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Sexuality In North By Northwest

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5448 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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While the Cold War conjured diverse anxieties, I will center my presentation on the idea of “Domestic Containment,” specifically the containment of homosexuality in America (Cohan). I came across this concept in Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound. It deals with the political and ideological reasons 1950s America insisted on promoting rigid heterosexuality and capitalist drives, ridding itself of “backward” men and Communist traitors, something completely in line with Hitchcock’s mission in the film

Moreover, by invoking the homophobic categories of Cold War political discourse, in particular the construction of “the homosexual” as a national security risk, N by NW virtually guaranteed that gender and nationality functioned as mutually reinforcing categories of identity.

In this presentation, I will discuss sexuality as related to ideas of nation-hood and argue that there is a “mini cold war” being waged in North by Northwest, one that deals specifically with advancing the American heterosexual couple over the Soviet homosexual one coded throughout the film. With the American, heterosexual couple’s triumph on screen comes an ideological victory for America in 1959.


Before I analyze clips and stills from North By Northwest that deal with currents of sexuality and nationality, I wanted to show this clip from the latter half of the film to show that Hitchcock makes it abundantly clear that we are supposed to read North by Northwest as a Cold War film concerned with sexuality. CLICK!!!

I want you to take away from this clip the obvious language of the cold war as well as how sexuality or “bedding down” is wrapped up in this international struggle.

In this way, North by Northwest presents in biting form America immersed in Cold War ambiguity in which people on both sides were served up as sacrificial lambs.

N by NW was made and released during the latter phase of the second term of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a time when the Cold War was in full force, with the US and rival Soviet Union utilizing the most sophisticated spy techniques.

This new kind of war required constant vigilance and readiness to fight on a moment’s notice. The Cold War lasted longer than any other war in our country’s history, starting when the United States introduced nuclear terror to the world by dropping its first atomic bomb on Japan on August 6, 1945, and lasting into our lifetime with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although the Cold War shaped and distorted virtually every aspect of American life, perhaps more than anything else, nuclear weapons changed the world. With them, an element of vulnerability existed unlike anything in history.

Nuclear threat escalated during the 1950s, the decade we’re concerned with today. In August 1949 the Soviets had their first successful nuclear bomb test. Both the US and the Soviet Union held hydrogen bomb tests in 1952 and 53 and in October 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik.

America’s nuclear buildup, global mobilization, and interventionism during the Cold War were justified in the name of stopping Soviet communism, a foe policymakers deemed so diabolical that its defeat warranted the risk of destroying civilization itself.

The fact that the Soviet Union was not just a military, economic, and geopolitical but an ideological foe, posed a unique kind of challenge to a resolutely capitalistic nation.

This ideological antagonism between socialism and capitalism polarized the world along new lines.

And it is against this backdrop that Hitchcock gave birth to his suspense thriller North by Northwest.


Certain historical trends and demographics are crucial to understand before analyzing the film’s comments on sexuality.

During the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, an amazing rise in the birth rate, a declining age of marriage, a growth in the marriage rate, and low divorce rate all converged in the midst of the most intense years of nuclear fear and ideological and surrogate warfare.

Since family formation and fertility respond to both positive and negative economic and cultural stimuli, it is not surprising that this era of comparatively good times brought increased marriage and fertility.

At the same time, however, increased sexual activity at younger and younger ages, especially for women in the late 1950s and beyond, problematically, included increasing instances of pre-marital sex

Thus the history of sexuality in postwar America is the story of increasing liberalization

Men, too, participated. The rebellion of men against marriage and the increasingly permissive fantasy life associated with the “playboy” lifestyle of the late 1950s, appears to be the kind of life our protagonist and hero, Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill, ascribes to.

And, in terms of female rebellion, perhaps even more dismantling is the sexual promiscuity of Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.

Thornhill is typed as a womanizer, with two failed marriages to boast of, and Eve, as if completely aware of the expectations of her 1950s culture, introduces herself to Thornhill curtly stating that she’s 26 and unmarried, and that’s all he needs to know.


