Arts - Winter 2022

Sex and Secrets

Rare is the Hitchcock film that celebrates desire without disaster

By Lisa Zeidner | December 4, 2021
At a Chicago hotel, Roger (Cary Grant) eyes Eve (Eva Marie Saint) with suspicion, having foiled her attempt to elude him. (Everett Collection)
At a Chicago hotel, Roger (Cary Grant) eyes Eve (Eva Marie Saint) with suspicion, having foiled her attempt to elude him. (Everett Collection)

How many times have I seen North by Northwest? Impossible to count—40, 50? Sometimes a few notes from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack will sneak up on me and stick, so suddenly that whatever I’m doing, however pedestrian—washing dishes, grading papers—is scored by that peppy fandango. I know the brilliant script practically by heart, too, and odd lines will jetsam up from memory, apropos of nothing in particular: Just pay the two dollars … You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?

I was a toddler in 1959, so the movie isn’t a nostalgic part of my past. But my husband, who was a preteen when the movie came out, saw it five times the month of its release. Cary Grant was the icon who spoke to him about possibilities more exotic than the American life he was leading (Catholic school, chores, church on Sundays). At basketball practice, furious about some bad play, the coach berated him: “Who do you think you are—Cary Grant?”

North by Northwest has often been dismissed, as critic Murray Pomerance notes, as “a featherweight picaresque.” Although some criticism has focused on the movie as a commentary on American consumerism and identity, the film’s central romance gets very little scholarly attention. Many a PhD thesis has unpacked the heavy baggage of Alfred Hitchcock’s queer coding in other movies. In Rope, being gay is synonymous with being a sociopathic murderer, and other films contain insinuations about the skewed sexuality of brainy, bespectacled, butch women. North by Northwest, however, with the heteronormative romance at its core, has mostly escaped being slotted into the larger discussion of Hitchcock’s twisted vision of passion. And that’s unfortunate, because it represents something of a corrective: it’s Hitchcock’s most jubilant, unneurotic celebration of sexuality, both straight and gay (or bi).

If I hadn’t married Alma, Hitchcock legendarily said, I could have been a poof (derogatory slang his, not mine).

If I were a gay man, Cary Grant would be my first choice for a man to seduce on a train. He is my first choice straight, too. You can’t get more appealing than his square jaw with its dimpled, sculpted chin. By many accounts, in real life as well as on film, he would turn his head sideways to flash that coy half-smile, let his companion feel complicit in some bit of droll banter, and seduce a member of either gender—as sexually fluid as the name Cary. Who cares that his breath stinks of fish? So does that of his dining companion, Eva Marie Saint. (“A little trouty,” Saint declares, about their entrée choice of brook trout, trout being British slang for an ugly woman, also for a slut.) Grant’s daughter has disputed the rumors of his homosexuality, though she does allow that her father might have indulged in some bisexual experimentation, and she even says that he would have enjoyed the innuendos—as a way of making women want to prove them wrong.

Eighteen years before North by Northwest, in Suspicion, Cary Grant meets another woman on a train: Joan Fontaine, in scholarly glasses, reading a book. Grant makes a disapproving face—but later sees her relaxed and smiling at a hunt. All she needs to do to release her full sexuality is to take her glasses off and get on a horse. The pipe dream of easy sexuality lurking behind repression never really dies for Hitchcock—frigid Marnie, of the eponymous film, also unfreezes on her horse. But neither does his conflicting conviction that soft sexual swooning leads to hard trouble. Hitchcockian sexual attraction should come with a skull-and-crossbones warning label.

In North by Northwest, virtually alone among his films, Hitchcock allows for the possibility that one can have sex without heavy retribution. The movie hides its eroticism, both homo- and hetero-, in plain sight—but with less judgment or mockery, less censorious implication of moral degeneracy, than we routinely see in the director’s films.

Let’s start with Grant’s blue-gray suit. No costume changes necessary. The suit hangs right, even after the famous run-in with the crop duster. It does need to be sent out for a “sponging” after his near-death experience, but the shirt that sets off his tan stays as blindingly white as his teeth.

A few years before, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit decried the stultifying conformity of the American workplace. Gray may have been deemed dull, colorless, joyless—but not to Hitchcock, the grocer’s son, who loved the cool elegance of a gray suit and had Jimmy Stewart insist that Kim Novak wear one in Vertigo. In North by Northwest, Grant wears the suit for almost the entire movie—and not just the suit but the tightly knotted silver tie.

