North by Northwest (1959)

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, interrogate him, and then try to kill him.  He escapes from them, but in the process of trying to figure out what is going on, ends up being accused of murdering a United Nations diplomat named 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), the mistress of the chief spy, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). 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.

Alfred Hitchcock, the director of this movie, is said to have formulated the principle of “fridge logic” when discussing Vertigo (1958), a movie he made the year before.  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 ever made. The first time we watch this movie, we experience it from the Roger’s point of view. Although there are a couple of scenes that we see where Roger 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. And that is when you realize that the movie makes no sense whatsoever. 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.

Not only does that not make sense, but if Roger really were a spy named Kaplan, he would not 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.

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