Jump to: navigation, search

Cinema Journal (1997) - The Direction of "North by Northwest"




Hermeneutic criticism of North by Northwest traces the direction of the change in Thornhill's character, but a deconstructive reading finds the film questioning the concept of direction.


Notes & References

  1. An important exception to this generalization is Fredric Jameson's essay "Spatial Systems in North by Northwest," in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan but Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, ed. Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 1992), 47-72. Jameson condemns such readings as "form-intrinsic," which in the case of North by Northwest lead only to the trivial "pop-psychological" message of "maturity" (48). In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), Jean-Francois Lyotard discusses the grands rdcits or master narratives of the West, by which he means narratives used for the legitimation of knowledge, especially in the political realm. My application of Lyotard's term to the narrative of growth or maturation in North by Northwest implies a way this narrative may legitimize knowledge in film criticism, too.
  2. Lesley Brill, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). Brill devotes the first chapter of his book to a reading of North by Northwest as an example of Frye's paradigm of romance.
  3. Thomas Leitch, Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991).
  4. Robert J. Corber, In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).
  5. Brill sees Thornhill's "maturing" (The Hitchcock Romance, 8); however, he observes of the ending that "we may pause to hope that the new Mrs. Thornhill will fare better than her predecessors" (21). Leitch qualifies his description of Thornhill's maturation with the proviso: "Thornhill's progress is arduous; for every step forward, he seems to take two steps back" (Find the Director, 213). Corber's argument for the culminating importance of Thornhill's complicity with the American government is modified by the acknowledgment that in disobeying the Professor, he also breaks with it (In the Name, 201).
  6. George M. Wilson, Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 74, 80. Wilson's hesitation on this point is especially marked in this passage: "Probably the chief mark of Thornhill's self-reform is that he, through his love of Eve, breaks out of this network of skin-trade valuation. And yet, the irony remains that it is only as the embodiment of the fictional Kaplan that he achieves this breaking out. Certainly something has to change in him" (74).
  7. Geoffrey Hartman, "Plenty of Nothing: Hitchcock's North by Northwest," Yale Review 71 (1981): 21.
  8. For the opposition between hermeneutics and deconstruction, see Gary Shapiro and Alan Sica, eds., Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), and John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). Of course, in exposing the errors of hermeneutics, deconstructive criticism commits new ones. For a discussion of this dilemma, see J. Hillis Miller, "'Reading' Part of a Paragraph in Allegories of Reading," in Reading de Man Reading, ed. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 155-70. For example, the present essay could not have proceeded without the assumption that the film's characters were real. Other fundamental errors are discussed in part VI. For Derrida's evocation of "the postal," see his The Post-Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  9. Of course, another way of taking the title is to see it as referring to "the direction of the plot," that is, to the fact that Thornhill's movements take him north-northwest, from New York to Chicago to Sioux Falls, North Dakota, and that on his last journey he takes Northwest Airlines. It may be observed in passing that because this movement is not truly "north-northwest" (closer to west-northwest), the title is already a misnaming. No one has argued that the film's plot direction is of any significance. The idea of naming a work after such compass points implies that the film's major issues -- identity, love, national security -- are of as little consequence as random movement. Another way of putting this is to say that the viewer's choice in construingt he title is between the misnaming/tautology of the "direction of the plot" and the undecidability of the allusion to Hamlet. The first critic to argue for the acceptance of that allusionw as MarianK eane in "The Designs of Authorship," Wide Angle 4 (1980): 44-52. (Like some other critics, Keane mistakenly thinks Hamlet's speech welcomes the players; however, it is addressed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Stanley Cavell, in Themes out of School: Effects and Causes (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 156-58, makes the most extended case for the allusion. His position is seconded by William Rothman, "North by Northwest: Hitchcock's Monument to the Hitchcock Film," North Dakota Quarterly 51 (1984): 11-23; by Wilson, Narration in Light; and by Brill, The Hitchcock Romance. On the other hand, several critics remain silent on this subject, including Hartman, "Plenty of Nothing," 13-27; Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Leitch, Find the Director; and Corber, In the Name.
  10. Michel Foucault explores the question of the source of the definitions of madness in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (London: Tavistock, 1967) and in The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).
  11. Oscar James Campbell's gloss on "hawk from a handsaw" is as follows: "There are three interpretations of this phrase: (1) takes the words in their literal modern meaning; i.e., two objects so unlike that anyone could distinguish between them; (2) takes 'handsaw' as a corruption of'hernshaw,' a kind of heron; (3) takes 'hawk' in the sense of a tool like a pickaxe." William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Oscar James Campbell, Alfred Rothschild, and Stuart Vaughan (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), 285.
  12. Stanley Cavell lists these affinities between North by Northwest and Hamlet in Themes out of School. For the critics who explore the analogy and those who don't, see note 9.
  13. Derrida discusses this aspect of the postal in The Post-Card, 29-33.
  14. For a discussion of distancing, see ibid., 29.
  15. Ibid., 53.
  16. Ibid., 33.
  17. Ibid., 51.
  18. Thomas Cohen, Anti-Mimesis from Plato to Hitchcock (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 257.
  19. For the argument that Thornhill's character defects grow out of his urban life, his vocation as an advertising executive, and his relationships with women, see Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited; Leitch, Find the Director; and Brill, The Hitchcock Romance.
  20. For the Marxist argument that North by Northwest narrates the illusion of private subjectivity, see Jameson, "Spatial Systems."
  21. The temptation to interpret this scene as somehow representing "originary" or "elemental" existence comes from its elementary character: it consists of only a human being, nature, and strangers. But of course, this elemental character makes the scene no less a metaphor than any other in the film, no matter how apparently complex.
  22. The argument that prosopopoeia is a constitutive trope of fiction is made by J. Hillis Miller in Ariadne's Thread: Story Lines (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).
  23. It was Hitchcock himself who playfully interpreted the scene in this way: "There are no symbols in North by Northwest. Oh yes! One. The last shot, the train entering the tunnel after the love-scene between Grant and Eva-Marie Saint. It's a phallic symbol. But don't tell anyone." Quoted in Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited, 131. Hitchcock repeats the interpretation in François Truffaut's Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 108.
  24. Others have noticed this link in the film. For example, Hartman writes of the moment Thornhill is confused with Kaplan: "He is immediately divested of his identity, one that sits on him as easily as his suit" ("Plenty of Nothing," 15).
  25. Ibid., 16.
  26. Even thought he Professor refers to the "cold war," we don't know that Vandamm is a communist, pace Corber's assertion that communists and homosexuals are coded as the same.
  27. For a useful discussion of the parallels between the Professor and Vandamm that suggest they are surrogate auteurs, see Keane, "The Designs of Authorship," 45-46.
  28. Wilson's admirable demonstration that North by Northwest questions the reliability of individual perception is not extended to his own essay, which both uneasily follows the grand recit of maturation in Thornhill and questions it. Hartman's astute thesis -- that the film undermines the "solidity" of understanding -- is never extended to his own argument's traditional assumption of film as mimesis.