Grant is a man as deeply at home in his body, with his own sexuality, as Hitchcock was morbidly uncomfortable with his. The camera caresses Grant, whereas Saint, the film’s female love object, gets less attention from the cinematographer. It’s hardly an objectifying male gaze as scholar Laura Mulvey defines it. We mostly see Saint’s character, Eve Kendall, rustling around in various outfits, often in profile. It’s Grant’s character, the twice-divorced Roger O. Thornhill, whose reactions we track as he is propositioned in the dining car, as he expresses surprise and eventually surrenders. You could argue that the focus on Grant is Hitchcock’s gift to female viewers. “Stop,” sighs a female patient toward the end of the movie, when Grant suddenly climbs in through the window of her hospital room. A wee meta-joke about the movie’s audience and the objectification of its male star. But—why only female viewers?

We now know that many Hollywood heartthrobs were gay. Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift (another rock-hard name)—their sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood at a time when the Hays Code outlined the set of moral guidelines that film studios had to adhere to, when the censors wouldn’t even let a movie suggest unmarried heterosexual sex. Studios routinely arranged marriages as cover. Hitchcock the devoted gossipmonger would have been alert to the implications about his leading man, and enjoyed toying with them. Perhaps apocryphally, Hitchcock would instruct his actors to embrace both male and female identities to play their parts. In his book Hitchcock’s Bi-Textuality: Lacan, Feminisms, and Queer Theory, Robert Samuels argues that despite their cis-gen surface, “Hitchcock’s films are extremely heterogeneous and present multiple forms of sexual identification and desire.”

When Roger O. Thornhill shows Eve Kendall his matchbook, monogrammed with the initials “R.O.T.,” to jokingly suggest decay and degeneracy, he informs her that the “O” stands for nothing. A running gag from the Hitchcock who couldn’t resist an infantile reference to poop and holes (like the license plate on Marion Crane’s car in Psycho, ANL-709). “Roger” is also British slang for the male member, the name’s etymology meaning “famous with the spear.”

Am I overreading ? Perhaps. But after the disappointing reception of Vertigo, Hitchcock wanted to do something light and fun, and in fact, every name in North by Northwest allows for a winking mini-gag. Eve, for starters: the temptress who “lure[s] men to their doom on the 20th Century Limited.” The upper-crust Lester Townsend does live at town’s end, in an impressively guarded mansion (“Lester” meaning “Roman fort”). As for George Kaplan—the fictitious character dreamed up by U.S. intelligence for whom Roger is nevertheless mistaken—he is, if nothing else, Jewish. Except for the porters on the train and the receptionist in the United Nations, virtually everyone in the film is white, but many of the extras are clearly, and xenophobically, demarcated as Other. Take Emile Klinger, the officer at the Glen Cove police station. Even blotto drunk, Roger lingers on the name while making his one phone call to Mother: “No, I don’t believe it either.”

And there’s our British-y villain Phillip Vandamm, played by James Mason. If Grant is the white knight of cosmopolitanism, brave, confident, and resourceful—and, critics have suggested, Hitchcock’s idealized doppelgänger—then Mason is Hitchcock’s trimmer evil twin. Impeccably dressed, at a time when being dapper was enough to suggest sexual indeterminacy. Mason’s biographer, Sheridan Morley, asserted that the actor had “an effeminacy about him. … I uncovered no evidence that he was gay, but if you look at the way he plays certain roles, there is an extraordinary bisexuality. … What’s so interesting is that it’s a secret. He left you guessing.”

There’s always a danger in such assertions. I don’t know if I can embrace the contention from Theodore Price, in Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession with Jack the Ripper & the Superbitch Prostitute, that Thornhill’s position between Vandamm’s thugs in the back seat of a car, as he’s being kidnapped, is a coded message: “The ‘kidnapping’ of the hero by two sinister men … can be thought of as the answer to a gay masochist’s wildest prayer.” Still, some coding is patently clear.

