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Roger O. Thornhill

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Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill

Roger O. Thornhill is the lead character in North by Northwest (1959) and was played by Cary Grant.

Although Hitchcock and North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman had initially written the role for James Stewart, as the script developed, Hitchcock felt that the suave Cary Grant would suit the role better. MGM had suggested their own Gregory Peck for the role, but this was quickly rejected by Hitchcock.

Thornhill's middle initial "O" is widely accepted as being a dig at producer David O. Selznick who added his "O" to distinguish himself from a relative also named David Selznick. According to producer Herbert Coleman, the opening sequence of the film, with Thornhill dictating non-stop to his secretary as they travel across New York to the Plaza Hotel, was an inside joke about Selznick's habit of dictating memos continuously, often with multiple secretaries in tow.[1]


Thornhill with his secretary

Thornhill is a twice-divorced Madison Avenue (New York City) advertising executive who is mistaken for "George Kaplan" — an elusive US secret agent — and kidnapped by a group of foreign agents, led by the cultured Phillip Vandamm, who then try to stage his death. When Thornhill attempts to prove he isn't Kaplan, he is framed for the murder of a Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat.

Forced to go on the run until he can prove his innocence, he makes the acquaintance of the glamorous Eve Kendall whilst on a train to Chicago. Although Kendall initially aides him in evading the police, she is in fact Vandamm's mistress. Kendall sends Thornhill to a remote isolated location where Vandamm intends to kill him, however Thornhill escapes when the crop dusting plane carrying Vandamm's assassin crashes.

As Thornhill closes in on the enemy agents, he is arrested by the police and is taken to meet "The Professor" — a US spymaster — who reveals that Kaplan is in fact a fictitious spy, invented to distract Vandamm from Eve Kendall who is in fact a US agent who has infiltrated his group.

Thornhill escapes with Eve Kendall

It transpires that Thornhill's activities have endangered Kendall and have roused Vandamm's suspicions that she might be a traitor. The Professor organises a staged assassination at the crowded Mount Rushmore cafeteria and Kendall shoots Thornhill, who Vandamm still believes to be Kaplan, with blanks. Thornhill's "dead" body is spirited away by The Professor and where he is to be detained at a nearby hospital until Vandamm and Kendall have left the country.

Having fallen in love with Kendall, Thornhill is unwilling to risk her life and escapes from the hospital. After tracking the foreign agents down to their Mount Rushmore hideaway, Thornhill manages to warn Kendall that her life is at risk and together they escape with the microfilm that Vandamm is trying to smuggle out of the country. After a desperate chase across the Mount Rushmore monument, Vandamm is arrested by The Professor and Thornhill is free to marry Kendall.


wardrobe reference photograph

Grant, who had come out of semi-retirement to film To Catch a Thief for Hitchcock, accepted the role on the proviso that filming started prior to a production Fox wanted him to star in. Keen to secure him, agent Herman Citron agreed to start date that was two months before North by Northwest was actually scheduled to begin production.[2] For his services, Grant was paid $450,000 in salary, plus a share of the film's profits.[3]

As with To Catch a Thief, Cary Grant primarily wore his own wardrobe and his suit was tailored by Arthur Lyons of Kilgour, French & Stanbury, Saville Row, London. Quintino's of Beverly Hills made duplicate copies for the scenes in which the original suit might become damaged or dirtied.[4]

Although Grant's performances were always self-assured, he was often demanding and less confident off-camera. James Mason later recalled that Grant was an actor "conscientious, clutching his script until the last moment". To those around him, Grant voiced his concern that he "couldn't make head or tails of the film's implausible plotline"[5] According to Hitchcock's biographer John Russell Taylor:

Grant and Lehman found themselves quarrelling with one another, with Grant claiming it was really a David Niven script and it was lousy anyway because he didn't understand what was going on and he doubted anyone else would. They were both aware, of course, that they were taking out their worries on each other because they could not manage to quarrel directly with Hitch.[6]

In his autobiography, producer Herbert Coleman recalled that Grant complained to him about the length of the shoot and the fact that most of his salary was going straight to the Internal Revenue Service. Coleman knew that Grant was planning a vacation in England after the film's completion and placated the actor by offering him £5,000 tax free if he gave a single hour-long press interview whilst in London.[7]

During location work at the New York Plaza Hotel, a visiting journalist noted that Hitchcock shot the scene of Grant crossing the hotel lobby without providing any direction or comments to Grant. The director quipped, "Oh, he's been walking across [hotel lobbies] by himself for years!"[8]


Film Frames

Selection of film frames: Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959) (click image to view larger version or refresh thumbnails)...

Notes & References

  1. The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir (2007) by Herbert Coleman, page 281
  2. The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir (2007) by Herbert Coleman, pages 280 & 285-6
  3. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, page 566
  4. The Suits of James Bond: The Famous North By Northwest Suit
  5. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, page 570
  6. Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) by John Russell Taylor, page 230
  7. The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir (2007) by Herbert Coleman, pages 285-86
  8. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan, page 570