Examining domestic containment in relation to national identity has multiple advantages.

It allows us to see that what we have heretofore regarded as a unique Cold War phenomenon was in fact part of the larger, ongoing process of defining America.

The very meaning of America had become greatly problematized in the 1950s.

Perhaps this instability of American identity is why Hitchcock constantly reasserted distinctly American values and American locations throughout North by Northwest, on screen are just a few of the most memorable sites Hitchcock takes us. AD-LIB

I will present many facets of North by Northwest that deal specifically with America and American life in order to further ground the containment of homosexuality as a Cold War strategy in the film.

I first want to discuss the opening credits of the film. Understanding Hitchcock’s brilliant beginning gives us-the viewers and our class today-a lens through which to understand Hitchcock’s understanding of Cold War America, homophobia, heterosexuality and communism.


Designed by American graphic designer and Academy award winning filmmaker Saul Bass, the credits provide a kind of map meant to locate or orient the spectator. A series of intersecting lines, clearly intended to invoke a map or graph, traverse a blank screen placed at an angle to the camera. They eventually dissolve into a shot of an office building whose glass and steel façade reflects the moving traffic on the busy street below.

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The mirror like surface of the façade that emerges from the intersecting lines functions as a screen on which the images of the busy street below are not so much reflected as projected. Consequently, according to Robert Corber in his book “In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender” the opening titles seem to suggest that, as a semiotic practice, the film has the ability to organize and define reality, to construct a map of it that fixes its meaning for the spectator.

In this way, they call attention to the artificiality or constructed-ness of the film’s representation of reality. It provides the spectator with coordinates that enable him/her to locate and define his/her position in the world and thereby make sense of it-a concept integral to audience reception that we have discussed at length this semester, and that I will touch on in greater depth shortly.

By beginning in this way, according to Corber, the film demonstrates its ability to conjure reality, to construct a representation of the world that the spectator does not question but assumes accurately reflects contemporary society b/c of its perceptual intensity or so-called impression of reality à thus, from the beginning, we are meant to assume that Hitchcock s representation of America in 1959 is how it really was.

Another important element of the film’s beginning is that our protagonist Roger Thornhill appears as if plucked from the crowd at random, as he is initially shown emerging from an elevator jammed with office workers. He is completely typical of New York’s crowded people, lacking direction. Indeed, purely by accident, he is kidnapped shortly after he arrives at the hotel by two of Vandamm’s men, who mistake him for the fictitious American agent George Kaplan. Thus, Hitchcock makes us think that anyone of us, too, could have been sucked into this crazy plot.

One other interesting thing to glean from the title sequence is that it alludes to the traps in which the protagonists find themselves throughout the film as well as frames the film’s trajectory

This grid recurs throughout the film, in railway cars, deserted prairie crossroads, and national monuments.

From the very beginning, moreover, I want you to note that the film is an exploration of Cold War AMERICA, as seen in the vertical top shots of the Madison Avenue skyscraper, UN headquarters and Mount Rushmore and the horizontal shots of the railway car and of the empty Midwestern plane

I will now show a hilarious trailer for North by Northwest from 1959, which gives a brief but comprehensive geographical tour of Hitchcock’s locations, which I won’t have time to flesh out on my own in this presentation, but are extremely important.



Having recently discussed how the opening credits situate and control the spectator’s view of the film, and, by extension, portray the Cold War climate according to Hitchcock’s construction, I want to specifically link this form of control with the viewer’s sexual identification.

Hitchcock’s films contributed indirectly to the pathologizing of same-sex eroticism by suggesting that in order for the individual to achieve a relatively stable heterosexual identity she/he had to successfully negotiate the Oedipus complex

Because Hitchcock’s films occupied the subject position, the spectator became complicit with her/his own Oedipalization, which, in the 1950s, was tantamount to accepting the terms of the postwar settlement.

By examining N by NW in the context of the postwar settlement, I want show to that Hitchcock’s films participated in a regime of pleasure that helped to consolidate the emergence of the national security state.