The famous scene in which Thornhill flees the crop duster illustrates the problem “of remaining hidden in large, open spaces.” (Everett Collection)

Vandamm’s assistant Leonard is meant to be read as quite obviously gay. “His attitudes are unmistakably effeminate,” the script notes. Unlike Grant with his single suave suit, Leonard is a bit of a fop. “You know what I think?” Vandamm says, just after Leonard uses his “woman’s intuition” to expose that Eve is a spy. “I think you’re jealous.” But Vandamm says it without shock, or rancor, if with a hint of cool sarcasm: “I mean it, and I’m very touched. Very.” The movie treats Leonard to the horrible fate for moral turpitude that Rope led us to expect. And that almost serves to draw suspicion away from the ambiguous sexuality of other characters in the film—exactly the same distraction function played by George Kaplan, the invented government agent whose clothes are being shuffled in and out of hotel rooms: to deflect attention from Eve, the real government agent.

Vandamm’s British gravitas is slimy and fake; he is every bit as much a poseur as the nonexistent Mr. Kaplan. Empty suit is slang for a phony. The term was first used in 1950 to denote the rich but silly men who hung around Broadway stars, for excitement and prestige. In a film in which everything is not what it seems at first, Thornhill offers a metaphysical position: “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.”

Hitchcock is hardly unique in making the unveiling of a secret the motor of a suspense plot. But his MacGuffins often involve a strong visual analogue: the reveal of something surprising hidden in an inappropriate container. A false bookcase in Townsend’s library reveals bottles of liquor. The objet d’art sold at auction is hollowed out to disguise the spy ring’s microfilm. The containers are often vaguely or totally phallic: think of the uranium ore in the bottle, in the wine cellar in Notorious. This might indeed be overreach—but it might not. Why does Hitchcock feel the need to emphasize Thornhill’s foot scooching into his loafer as he dresses to escape the hospital room? The shoes that the Professor brings him fit just right, as opposed to the ludicrously miniature travel razor with which Thornhill tries to shave in the train station bathroom. Big face, small razor : so much of the movie cleverly plays with scale, and the problems of remaining hidden in large, open spaces. Small figures exposed on the sculpted cliff face of Mount Rushmore, or vulnerable targets on a flat, rural expanse. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops: Thornhill takes cover in a field of dense, tall cornstalks to escape being shot by the dive-bombing pilot.

In Hitchcock, sexuality, like espionage, must remain in the shadows, or buried. You could blame it all on the Hays Code, and Hitchcock certainly liked to do just that. Seen in this light, his endless quest to trick the censors is nothing more than a game of Whac-A-Mole or Where’s Waldo. In the dining-car seduction scene, Hitchcock changed Eve’s line “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach,” but he didn’t reshoot the line, so you know exactly what she’s really saying. The sex is right there. A taunt. But what if Hitchcock used the censors as cover, as U.S. intelligence officials use Mr. Kaplan—what if the censors were, essentially, his beards? Behind Hitchcock’s jocularity about matters sexual, there is also real shame, and deep ambivalence, forcing desire underground. “The moment I meet an attractive woman,” Roger tells Eve, “I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.”

The mordantly obese Hitchcock once “joked” that you could tell he had had sex at least once in his life because he had a daughter. He was obsessed with his leading ladies, though the odds of Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren wanting him were safely slim, which is part of the appeal of an ardent, unrequited love object. Saves you from the anxiety of the actual act, the threat of failure. You can, in essence, continue to hide, even as you ardently—in the case of Hedren, threateningly—pursue the ostensible object of your affection.

Generally, scholars classify the Hitchcock women along a whore-Madonna axis, with some angelic and pure (Fontaine in Suspicion, Bergman in Spellbound), but many veering decidedly toward the slutty side of the binary. This makes sense, especially since Freud believed that the whore-virgin complex was most prevalent in men with cold but overbearing mothers, and, except for Doris Day, cold but overbearing mothers are practically the only kinds of mothers in the Hitchcock oeuvre. But there’s a twist in Hitchcock’s portrayal of the loose woman: there is generally some psychic wound justifying her bad behavior. Her father is a convicted Nazi spy, or her mother was a hooker who supposedly killed a trick in her presence—or, in Eve Kendall’s case, she happened to meet Phillip Vandamm at a party and “saw only his charm” until she was approached by the U.S. government and asked to employ her wiles for the good of her country.

