Is North by Northwest the ultimate origin story?

Dale Cooper, Don Draper, James Bond… all roads lead back to Cary Grant’s wrong-man-in-peril Roger O. Thornhill. Just watch out for swooping cropdusters.

19 October 2017

By Sam Wigley

North by Northwest (1959) © Stills courtesy Park Circus/Warner Bros
  • Spoiler warning: this article gives away plot points.

“Our non-existent decoy… has fortuitously become a live decoy”
– the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), North by Northwest

“Someone manufactured you,” the one-armed man tells insurance agent Dougie Jones (Kyle Maclachlan) in the third episode of David Lynch’s epic Twin Peaks revival. It’s in the guise of doppelgänger Dougie that catatonic FBI agent Dale Cooper spends most of the series, sweetly unaware of the malevolent forces that flock around his movements.

Nearly 60 years ago, another sharp-suited everyman found himself trapped inside an unfamiliar identity. In Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark spy thriller North by Northwest (1959), heavies in the employ of secrets-smuggler Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) mistake ad man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) for an agent by the name of George Kaplan, setting off a domino game of machinations, misunderstanding and murder across the poker face of America.

The kicker, of course, is that there’s no such person as George Kaplan. The CIA invented him as a decoy to deflect attention away from their real agent. The CIA? Or was it the FBI? As the shadowy ‘Professor’ (Leo G. Carroll) dismisses: “We’re all in the same alphabet soup.” Even at the intelligence agencies, identity is fluid.

North by Northwest (1959)

So poor Roger is stuck inside a person that never existed. He’s disappeared into the void suggested by his own middle initial. “What’s the ‘O’ for?” asks Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the inquisitive blonde he meets while escaping on a cross-country sleeper train. “Nothing,” he responds blankly from behind dark glasses.

He becomes a man without a past, just as in Twin Peaks the Las Vegas police are befuddled by their records on Dougie. “So get this,” one of them says, “there is nothing – and I mean nothing – on our Douglas Jones prior to 1997.”

Twin Peaks: the Return (2017)

When North by Northwest’s immaculately tailored Thornhill slips into the suit he discovers hanging in Kaplan’s supposed hotel room, he finds the fit too small. Conversely, throughout Twin Peaks, the usually dapper Dale shuffles somnambulistically around Las Vegas in Dougie’s comically over-sized (and brightly coloured) suits, like a cross between Thornhill and David Byrne. (The latter’s lyrics to ‘Once in a Lifetime’ seem apt to his predicament too: “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house / With a beautiful wife / And you may ask yourself, well / How did I get here?”)

Stop Making Sense (1984)

While we’re talking heads, there’s Mount Rushmore too. In Hitchcock’s movie, the South Dakota monument is the site for a breathless chase finale, with Thornhill and Kendall scrambling vertiginously down over the faces of American presidents (one working title for the film was ‘The Man in Lincoln’s Nose’).

North by Northwest (1959)
© Stills courtesy Park Circus/Warner Bros

Much of the action in Twin Peaks: The Return also takes place in South Dakota, though Lynch himself (playing FBI deputy director Gordon Cole) expresses disappointment that they won’t get to visit the monument. But we see it in the photo that his colleague Albert (the late Miguel Ferrer) hands to him. “There they are, Albert,” Gordon remarks gnomically. “Faces of stone.”

Twin Peaks isn’t the only modern TV series that tips its hat to North by Northwest. Also set at the height of the Cold War, Mad Men imagines another kind of Roger Thornhill in Don Draper. Like Thornhill, Draper is a Madison Avenue advertising exec. Like Dougie, however, or George Kaplan, records on his early life wouldn’t show up much. For as the show slowly reveals, Draper too is a man without a past: a man-in-a-suit persona created by a returning Korean war veteran eager to turn over a new page.

Mad Men (2007-15)

This confusion of identities is compounded by the fact that in Mad Men it’s Draper’s charming colleague and drinking partner who’s called Roger. Yet it’s Don who’s channelling Cary Grant – and reanimating Roger Thornhill. Suave, crisply dressed, and with sleek, Brylcreemed hair, Draper nonetheless slowly loses his grip on the glamorous Manhattan existence he’s manufactured for himself, travelling south-southwest to California to confront the past behind his slipping face-mask.

Mad Men’s creators made this debt explicit in the show’s penultimate episode, in which we see Draper sitting on a bus-stop bench on a deserted road that stretches away to its vanishing point, mimicking the set-up for the legendary cropduster attack in North by Northwest.

Mad Men (2007-15)
North by Northwest (1959)

A less acknowledged influence on the show is Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), from which it borrows the idea of a rootless protagonist swapping ID with a dead man and stepping into a new life. But this road too arguably leads back to North by Northwest, with Antonioni toying with Hitchcockian ideas for his own film about how easy it is for one persona to get swallowed up by another.

The Passenger (1975)

If his Blowup (1966) is an arthouse refraction of Hitchcock’s voyeurism thriller Rear Window (1954), then The Passenger could be seen as an attempt to remake and remodel North by Northwest, complete with smuggling, slipped identities and landmark locations. (If this seems a stretch, remember that Antonioni’s 1970 student unrest movie Zabriskie Point also contains a direct homage to the cropduster scene.)

North by Northwest’s most immediate influence, meanwhile, was felt in the arrival on screen three years after its release of another unflappably debonair but also strangely pastless hero: James Bond. It’s no secret that the Bond producers originally approached Cary Grant to play Ian Fleming’s spy (a role he turned down), but Hitchcock’s film provided the blueprint for the series in many other ways too, from the dynamic graphics of the title sequence to the exhilarating, string-of-set-pieces structure. Of the early Bond films, 1963’s From Russia with Love, with its long, central sequence set on a train and overhead helicopter attack, feels especially like a chip off the old block.

“Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr Kaplan?” asks North by Northwest’s villain Vandamm of our beleaguered hero. Shakespeare reckoned that one man in his time plays many parts, so is it too fanciful to suggest that Thornhill will also get to be Bond, Draper and Dougie/Dale? They all contain his DNA. Maybe Byrne and Bourne do too. They’re men with an ‘O’ where their past should be, armoured in their indestructible suits as the world around them goes haywire. That’s a lot of DNA for your alphabet soup.

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