His representational practices were complicit with the dominant construction of social reality during the Cold War era. Hitchcock’s tendency to subjectivize the individual spectator’s experience constitutes one of the principal links b/w his films and the anti-Stalinist project of American Cold War officials.

Thus, in N by NW, Hitchcock demonstrated how the discourses of national security produced fantasies that brought the individual spectator’s desire into alignment with the nation’s security interests.


Now I will move into the meat of my presentation: the politicization of sexuality.

The Cold War persuaded millions of Americans to interpret their world in terms of insidious enemies who threatened them with nuclear and other forms of annihilation.

McCarthyism contributed heavily to viewing the world through this dark, distorting lens and setting global and domestic policies to counter these threats.

According to the Federal Government, if homosexuals felt alienated from mainstream American society, that was b/c they were maladjusted, their problems were not political but personal and were best remedied in a doctor’s office.

On the other hand, however, the dominant discourse of same sex eroticism tried to show that homosexuality promoted communism and therefore politicized gay identities.

The gay community, which had emerged with new cohesion and visibility in the wake of World War II, found itself a prime target for anticommunist crusaders.

It was believed that they were especially vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents eager to recruit intelligence sources

As a result, the early 1950s witnessed widespread purging of homosexuals from the State Department, the military, and other federal agencies.

However, more than just a greater risk of blackmail was involved. Homosexuals were seen as deficient in character, moral integrity, and real masculinity. Unfit as Cold Warriors, they were thus undesirable citizens.

This stigmatization, as historian John D’Emilio points out in his study of Cold War sexual politics, was carried still further by conservative politicians who linked homosexuality directly to communism, re-conceptualizing homosexuality as a contagious disease spread by communists to weaken the nation from within.

A single homosexual, officials maintained, could easily contaminate an entire government office. The oppression of homosexuals at all levels became yet another act of containment in the fight against communism.

Homosexuals, further, were seen as especially dangerous to the extent that a gay male character was virtually indistinguishable from straight male ones, thereby demonstrating that homosexuals, like communists, could dangerously escape detection.

During its highly publicized hearings in the 1940s and early 1950s, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee did not limit its investigation to the Communists who had supposedly infiltrated the federal Government, but extended it to include homosexuals who “passed” as heterosexual. On the basis of testimony from psychiatrists and other medical “experts” who testified that they were susceptible to blackmail by Soviet agents b/c they were emotionally unstable, thus officially pinning homosexuals as national-security risks.

The publication of the Kinsey reports on male and female sexual behavior, in 1948 and 53 respectively, only reinforced the politicization of homosexuality. The reports provided scientific evidence suggesting that sexual identities were fluid and unstable rather than exclusively and permanently heterosexual or homosexual. In recognizing the fluidity of sexuality, hindering the attempts of gays to define themselves as members of an oppressed minority

The pervasive allusions to homosexuality in North by Northwest enables me to stress the centrality of the politicization of same-sex eroticism to post-war American culture and to show that containment of homosexuality was necessary to conditions of the Cold War.

Thus, North by Northwest epitomizes this tight bond between sexuality and national security in the Cold War era.


Now I will begin my analysis of sexuality in the film with what I call a “montage” of references to homosexuality.

When looking at these stills from the movie, keep in mind how Cary Grant, our dashing American protagonist, too, can be wrapped up with homosexuality, speaking to the pervasiveness and dangers of homosexuality infiltrating American lives.


The film’s drama basically begins with Roger Thornhill going to an all-men’s bar in the Plaza Hotel. Although he has a date for that evening, it is with his mother no less, a problem I will discuss shortly!


The theme of the kidnapping of the hero, Thornhill, by two sinister men, with the hero often seated in a car, tightly between them, recurs throughout the film in myriad forms. Pictured above are just a few examples that represent this theme of Thornhill’s encounters with homosexuality. CLICK FOUR TIMES.


Now we arrive at the Villain Phillip Vandamm’s “home” who is played by George Mason.

I want you to keep this seemingly benign image on screen in mind throughout the remainder of my presentation.

