Alfred Hitchcock is said to have formulated the principle of “fridge logic” when discussing Vertigo (1958). When asked about something in the movie that did not make sense, he referred to it as an “icebox” scene. The idea is that if there is an inconsistency or absurdity in a movie, but the viewer does not realize it until he gets home and starts pulling a piece of cold chicken out of the icebox for a snack, then the inconsistency or absurdity does not matter, because he has already enjoyed the movie. Although as a historical matter, it was the movie Vertigo that is associated with this principle, North by Northwest exemplifies it like no other movie he ever made.
The first time we watch this movie, we experience it from the point of view of a man that gets mistaken for a spy. Although there are a couple of scenes that we see where the protagonist is not present, giving us a little extra information, we are pretty much in the dark about things just as he is. But once you have seen the entire movie, it becomes possible to look at his situation objectively, or rather, from the point of view of the foreign spies. As a thought experiment, let us try to do just that.
The story really begins with Valerian (Adam Williams), the groundskeeper that works on the estate of Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat. Knowing that his boss will be staying in town while the General Assembly is in session, he calls Phillip Vandamm, the head of a spy ring to which Valerian belongs. The following conversation takes place:
Valerian: Townsend won’t be home for the rest of the week.
Vandamm: Great! Now we can party all the time, party all the time.
Valerian: I’ll call all of our spy friends.
Vandamm: But see if you can track down Kaplan this afternoon. If you’re successful, bring him with you when you come to the party.
Valerian: Wait a minute! Kaplan will know you’re not Townsend.
Vandamm: Yeah, but it will be fun watching him pretend that he thinks I’m Townsend. Then we’ll kill him.
Valerian and Licht (Robert Ellenstein) go looking for Kaplan:
Licht: Let’s go in this restaurant and page Kaplan.
Valerian: We’ve been to seventeen different restaurants paging Kaplan for the last two weeks. Don’t you have a better plan?
Licht: Yeah, but I’m hungry.
They page Kaplan, but by coincidence, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) signals the boy calling for Kaplan so he can send a telegram. As a result of this mistaken identity, he is brought to Townsend’s estate. Vandamm amuses himself with the man he believes is Kaplan for a while. Then, they get some whiskey out of a liquor cabinet and force him to drink. The idea is to put in a car, hoping he will have an accident and get killed.
Valerian: Why don’t we just shoot him, and dump the body in a ditch? That way we won’t be damaging Laura’s Mercedes.
Vandamm: Don’t worry. She has insurance.
But the plan doesn’t work, and Thornhill gets away.
Valerian: Oh, well. Now that Kaplan knows that we know what he looks like, he’ll report back to his superiors. It will be a desk job for him from now on. They’ll probably assign another agent to the case.
Vandamm: I don’t think so. I’ll bet he comes back with his lawyer and the police.
Valerian: What for? If the Feds were ready to arrest us, he’d be coming back with the FBI.
Vandamm: No, he’s going to keep putting on the phony act that he is really Roger Thornhill. So, we need to be ready for him to come back with the police and his lawyer.
Alfred Hitchcock directed North by Northwest, in which Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an everyman who gets mistaken for George Kaplan, an American spy, by a couple of foreign spies. They abduct him and bring him to the house of Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat. A man posing as Townsend, but who is really Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), the head of the spy ring, interrogates him and then tries to have him killed. He escapes from them, but in the process of trying to figure out what is going on, ends up being accused of murdering the real Townsend. Now the police are after him as well as the spies. Then we find out that there is no spy named Kaplan. He is the creation of an intelligence agency for the purpose of keeping the foreign spies from suspecting the real agent on the case. That agent proves to be Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), Vandamm’s mistress. She and Roger fall in love, but out of necessity she betrays him. When he finds out she is a good spy and is in danger, he rescues her.
First of all, there is no reason why Vandamm would pretend to be Townsend, the United Nations diplomat. After all, if Roger were a spy named Kaplan, he would know he was talking to Vandamm and not Townsend. So who is Vandamm trying to fool?
Second, when Roger escapes, he comes back the next day with the local police, and a woman pretending to be Mrs. Townsend is fully prepared for this, pretending that Roger just got a little intoxicated and is confused about what happened the night before. Now, if Roger were a real spy named Kaplan, he would not have come back with the local police. If he came back at all, it would be with the F.B.I., and they would not doubt his story. More likely, Kaplan would simply report back to his superiors that the spies knew who he was, had tried to kill him, and ask for directions on how to proceed. In all likelihood, his identity having been discovered, he would be reassigned.
Third, after leaving the train, where Roger and Eve have met and spent the night together, he asks her to call Kaplan for him (he thinks he knows the hotel where Kaplan would be staying). She goes to a phone booth and starts talking to someone. In another phone booth, we see Leonard (Martin Landau), one of the spies, whom she is apparently talking to. We do not hear what they are saying. When she comes out of the booth, she tells Roger where he can meet Kaplan.
Just prior to filming the phone booth scene, Hitchcock shut down the filming for three days. He said that he was bothered by the fact that Eve would not have known the phone number of the booth Leonard was in, but he decided to let it go. That was not the reason. The problem is that what takes place in the phone booths is an impossible conversation, but since no one else on the set seemed to have realized this, he figured he could get away with it. To see this, we have to keep in mind that Roger does not know Eve is a spy. Furthermore, he believes Kaplan exists and wants to talk to him. Leonard, on the other hand, thinks Roger is Kaplan. And Eve knows that there is no Kaplan. Let’s try a possible conversation:
Eve: He says he wants me to call Kaplan and arrange a meeting.
Leonard: What are you talking about? He is Kaplan.
Eve: But that’s what he says.
Leonard: I guess he is on to you. After all, a spy like Kaplan, who has been following Vandamm for months, would know that you are Vandamm’s mistress.
Eve: So, what shall I do?
Leonard: Tell Kaplan you talked to Kaplan, and that Kaplan wants to meet him to meet him in the middle of an open prairie. I know that doesn’t make sense, but do it anyway.
It has been said that there are easier ways to kill someone than getting him out into the middle of an open prairie so that he can be shot with a sub-machine gun from a crop-dusting plane flying overhead. But what really does not make is the idea that that a spy like Kaplan would want to meet anyone. And if he did want to meet someone, he would not agree to meet him alone and in the middle of nowhere. Only if Roger is who he says he is would he believe that Eve talked to Kaplan and that Kaplan wants to meet him. In other words, when Roger gets off the bus at Prairie Stop, the spies should realize at that point that he really is Roger Thornhill, because the real Kaplan would not have done that.
And thus we have the greatest example of fridge logic ever. The first time you see the movie, you likely will think it is one of the finest that Hitchcock ever produced. But with each subsequent viewing, the illogical behavior of the spies becomes increasingly evident, until it becomes almost unwatchable.