North by Northwest was part of the golden run that Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed through the mid-twentieth century- it is hard to think of a dud that Hitchcock made from Notorious to Psycho and he collaborated with the greatest actors and actresses of Hollywood (Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, James Mason, Eva Maria Saint, Grace Kelly, Claude Rains and others) in order to make a succession of films that nobody can see without gasping. Because of that it is easy to dismiss some of the features- Vertigo and Rear Window seem to stand the test of any critic's eye, but Rope is dismissed as a parlour game, To Catch a Thief as a light drama and North by Northwest as a silly nonsense. Of course in the hands of Hitchcock it is anything but- and whilst it is entertaining- the film has an argument, a thought behind it about the nature of normality and the ways that human beings behave. North by Northwest is a farce- its a classic tale in which identities are confused- Cary Grant's advertising executive Roger Thornhill is believed to be a US agent- or in which they are secret, James Mason's and Eva Maria Saint's characters retain an elusive nature right through the entire film. But farces make serious points- anyone who knows Shakespeare ought to know that comedies focusing on mistaken identity can become great literature, and even though Hitchcock is now Shakespeare, North by Northwest has considerable virtues.
One of those virtues is its description of the world of spying. Of course the plot resolution is ludicrous and several incidents (Cary Grant chased across the American midwest by a plane) are foolish but the view of the world of spies is not so silly but is deadly serious. Hitchcock unlike the producers of several James Bond movies since demonstrates that the fundemental life of a spy is boring, unglamorous and sad. Cary Grant spends most of his time hiding in Eva Maria Saint's train compartment- the two lovers Saint and Grant cannot consumate their relationship through marriage until they can leave the world of spies- the Professor, a CIA 'boss' is reduced to callousness by the demands of his service- James Mason's character (Grant's double within the film- a point I will move to) exerts his power through being a devious and deviant monster. Spying is a world without friendship- but a world without friendship is a world not worth living in- and never are the characters so happy as when they leave or are not within the world of spying. Spying subverts justice, it has nothing to do with justice, it exposes the ugly side of life to full view. Hitchcock ultimately presents us with a view of spying that may be thrilling but is also deeply antagonising.
What that means is that a film about concealment is actually a film about the pleasures of straightforwardness. Thornhill, and the viewer who inhabits his eyes, is a character who wants to know what is going on- wants to understand- and never really until the last moments of the film does. Thornhill is a charming suave and sophisticated man- played by Grant a tramp would be suave and sophisticated- but the key about him is that he is straightforward. Oppose him to the doppleganger he confronts. James Mason's character is suave and sophisticated- as mannered and polite as Grant and as intelligent but Mason, unlike Grant, hides depths of duplicity and depravity within that exterior. His mistress becomes convinced of that after she sees miscellanious photographs of his deviancies- we can have no doubt that Grant has no such photographs in his attic. If Thornhill's character comes from the world of Romantic Comedy and movies like His Girl Friday, then Mason's emerges out of the slime that gave birth to Harry Lime- they may be brothers under the cravat, but they are estranged by their different moral characters.
Grant and Mason have two distinct and important characters who rule the film as part of a triumvirate- between them is one of the most interesting actresses of the fifties, Eva Maria Saint. Saint's role in North by Northwest is interesting- but in order to discuss it I must warn you that spoilers lie ahead. She is a spy, working for the American government. She is Mason's mistress- a good time girl that he picked up at a party and yet she turns out to be intelligent and skilled, patriotic and virtuous. In a sense she is Ingrid Bergman's character from Notorious, had she met Grant's years after and Rains been the villain of that film. Saint's choice we have discussed above- but her fundemental character is that of a woman who is thoroughly in charge of her emotions. In a sense to reverse the gender roles, Grant's Thornhill is a blundering innocent, dangerously putting lives at risk in a hysterical way: Saint's Eve Kendall is cool, calm under pressure, virtuous and willing to sacrafice herself even unto death for the greater good. Saint is the warrior, Grant is the civilian. Saint is sexually aggressive, Grant is responsive. Hitchcock leaves us in no doubt though that Saint like Grant shares a sincerity- neither character lies to the other in the entire film. Like Mason they artfully talk and flirt, unlike Mason behind talk lies truth, behind flirtation might lie love.
And here lies what I think is an interesting Hitchcock twist for he leaves us in doubt over whether the good time girl and the three times divorced Grant are telling each other the truth. THe sincerity that they express is the sincerity of a moment- both are afterall practitioners through advertising and spying of different kinds of acting. What Hitchcock though wants us to reflect on is the kind of acting that they embody, both of them act the truth- and whilst Mason's act is an act, their act is a temporary truth.