North by Northwest (1959)

Icebox Scenes in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have formulated the principle of “fridge logic” when discussing the movie Vertigo (1958).  When asked about something in the movie that did not make sense, when Madeleine (Kim Novak) disappears from a hotel, 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 is 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 government agent.  Although there are a few 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 as he is. But once we have seen the entire movie, it becomes possible to look at his situation objectively, or rather, from the point of view of the spies and the actual government agents.  It is then that we notice things that seem inexplicable.

When Hitchcock made that remark about fridge logic, people mostly watched a movie once and that was it. There was no cable television, no video cassettes, no DVDs, and no streaming.  An old movie might show up on television, on the Late Show, and a really good movie might be brought back to the theaters after several years, but that was something of an exception.  Today, it is not at all uncommon for people to watch movies several times, and this makes icebox scenes more problematic than previously. I have a friend who says he just can’t watch North by Northwest anymore because of all the stuff that doesn’t make any sense, and I confess that I have felt the same way at times.  And that’s a shame, for in other respects, this is one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.

As a result, I set about the task of trying to rationalize the icebox scenes in this movie, and while I cannot say that I have been completely successful, I did manage to make it possible for me to watch the movie again and thoroughly enjoy it one more time.  The results of my efforts are presented here.  That being my purpose, I have decided that rather than start when the protagonist is introduced to us at the beginning of the movie, we should consider the relevant events in the order in which they occurred.

In addition to what is explicitly shown to us, it will be necessary during this analysis to provide information not depicted in the movie, but clearly implied by it, if we are to assume that there are rational explanations for any apprehensions we might have had while reaching for that piece of cold chicken.  This additional information will be contained in footnotes interpolated in the main text.

The Movie Rationalized

Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) is the head of a spy organization that smuggles government secrets out of the United States and delivers them to a foreign government overseas, presumably the Soviet Union.

Footnote 1:  The operation begins with an American traitor, who has access to classified information.  He photographs top-secret documents and puts them on microfilm. This traitor then turns these rolls of microfilm over a sculptor, who conceals them in small sculptures he has designed for just that purpose.  They are counterfeit items, the latest being made to look like a Tarascan Warrior.  The sculptor then passes these fake pieces of Pre-Columbian art on to an art dealer, who puts them up for auction. Posing as an art collector, Vandamm buys the sculptures at these auctions, which take place in various parts of the Northeast and the Midwest:  Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Then Vandamm takes the sculptures with him on flights to Europe from his private airport in South Dakota.

Footnote 2:  Vandamm’s personal secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau), thinks that all this business about buying counterfeit sculptures at art auctions is unnecessarily elaborate.  He says that the rolls of microfilm should be deposited in a drop, where he can then pick them up.  That way it can all be done in just one city, and fewer people will be involved. Vandamm says that’s just what the government agents would expect them to do.  So, while the government agents are busy trying to figure out where the drop is, Vandamm is free to buy the sculptures at auctions without arousing suspicion.

“The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) works for the United States Intelligence Agency.  He is in charge of finding out how Vandamm obtains the secrets he is smuggling out of the country.  He has several subordinates working for him, including Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who is an undercover agent, working as Vandamm’s mistress.

Footnote 3:  It has never occurred to Eve or to the Professor that the secrets are on microfilm planted inside the sculptures that Vandamm routinely bids for at auctions.  They figure the microfilm is just left at a drop somewhere.

The Professor is worried that Vandamm may suspect Eve of being a government agent, so to mislead him on this matter, he decides to create a nonexistent decoy named George Kaplan.  He will be registered at various hotel rooms wherever Vandamm travels in order to participate in one of those auctions.  Clothes and sundries will be moved from hotel to hotel so that it will appear that there really is such an agent.

Footnote 4:  At the meeting when the Professor announces his scheme involving a nonexistent George Kaplan, one of his subordinates, a Miss Gleason, asks who will be responsible for registering in hotels and moving stuff from room to room.

“I thought I’d let that new guy, Clarence, take care of all that,” the Professor answers.

“In that case,” Miss Gleason asks, “why not just let Clarence pretend to be Kaplan?  That would certainly be simpler.  As long as he is going to have to register at the hotels, see to it that clothes and sundries are moved from one room to another, and book flights on trains and planes whenever Vandamm goes from one auction to another, we might just as well have Clarence stay in those hotel rooms as Kaplan. Furthermore,” Miss Gleason continues, “the whole point of this business of creating a fake agent named George Kaplan will be lost if the spies don’t know he supposedly exists. What better way to make sure the spies believe there is such an agent than to have Clarence be seen at those hotels, traveling on those trains and planes, and attending the various auctions that Vandamm goes to?”

The Professor points out that Clarence would then be entitled to some overtime pay if he did all that, and there just aren’t the funds available for that in this year’s budget.

