North by Northwest (1959): Themes, Motifs,

Themes and Motifs

Sign Near Mt. Rushmore

Hitchcock planned the film as change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier.

In his book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967) Hitchcock said he wanted to do “something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies.”

Writer Ernest Lehman has also mocked those who look for symbolism. Despite its popular appeal, the film is considered to be a masterpiece for its themes of deception, mistaken identity, and moral relativism in the Cold War era.

Film’s Title

The title North by Northwest is subject of debate.

Many have seen it as having been taken from a line (“I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw”) in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the shifty nature of reality.

Hitchcock noted in interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, “It’s a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title — there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass.”(“Northwest by north,” however, is one of 32 points of the compass.) Lehman states that he used a working title for the film of “In Northwesterly Direction,” because the film’s action was to begin in New York and climax in Alaska.

Then the head of the story department at MGM suggested “North by Northwest,” but this was still to be a working title.

Other titles were considered: “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose”, but “North by Northwest” was kept because, according to Lehman, “We never did find a better title.”

The Northwest Airlines reference in the film plays on the title.


The film’s plot involves a “MacGuffin,” a term popularized by Hitchcock — a physical object that everyone is chasing, but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country.

They have been trying to kill Thornhill, whom they believe to be the agent on their trail, “George Kaplan.”

James Bond-like Movie

North by Northwest has been referred to as “the first James Bond film,” due to its similarities with splashily colorful settings, secret agents, and elegant, daring, wisecracking leading man opposite sinister yet strangely charming villain.


The crop-duster scene inspired the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love.

Phallic Symbol: Train Speeding into Tunnel

The film’s final shot — that of the train speeding into a tunnel during a romantic embrace onboard — is famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock’s mischievous sense of humor. Hitchcock called it a “phallic symbol … probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”


The film’s title influenced the name of the annual music and festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, which began in 1987.

The name idea coming from Louis Black, editor and co-founder of the “Austin Chronicle.”

The third episode of Doctor Who serial “The Deadly Assassin” includes an homage to North by Northwest, when the Doctor, who like Hitchcock’s hero is falsely accused of politically motivated murder, is attacked by gunfire from a biplane piloted by one of his enemy’s henchmen.