While no scholar has mentioned the significance of the car’s pulling into Vandamm’s gate, I think this action is importantly mirrored in the iconic ending of the film that I will show later.

For now, however, just keep in mind that a car driven by a man and with our protagonist squished tightly b/w two other men in the backseat, penetrates the gate to a Soviet home.


Vandamm, the lead villain, unsurprisingly is connected with homosexuality. His masculinity should be suspect because of his relationship with his sadistic, overtly homosexual associate, Leonard, played by Martin Landau, who Hitchcock notes in the screenplay should be read as gay.

The slide above features Leonard, with the help of two male henchmen, forcing the neck of a liquor bottle between Thornhill’s lips, making him drink its full contents-an obviously phallic reference of homosexual rape


As I noted a few minutes ago, a central facet of the politicization of sexuality in the 1950s, came with associating homosexuality with communism.

While Hitchcock doesn’t specifically mention the country of origin of the foreigners in the film, he locates Vandamm’s home importantly in Glen Cove, New York.

This location directly implies that Vandamm and his associates are from the Soviet Union, who at the time had a mission in that town on northern Long Island. This fact sheds particular light on the stills of homosexuality I am showing, as they are directly linked with communism.

Further, later in the film, the Professor describes Vandamm as an “importer exporter of government secrets,” thereby coding him as a Soviet agent involved in the Cold War.


Before I move on to show and discuss the famous crop-dusting scene-the scene I regard as the most compelling, and famous, visual representation of the threat of homosexuality to our protagonist-I must first discuss another aspect of Thornhill’s unsuitable sexuality: his unhealthy relationship with his mother.

In order to “Contain” Thornhill and set him on the proper sexual path, his relationship with his mother needs to severely change.

The basic mother-son story line goes as follows: the film opens with an ageless male, Thornhill, identifying himself first of all as a son.

He speaks of his efforts to keep the smell of liquor on his breath from the watchful nose of his mother, and he comes to the attention of his enemies because of an unresolved anxiety about getting a message to his mother, whereupon he is taken captive. (Cavell)

Hitchcock suggests that Thornhill’s involvement in the Communist underworld, an underworld marked by sexual as well as political deviance, is not purely coincidental but is indirectly related to his devotion to his mother. The film tries to show that b/c he has failed to internalize the Law of the Father and remains emotionally dependent on his mother, there is a sense in which his irresponsible behavior is complicit with the Communist infiltration of the American government.

The discourses that linked communism and homosexuality actually warned against the potentially pernicious effects of motherhood specifically and point to a reaction against the emergence of the feminine mystique of the 1950s.

On the one hand, as we have seen throughout seminar, post-war American culture experienced a proliferation of glorified representations of motherhood designed to lure women back into the home following the war. On the other hand, many Americans resented the glorification of motherhood b/c it gave women supposedly too much power in the domestic sphere.

With the outbreak of the Cold War, “Mom-ism” too became linked to the spread of communism and led to the creation of a demonology of motherhood. Suddenly, mothers risked making their sons susceptible to Communist propaganda.

The discourses of mom-ism limited women’s empowerment in the domestic sphere and ensured that their child-rearing practices conformed to the nation’s security interests. For, if women disregarded the expert advice of psychiatrists and other trained professionals, they risked producing children who were Communists as well as homosexuals.

In N by NW this aspect of the demonization of motherhood is obvious in Thornhill’s relationship with his mother.

Thornhill’s sexual immaturity thus is incompatible with the nation’s security interest. In the postwar period, the nation’s political stability and economic prosperity were thought to depend upon the production of subjects who had internalized the rules and regulations governing Oedipal desire. Thus Thornhill was not so different from the film’s Communists and homosexuals.

ADLIB-mom younger than Grant, problematic.


To close this section on homosexuality, I want to look at the famous scene where Thornhill is attacked by a crop-dusting plane. This iconic sequence of events is both the central image of Thornhill’s victimization and surprisingly, or unsurprisingly as my presentation is attempting to prove, a powerful instance of homosexual attack.

