and trying to prove innocence. While Oedipus unwittingly institutes all of his demise and eventual self-sacrifice, Thornhill’s demise is orchestrated and imposed onto him as he is trying to be murdered for no other reason than being mistaken for Kaplan/Oedipus. Oedipus Rex is indulgent/reflective of the unconscious: Oedipus knows not what he does until he realizes he is the plague he seeks.

North by Northwest is indulgent/reflective of the conscious: aware and unable to stop the machinery of its (possible) demise from trying to play out until that (possible) demise is defeated. All forces outside of Thornhill himself are the unconscious playing a game and setting traps for him to conquer. It is possible to see everyone/thing besides Thornhill (also Eve after her role switch for Thornhill and audience) as saying nothing else besides, “Get married!” (Vandamm, for all his villainy, could be a hired couple/match-maker with his own reality TV show. Talk about “gotcha” questions.)

The symbols switch at various points throughout the film between Kendall and Thornhill. She is at first a kind stranger, then a co-conspirator with Vandamm, Vandamm’s lover, an under-cover agent, a captive (to more threatening levels) and then wife. When Thornhill tells Eve in her hotel room, “There’s no getting of rid of me,” it’s hard not to realize that his tyranny is unyielding (vice versa) even though the statement is made while Eve is playing nothing more than a pawn in Vandamm’s schemes. Thornhill despises Kendall for not being the woman he thought, even though she truly is that woman and is having to act for Vandamm, not for him. Kendall tries to rid herself of Thornhill, but Thornhill plagues her so much that when he says “Isn’t everyone?” about being in her hotel room, Vandamm pulls his hand from Kendall’s shoulder during the auction.

Yet, for all his plaguing, Thornhill is the one who helps Kendall to freedom (which we do not see as the film rolls over to their honeymoon). Thornhill is not some stereotypical man either (Cary Grant is still a handsome devil), because if not for Kendall (played enchantingly by Eva Marie Saint), Thornhill would have never escaped his monotonous life and a predisposition to being oedipal even before Kaplan is ever mentioned in the film. Though the law enforcement agencies and Vandamm with his conspirators operate against each other, they both ultimately are both pushing Kendall and Thornhill ever closer toward their union—much like hero and heroine push the Law and Vandamm toward each other. Many will have hesitations to say that marriage is freedom, but it is hard to ignore how much charisma and joy they both have when around each other.

The vision of North by Northwest is a meditation on the obstacles of reaching the eventual desired goal (a desire originally unknown) of both hero and heroine: The ending images of the train entering a tunnel are self explanatory. The film may begin as Oedipal, but its resolution uses the institution of marriage to bring across the realization of the Thornhills’ union. For being released in 1959, North by Northwest does begin with the Oedipal leanings, but resolves in a modern narrative about both sexes and their push toward freedom and union/stability. Hitchcock’s vision is status quo and bourgeois, even more so by present day standards. Yet, if one acknowledges Hitchcock’s looming wink, revelry is abound. For the film’s social platitudes and acceptability, it is still unclear which narrative is more horrifying: Oedipus’ or the Thornhills’?

Author’s Note: If one is interested in a highly detailed analysis of North by Northwest and other culturally significant films, Raymond Bellour’s Analysis of Film is a highly recommended book. The same for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), edited by Slavoj Zizek.