Footnote 5:  Vandamm worries that he is suspected of being a spy.  He tells Leonard to find out if they are being followed around.  “Whenever we arrive in a city,” Vandamm tells Leonard, “check all the hotels in that city and see who registers in them around the same time. Then, when we travel to a new city, check all the hotels in that city to see who registers there.  Then compare the names on the first list with those on the second, and see if you can find a match.  If there is a match, then we’ll know he is a government agent assigned to my case.”

Leonard is appalled.  “Do you realize what that would entail?” he asks.  “Besides,” Leonard points out, “even if there is a match, the man could just be a genuine art collector, going to the same auctions you do.”

But Vandamm is adamant. After much effort on Leonard’s part, he reports back that there is a George Kaplan that seems to be following them around, and he is presently registered at the Plaza Hotel.

A couple of Vandamm’s henchmen, Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), go to the Plaza Hotel.  They have Kaplan paged.  By coincidence, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a Madison Avenue advertising executive, calls the pageboy to his table in order to send a telegram to his mother.  The spies think he is Kaplan responding to the page for Kaplan, and they force him into a car and take him to the magnificent estate of Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat.

Footnote 6:  At the Townsend estate, Valerian is the gardener, and his wife Anna is the housekeeper. Whenever the United Nations is in session, Townsend stays in the city, and Valerian lets Vandamm know that Townsend will be gone for a while.  It’s at times like these that Vandamm likes to throw parties at Townsend’s house, where he pretends to be Townsend.  That way he can impress all the girls, who will then have sex with him because they think he is a big shot.  He even has his sister pretend to be his wife, although the real Mrs. Townsend died years ago.  Now, it was at one of those parties where Eve met Vandamm, and being suitably impressed by his apparent wealth and influence, she had sex with him.  She thought he was Townsend and was married, but you know how it is.  It often happens that a woman would rather have an affair with a married man who is rich and powerful, than have an unmarried man of modest means and position all to herself. It was subsequent to this that the Professor approached her, and told her that her lover was not the enormously wealthy and highly respected Lester Townsend, president of UNIPO, but only Phillip Vandamm, who was just a spy.  So, when the Professor said he needed her help to find out more about Vandamm’s operation, she agreed, partly out of a sense of patriotic duty, but mostly out of pique.

When Thornhill is brought inside Townsend’s house, they put him in the library.  When Vandamm enters, Thornhill naturally assumes that Vandamm is Townsend and refers to him as such.  In turn, Vandamm refers to Thornhill as Kaplan, even though Thornhill is taller than he expected.  Thornhill insists that he is not Kaplan.

Footnote 7:  Vandamm knows that if Thornhill really is Kaplan, then he, Kaplan, would know that Vandamm is not Townsend.  In that case, there would be no point in his pretending to be Townsend while they are alone in the library.  One might expect him to say, “Come off it, Kaplan.  You know I’m Phillip Vandamm.”  But deep down in Vandamm’s subconscious mind, he suspects that Thornhill is not Kaplan, and the whole thing is a mistake.  After all, Valerian and Licht had gained entry into what was supposedly Kaplan’s hotel room, where they had a look at his clothes, which were for a much shorter man. That’s why Vandamm wasn’t expecting someone tall like Thornhill.  And so, owing to these subliminal misgivings, he continues to pretend to be Townsend.

When Thornhill apparently refuses to talk about how much he supposedly knows about Vandamm’s operation, the spies force him to drink a lot of bourbon, put him in a Mercedes that belongs to one of the guests, and try to make it looks as though he was so drunk that he drove off a cliff.  The plan does not work.  There is an automobile accident involving a police car, and Thornhill is arrested.

Footnote 8:  Anna points out that they need to clean the couch where some of the liquor spilled. Otherwise, when Townsend returns, he will know that there have been shenanigans going on in his house while he was away.  Vandamm agrees, but he is worried about something else. If the man they tried to kill really is Kaplan, he will report to his superiors what happened.  Knowing that he has been identified, the Intelligence Agency will take him off the case and put someone else on it. Fine.  But deep down in his subconscious mind, Vandamm still suspects that Thornhill is not really Kaplan.  In that case, Thornhill will return the next day with the police.  So, they’d better have a cover story ready, just in case.

Thornhill does return the next day, not only with the local police, but also with his lawyer and his mother.  The fake Mrs. Townsend pretends that they have all been worried about “Roger,” especially since he was so drunk that he “borrowed” Laura’s Mercedes.