The night before this scene takes place Thornhill and Eve violate a taboo. We know that Thornhill spent the night with Eve, boldly and obviously suggesting pre-marital intercourse.

I understand the attack I’m about to show, which once again occurs the very next day, to be a powerful visualization of punishment for intercourse



The linkage of this scene with sexuality is evident in Hitchcock’s filming. The association of the prairie with the sexual landscape of the train compartment where Thornhill and Eve had sex the night before is signaled by his camera shots.

Right before the clip I just showed, a close-up of Eve’s face at the train station dissolved into an aerial shot of the road and fields of the plane attack, explicitly linking these scenes.

This shot transition begs for an allegorical identification of the woman and this stretch of land, the very land where Thornhill undergoes his attack.

To discuss this scene I will rely on the analysis of Theodore Price from his book “Hitchcock and Homosexuality.” He notes that firstly, we must note the phallic symbolism associated with birds and of “flying objects” in general.

According to Price, aside from the bird’s shape, and its darting, pecking beak, a bird is, to everyone’s unconscious, a phallic symbol because it flies. Flying also is a symbol for getting an erection, for potency, and for sexual intercourse in general according to Ernest Jones.

Thus, in a way, the crop-dusting plane scene can conjure undertones of homosexual rape from above. There are several meanings that arise when looking at this scene from this angle.

1) This scene could represent a fear on the part of Thornhill of homosexual rape-and/or fear in his strange attraction to homosexual rape. This connection is clear especially when considering the “homosexual rape” still I showed earlier of Leonard forcing liquor down Thornhill’s mouth. The phallic bird-plane then may be interpreted as Grant’s fear of his former attraction to homosexuality as he starts out on still another new love affair with a woman.

2) The plane could also stand for the avenging phallus of the father figure in the film, here Vandamm, who is understandably angry at the son figure, Thornhill, for making time with the mother figure, Eve.

3) Additionally, the sequence could mean that the plane represents the “Castrator”, Eve, who set him up in the cornfield to begin with. For, from the psychoanalytic view, birds can be woman or vagina symbols too.


Regardless of which way we read this scene, a powerful avenging phallus, sent by Communists, launches its bullets-take this fact as an allusion to ejaculation-at our male hero. Luckily for Thornhill, he finds safety in the cornfields of America-which, in my opinion, represents finding protection from this Communist phallus in the heartland of America.


Having catalogued countless instances of the presence and associated dangers of homosexuality in the film, I now need to show how these dangers were contained by the insistence on heterosexual couple.

To do so, I will use May’s analysis of 1950s Domesticity in Homeward bound.

In this work, May linked the exaggerated domesticity that characterized the “long fifties”-from 1945-1965-that we’ve discussed at length in seminar to homosexuality and anticommunist imperatives.

May readily acknowledged the extraordinary stresses placed upon the American family by the Great Depression and World War II.

Postwar Americans, finding additional threats to traditional family life in rising rates of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexual promiscuity, as I discussed before, juvenile delinquency, as Willi discussed two weeks ago, and the ultimate threat of nuclear war, Americans understandably sought “normalcy” in marital sex, pro-natalism, and suburban domesticity during this time.

Further, just as anticommunism required the containment of Sino-Soviet expansion abroad, so, too, May argued, gender revolution and deviant expression of sexual desire had to be effectively contained at home, hence “domestic containment.”

Promotion of family values, policymakers believed, would ensure not only a place for men to return to the workforce, but also the stable family life necessary for personal and national security, a kind of Cold War victory on the domestic front.

Hitchcock too received the memo, as he promoted the heterosexual couple throughout the film.

Hitchcock, by associating homosexuality with the soviets coded as communists, both comments on its pervasiveness of both groups in America at that time and establishes it as the inferior sexual bond that must be checked and contained by the heterosexual couple.

Thus, no mere exercise in nostalgia, domestic containment was part of a new Cold War consensus about the meaning of America and deeply embedded in the plot of North by Northwest.

Now I’m going to show you a series of slides that blatantly show the heterosexual couple of Thornhill and Eve. CLICK AND ADLIB


When contextualized within the domestic politics of marriage during the cold war, heterosexuality and Re-Marriage take on great importance.

