Expedient exaggeration and the scale of cold war farce in north by northwest

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North by Northwest (1959) contains a stunning and also frustrating God's-eye-view of Roger Thornhill fleeing the UN building, immediately after he has been photographed standing, with a bloody knife in his hand, over the corpse of Lester Townsend. In a compilation of confusions typical of bedroom farce, Thornhill has by this relatively early point in the film been misrecognized, misunderstood, or disbelieved by almost everyone he has encountered, from the thugs working for Vandamm, the head of an international espionage ring, to the Glen Cove police, to the staff at the Plaza Hotel, to his own mother. In the tradition of classic farce, the film generates momentum from the mounting frustration produced by the collision between what perception confirms and memory denies. Thornhill remembers being kidnapped, being force-fed a bottle of bourbon at the Townsend estate, and being forced to drive an automobile with near-fatal consequences. The ostensive Mrs. Townsend, when questioned by the police the next day, confirms Thornhill's memory of the Townsend estate, but insists he was an intoxicated dinner guest who left early, in the same way that Vandamm, as the ostensive Mr. Townsend, had insisted the night before that Thornhill “remember” he is CIA operative George Kaplan. Comedy and Madness As many have noted – associating it with black humor or, following Stanley Cavell, a comedy of remarriage – North by Northwest has a strong comic component. None of these discussions, however, points out that formally North by Northwest is, more specifically, a farce. Dating from antiquity, farce – one of the most enduring forms of comic drama – relies on misconceptions, mistaken identities, and the mayhem endemic to a world that seems to have lost its mind, for which reason, honesty, or morality provides no antidotes. Rather, farce functions much like the Derridian pharmakon, its own internal logic mandating supplemental toxins as the only remedy for a toxified reality. “One might argue,” John Dennis Hurrell says, that farce, with its temporary reversal of the well-ordered and morally directed world, is a kind of assertion of man's continual capacity for setting his house in order through the ingenious use of his capacity to make practical, rather than ethical decisions. But the situation of farce is that those “practical” decisions are made while dealing with a world that seems to have gone mad.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Alfred Hitchcock
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781316227756
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2015.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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