Footnote 9:  Since Thornhill did return with the police, his lawyer, and his mother, something a real intelligence agent would not do, this confirms Vandamm’s subconscious suspicions that he is not Kaplan. But Vandamm has something else on his mind instead. What if Thornhill goes to the United Nations and tells Townsend about the party?  They will be so busted!  So, he sends Valerian and Licht to apprehend Thornhill again.  If he goes to the United Nations, they are to kill Townsend so that no one will ever know about all the parties they’ve been throwing at his house.

The fake Mrs. Townsend mentioned that her husband would be addressing the General Assembly that afternoon.  Thornhill decides to go to the United Nations, hoping to resolve the issue with Townsend in a public place.  When he gets there, he discovers that the real Lester Townsend is not the man that he met the previous evening.  When he asks Townsend who all those people were having a big party in his house, there was nothing for Valerian to do but throw his switchblade stiletto into Townsend’s back.  Of course, that’s the last party Vandamm and his friends will be able to throw at the Townsend estate, so they pack up and leave for Chicago.

Because Thornhill is photographed holding the knife he removed from Townsend’s back, he now has the police looking for him, thinking he is guilty of murder.  He finds out from the Plaza Hotel that Kaplan is supposedly going to the Ambassador East, a hotel in Chicago.  Hoping to make contact with this George Kaplan so he can be cleared of this murder charge, he gets on a train heading for Chicago.  On that train, he meets Eve.  When a couple of police detectives board the train later on, she hides him in her compartment.  While he is in the lavatory, she gives the porter a note to give to Vandamm, who is also on the train, asking what to do with Kaplan/Thornhill in the morning.  In the meantime, she and Thornhill have sex.

After leaving the train, Thornhill, believing there really is a Kaplan, accepts Eve’s offer to call Kaplan for him at the Ambassador East.  She goes to a phone booth and starts talking to someone. In another phone booth, we see Leonard, to whom she is apparently speaking. We do not hear what they are saying. When she comes out of the phone booth, she tells Thornhill where he can meet Kaplan.

There is commentary for this movie on the DVD, provided by the screenwriter, Ernest Lehman.  He says that Hitchcock shut down production for a whole day just prior to filming the phone booth scene. He had a problem with that scene, but he couldn’t ask Lehman about it because Lehman was in Europe at the time. Lehman said that Hitchcock was bothered by the fact that Leonard would not have known the phone number of the booth Eve was in.  But since he didn’t have Lehman on the set to ask him about it, Hitchcock decided to let it go.

That was not the reason, although I have no doubt that Hitchcock pretended it was, while keeping the real reason to himself.  What undoubtedly bothered Hitchcock was that a seemingly impossible conversation takes place in the phone booths.  But since no one else on the set seemed to have realized this, he figured he could get away with it as greatest piece of fridge logic ever. To see this, we have to keep in mind that Thornhill does not know Eve is Vandamm’s mistress working undercover as a government agent. Furthermore, he believes Kaplan exists and wants to meet him. Leonard, on the other hand, thinks Thornhill is Kaplan. And Eve knows that there is no Kaplan.

Footnote 10:  Now, to be revealed for the first time ever, here is the conversation that took place in the phone booths:

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: He must be on to you. After all, a government agent like Kaplan, who has been following us for months, would know that you are Phillip’s mistress.

Eve: So, what shall I do?

Leonard: Oh, what the heck!  Tell Kaplan you talked to Kaplan, and that Kaplan wants to meet him.  [He then gives Eve instructions as to where the meeting will take place.]

Eve gets off the phone and tells Thornhill where he can supposedly meet Kaplan. Then follows the famous crop-dusting scene.

Footnote 11:  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 more to the point is the fact that Kaplan, if he really existed, would not want to meet himself. And if he did want to meet someone other than himself, he would not agree to meet him alone, unarmed, and in the middle of nowhere. Only if Thornhill is who he says he is, would he believe that Eve talked to Kaplan, and that Kaplan wants to meet him in this isolated place. In other words, when Thornhill gets off the bus at Prairie Stop, that confirms the subliminal suspicions in Vandamm’s subconscious mind that Thornhill is not Kaplan, and the whole thing has been a big mistake.  But Vandamm is distracted.  He is worried that when Eve and Thornhill had sex, it was so good that she wants more. As a result, he is too jealous to worry about whether Thornhill really is Kaplan or not.

Well, you know what happens after that.  There is a climactic scene at Mount Rushmore, where the spies are killed or captured.  Thornhill and Eve end up getting married, and they live happily ever after.

Footnote 12:  The American traitor who has been using Vandamm as a courier ends up having to find someone else to transport the rolls of microfilm out of the country.  Fortunately for him, Vandamm’s replacement is content to pick the microfilm up at a drop, thus obviating the need for all that convoluted nonsense about sculptures and auctions.

Hopefully, the information I provided in the footnotes has cleared up any fridge-logic concerns you may have had.

One thought on “North by Northwest (1959)

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