A star struggles to keep his suit on

North by Northwest
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ernest Lehmann
Rated PG, 136 minutes
4.5 stars

The point of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is ostensibly to get Cary Grant out of his complacency, as a New York advertising man. He is kidnapped, branded a murderer, turned into a fugitive – all because he is mistaken for a man called George Kaplan – but really, it’s because of hubris.

He thinks he is what we would now call a Master of the Universe, a man about town whose first reaction on meeting his abductor (James Mason), is to exclaim: ‘But I have theatre tickets for this evening’. Watching the film again, though, in a rarely seen but handsome print about to be revived at the Chauvel (this was written about 2001, I think), I was struck by another possibility: the point of the film is to get Cary Grant out of his suit.

Grant, as Roger Thornhill, goes through most of the film in the same suit, most of it with one button done up. It’s a beautiful suit, to be sure, an easy-fitting blue grey number that makes him look like several million dollars, but it’s also the mark of his pride: it maketh the man, which is why Hitchcock and his writer, Ernest Lehmann, keep devising scenes to unmake both suit and man.

Their first stategy is sex. Fleeing New York after he is framed, Thornhill boards the famous 20th Century Ltd train, believing he will find the elusive George Kaplan in Chicago. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who takes him into her cabin, protects him from the police (by hiding him in the upper bunk, like a sardine), and seduces him over the ‘Brook Trout’ in the dining car. She’s the first one to make inroads on the man and the suit. We see her peel off his coat as they’re kissing in her cabin – but no more. Next morning, they disembark with him dressed as a Red-cap porter, the first time he’s not suited up.  To escape, he has had to lose the suit, but Hitch and Lehmann throw us a joke here about his insecurity, his ‘nakedness’, when Thornhill asks Kendall which of her suitcases contains his suit. As soon as he possibly can, he gets it back on.

The other script strategy to get him out of the suit is death – his own. The suit’s biggest going-over occurs in the film’s most famous scene, when the killer crop-duster plane swoops on him at Prairie Stop. He has to hit the dirt and when he stands up, his suit is filthy. I think this is also the first time we’re aware that he has undone the coat button, because Hitchcock deliberately shows him doing it. The dirt allows Eve to get him unsuited a second time when he gets back to her hotel room in Chicago. She insists on having the suit cleaned by the valet before they go out to dine. He hands it to her from the bathroom – which we know leaves him vulnerable. She slips out and he’s stuck in a woman’s room with no clothes. In a sense she’s taken his manhood with the suit.

In Vertigo, the masterpiece he made in 1958, just before this film, clothing – or ‘the look’ – is also the point. Jimmy Stewart spends the second half of Vertigo trying to reclothe Kim Novak, to make her look more like the dead woman he’s obsessed with. Hitch told Francois Truffaut that, cinematically, all of his efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown ‘in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way round’. The film’s sexual climax, so to speak, comes when Novak finally puts her hair up in a bun as he wants her to – Hitchcock called it the equivalent of taking her knickers off.

In North by Northwest, the undressing is all focussed on Cary Grant, not Eva Marie Saint. He’s the sex object. She may resemble Kim Novak’s blonde ice maiden, but her carnality is comedic. Seducing him, she’s even faster than the speeding train. I suspect that Hitchcock thought it would be great fun to take the world’s most urbane leading man, the most beautiful suit-wearer the screen had ever offered, and construct a plot which is a metaphorical striptease. And to do it without the character’s knowledge.

Thornhill goes through the movie not realising much of what’s going on, and it’s possible Cary Grant didn’t know either. He complained to Hitch that he couldn’t understand the script. What Hitchcock does visually in North by Northwest is really a kind of playful emasculation of one of the most desired men on the planet at that time. Perhaps, it’s the revenge of a short, fat and fairly ugly man, who was also a genius.