We come to see that Thornhill and Eve’s adventures throughout the film serve as trials for their suitability to get married.

Eve is sexually immature before she becomes an agent for the American government, according to the terms of the postwar settlement. Although she is partially redeemed by acting as an American agent-showing her willingness to perform her patriotic duty-she nevertheless continues to occupy a position outside the law.

This is so because to perform her patriotic duty she must violate the rules that govern female sexuality in the 1950s, making her only partly rehabilitated.

She is a “treacherous little tramp” and uses sex “like a fly swatter” according to the movie – so she remains a marked woman throughout.

However, when Thornhill rescues her from Vandamm, he enables her to do something genuinely worthwhile for the nation: become a proper wife and mother

The relationship b/w gender and nationality suggests that Thornhill’s activities as an American agent also need to be reconstructed according to the post-war settlement.

His activities as an American agent create a scenario that puts an end to his womanizing.

Thornhill’s mix-up within the CIA’s efforts to combat communism actually increases his desire for marriage and domesticity. To Thornhill, the domestic sphere not only provides a refuge from the government which has recklessly endangered his and eve’s lives, but also constantly restages his pre-Oedipal attachment to his mother.

In this way, his espionage activities ensure that the organization of sexuality and his identity as a citizen are mutually reinforcing.

Thus, Hitchcock stresses the ability of the American government to regulate and control the construction of the individual’s subjectivity-as it is only once he is involved in its activities that he is redeemed. According to the discourses of national security then, Thornhill’s resistance to his role as a husband is un-American, and his activities as an American reorganize him as a proper citizen.

This scene shows how the series of events that have unfolded have transformed both protagonists’ views of marriage, and suggest that re-marriage in the name of national security is on the horizon. CLICK SHOW CLIP

As you just saw Thornhill uses the loaded word “proposal” that explicitly suggests marriage. Also, they discuss his former failed marriages, alerting the viewer that we are dealing with “re-marriage” here. Also, Cary Grant’s sly wit about “leading too dull a life” suggests that as a result of his involvement in matters of state, he has achieved a level of excitement suitable for marriage and can now enter into a proper relationship.


I want to show you a series of images and a clip from the end of the film that pit homosexuality explicitly against heterosexuality. With their placement at the end of the film they attain great significance, suggesting that the winner of this sexual battle is the victor in a mini cold war.

In addition, I show images with men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals, in these clips, to show both strains of sexuality at odds within a single frame.


Before I show these stills and clips, I need to discuss the importance of the Vandamm house itself, where the majority of these clips take place.

Situated in a fictitious forested plateau atop the Mount Rushmore, Vandamm’s house dominates a devotional shrine of American democracy-its positioning alone reveals how even America’s most iconic monuments are endangered by Soviet penetration.

Further, the house’s Midwestern location-in the Black Hills region, near Keystone, South Dakota, is also important. The move toward the west, evoked by the film’s title, brings the protagonists to the American heartland, the spine of the continent.

Additionally, the house’s placement atop a mountain has wider implications. It expresses visual domination and panoptic control. The fact that blatant homosexuality pervades a site that serves simultaneously as a great threat to an iconic American monument and exerts intense control, suggests how dangerous the threats of homosexuality and communism have at once become at the end of the film.



In this clip, we see Leonard using phrases like his “woman’s intuition” aligning himself with homosexuality, or femininity at the least and Vandamm noting that he’s “touched” by jealousy.


Now I would like to move into the final phase of my discussion: a comprehensive discussion of Mount Rushmore, and the battle between the US and Soviet Union that occurs atop its democratic faces.

First and foremost, we must understand Mount Rushmore to be a place so definitely and undeniably American.

Using a carved rock containing the gigantic granite portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as a backdrop, Hitchcock suggests that what happens there is of NATIONAL IMPORTANCE.

After a few savvy moves, Thornhill and Eve leave Vandamm’s house and find themselves atop monument being chased by Vandamm, Leonard and their henchmen.


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