Women being forced to use their bodies for patriotic duty is a Hitchcock staple dating back to Notorious or even before, if you count the female spy who picks up our hero, and dies almost immediately, in The 39 Steps. (A real one-night stand.) Eve Kendall is twice-pimped: by the U.S. government, placing her in Vandamm’s arms, and then by Vandamm, putting her in Thornhill’s. Thornhill judges her harshly—“for using sex like some people use a fly swatter”—but once her marching orders are revealed, he forgives her, valiantly rescues her. Mata Hari-ing out of love of country is different from plain old prostitution or (worse? better?) promiscuity. The devil didn’t make them do it—the government did.

Eve Kendall confronts Phillip Vandamm and Roger Thornhill inside the Mount Rushmore visitors center café. (Everett Collection)

Eve complains that the men she meets don’t want to get married. The eternal conundrum is whether you can work up any sexual charge for a woman you see every day, with whom you discuss dinner menus, bills due, and childcare issues. A conundrum for men, anyhow—it is assumed that all women are seeking the security of marriage. In romantic comedies, a woman, too, can learn to surrender to a bit of excitement. Since It Happened One Night, practically every rom-com-slash-adventure shows the initially adversarial couple (the woman bitchy and demanding, the man immature and fun-loving) coming together over an unexpected journey where they demonstrate teamwork, trust. The adventure gets them hot, and they can return to the drudgery of daily life with a sense of renewed vigor and respect for each other. The 39 Steps, which came out one year after It Happened One Night, handcuffs the unlikely couple together for a similar road trip. In Pursuits of Happiness, philosopher Stanley Cavell places North by Northwest on the continuum of romantic comedies in which the duo learns to love by accepting each other’s flaws and imperfections.

Part of the appeal of a movie of this sort is its cheerful elimination of any moral ambiguity. As the Hays Code demands, the good guy triumphs, and the villain gets punished. Our sympathies, our affections, are clear-cut, at least as far as the romance goes. (About the tactics of the U.S. government, Hitchcock allows for a little more ambivalence. It is not very nice to use a woman as bait, then toss her overboard once you catch the fish.)

Unlike in Notorious, where Grant has to overcome his disgust at Bergman’s willingness to sleep with the enemy, in North by Northwest he’s fully in Saint’s corner as soon as he learns of her bravery. There’s little uneasiness about her being a fast girl, or a career girl—an “industrial designer,” no less. Of course, he still has to swoop in and save her life. Spy school for Hitchcock’s female agents doesn’t seem to come with any self-defense training. The poor woman has to climb Mount Rushmore in high heels, one of which breaks off. Forgive me for reading that image, like the headless wine bottle in Notorious, as more than vaguely sexual. She’s no virgin, but in this movie, the divorced man is fine with not being the one to deflower her.

“What happened to your first two marriages?” Eve asks while dangling from the top of Mount Rushmore, showing off her admirable ability to be cool under pressure. “My wives divorced me,” Roger says. “They said I led too dull a life.” So Roger Thornhill will head back to his job at the ad agency, and he will be faithful—he won’t, for instance, bonk his devoted secretary, or secretly hook up with some man—while Eve’s at home in an apron, bending pertly to put a roast in the oven? Well, we don’t have to worry about that. It is perfectly acceptable for such narratives to end on the wedding day.

But in North by Northwest, there is no wedding. We cut right from Roger’s hoisting Eve up from the edge of the cliff face to his hoisting her up for a much shorter climb, to the top bunk of their train cabin. He calls her Mrs. Thornhill, just so you can rest assured that the sex they’re about to have is legal. The speed of the jump cut is itself comical.

We end with one of Hitchcock’s personal favorite visual gags: a phallic train going into a tunnel. Get it? But the spirit is quite different from the usual ominous overtones of the director’s images of holes and burials—a scrap of paper being flushed down the toilet, or blood flowing down the shower drain, or a car sinking into the swamp with a hiccupping toiletlike gurgle, or flocks of birds pouring out of chimneys. Biographers have confirmed that the idea of the train entering the tunnel was Hitchcock’s, not screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s. The image feels not sly, not winking, but positively full-on gleeful. Yes, it says, we are not going to be allowed to watch, but people are definitely going to have sex! You know it, and I know it! Onward ho!

If in a James Bond movie the sex is throwaway, a titillating rest stop as the adventure progresses (usually right before the lady in question is bumped off in some ghastly fashion), here it is the very point of the adventure. The real climax. The movie Hitchcock claimed as his favorite ends with the promise of sex for fun, sex without guilt, sex without dire consequence—and that is, in the Hitchcock canon, a rare, rare thing, maybe even a singular thing.

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