AFI film school #20: North by Northwest — How to be this much fun


There’s a lot of words usually associated with Hitchcock: genius, suspenseful, scary, obsessive, classic, influential. “Fun” is often not included; however, with this movie it almost has to be.

There’s a sense of amusement that runs through all of this movie, which makes it maybe his least daunting movie.

What makes it this way though? That’s going to be the focus of this article. Following along with the Podcast who always knows the direction, Unspooled, we’re at 1962’s North by Northwest, written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Telling the truth


In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration.”

-Roger Thornhill

The movie’s message is a fun one to see played on screen: “Lies cause chaos.”

Roger Thornhill gets into the position he’s in because he’s caught in a storm of lies. Lies from the Vandamm crew, the FBI, Eve. These lies lead to his mistaken identity and almost to his death several times.

Roger is a character that thrives off of lies. As a star ad executive, he is happy to admit this. He even tells Eve that honest women scare him because he’s not honest. However this turns against him when he can’t convince people of the truth  about him not being George Kaplan, about his night with Vandamm, and about him not being a murderer

Throughout North by Northwest the truth actually leads him to some of his best situations. When he meets Eve on the train, he’s brutally honest about how attracted he is to her, which leads them to hooking up and then him falling for her. 

At the end, he has to lie to the Professor to cause enough chaos to escape, but it’s all in an effort to get the truth to Eve.

It’s fitting that the climactic scene takes place on Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, two men who are known for their honesty, and it’s also where the two leads make it out alive.

How to charm

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Another reason the movie is so likable is because it’s so damn charming. Definitely the most charming of the Hitchcock movies (though not necessarily his best).

What makes it this charming, and how do you put this charm into your own filmmaking? Let’s look at some ways.

Include LOLs

Unlike many of the other Hitchcock movies, this one never stops being funny.

Cary Grant himself is funny throughout the film, often making wisecracks, no matter how dire his situation is. 

Even some scenes that are full of tension also have a lot of laughs, like Roger causing trouble at the art auction.

This comedy adds a certain lightness to the film, allowing some of this tension to be released, transforming gravitas into levitas. It also makes us identify with the characters more, which make the scenes, like the crop-dust one, even more iconic.

Be subtle

There’s an advantage to a movie being made in a time where there was more censorship: it forces restraint.

And I am sure that the flirting scene on the train was seen as very risque at the time, but it is also restrained enough to be cute. They’re very forward, but they also have to use a lot of innuendo and subtleties when talking. Cary Grant saying “The moment I meet an attractive woman I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her” is much more charming than him saying “let’s hump.” Even more charming than if he was able to say “Netflix and Chill.”

And then...ok, well the last two shots are them climbing into their wedding bed, and then then train going through a tunnel, so fine! Maybe it’s not always THAT subtle! But letting the audience make the connection still classes the joint up.

Let the audience know and not know

Hitchcock himself spells out the difference between shock and suspense, saying that shock is when we’re unaware there’s a bomb under a character’s table and it suddenly explodes, vs suspense, where we know there’s that bomb, and we’re anticipating what might happen.

What’s better to go with? If we have shock, then we identify more with the character, but we’re also going to be disoriented. If we have surprise, we get to see the full picture, but we lose some of that connection.

Ok. So what does Hitchcock do? He has his cheesecake and eats it too. We begin by knowing as little as Roger, but as the story unfolds, more is revealed to us, like the FBI’s involvement and where Eve stands, while Roger is still clueless.

Getting to identify with Roger while also slowly getting to know more than him creates a special charming investment.

Cast Cary Grant

Kidding, not kidding.

I mean he’s Cary Grant.


This seems like it would be the perfect introductory film to show someone who hasn’t watched much Hitchcock or even older films in general.

It’s very well-made and well-written, but aside from all of that, the emotion that it provides is one that holds up and that will always hold up: universal fun.

Hitchock’s best? I don’t know. I’d still hold a few above this one. But it’s for sure his most accessible, and that alone is a good reason to include it on this list.

Thanks for reading!

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