Even though that during the course of recent decades, the conceptual soundness of the Psychoanalytical Theory by Sigmund Freud has been increasingly criticized, on account of its presumed ‘unscientificalness’, there can only be a few doubts that it continues to denote a high practical value.
After all, even today it represents a thoroughly legitimate practice, on the part of movie critics, to refer to this specific theory, while striving to expose the innate reasons of why a particular character in the film tends to act in one way or another.
In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-statement at length, in regards to the films North by Northwest and Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock, while promoting the idea that the manner in which main characters in both movies address life-challenges, reflect what happened to be the deep-seated Oedipal anxieties of the individuals in question.
The actual mechanics of how men develop Oedipal anxieties have been revealed by Sigmund Freud in the rather straightforward manner, “The little man (a boy) wants to have his mother all to himself, that he feels the presence of his father as a nuisance, that he is resentful if his father indulges in any signs of affection towards his mother and that he shows satisfaction when his father has gone on a journey or is absent” (1977, p. 332).
Because, during the course of their childhood men are rarely capable of opposing their fathers effectively, as they grow, they tend to extrapolate their unconscious frustration, in this respect, in the way they tackle life-challenges – especially while remaining in the relationship with women. As Pommier noted, “The repressed does not merely return, it acts out under a new identity.
So-called adulthood is nothing other than this disowned childhood, indefinitely disowned through acts and thoughts. Adulthood is nothing but childhood, which materializes itself in this disavowal” (1997, p. 13). Hence, the currently adopted definition of the Oedipal complex, as the specific state of one’s mind, which is being concerned with the person’s tendency to project its consciously suppressed psychosexual anxieties, which are rooted in the memories of his childhood years, onto the surrounding social reality.
There are sharply defined Oedipal overtones to the very plot of North by Northwest, as it is being concerned with exposing viewers to the consequential phases of the film main character’s (Roger Thornhill) quest to discover the elusive identity of George Kaplan.
Throughout the course of this quest, Roger undergoes a specific psychological transformation from being a rather indecisive/easily intimidated individual into nothing short of a ‘macho-man’, capable of opposing his violently minded adversaries on their terms. There is, of course, can be very little doubt that the earlier mentioned scenario is contextually consistent with what Freud used to refer to as the psychosexual stages of one’s development, as an individual.
The reason for this is quite apparent. In full accordance with how Freud used to perceive the process of one’s psychosexual maturation, the process of Roger continuing to seek what he believed to account for his identity, resulted in the character realizing the fact that the visually observable indications of the person’s existence do not necessarily prove that such a person exists in reality.
There are undeniable parallels between the discursive implications of Roger’s enlightenment, in this respect, and Freud’s assumption that it is only natural for intellectually developing people to grow ever more aware of the illusionary subtleties of their sense of super-ego. There is a memorable scene in the film, where Roger tries out Kaplan’s clothes (to figure whether they would match his size), only to realize that these clothes were meant to be worn by a much shorter/smaller man.
This scene can be well interpreted, as such that signifies that the socially constructed framework for one’s sense of self-identity to able to attain ‘individuation’, cannot possibly contain the concerned individual’s subliminal and therefore valid identity-defining anxieties. Nevertheless, it is only when we begin to deconstruct the discursive meaning of the film’s actual themes and motifs in details that it becomes evident for us that North by Northwest is indeed a strongly ‘Oedipal’ movie.
The first thing that comes insight, in this respect, is that it accentuates the ‘Oedipal’ aspects of the relationship between Roger Thornhill and his mother, Clara. As it appears from the movie, this relationship can be best described as having been unnaturally strong – it is not only that Roger calls his mother multiple times a day, but also he takes close to heart her advice, as to how he should be positioning himself in life.
This, of course, implies that the film’s main character never ceased being emotionally attached to Clara, while trying to appease her in just about every way possible, and that this constituted one of his significant life-priorities. However, we can also deduce that, even though he did treat his mother with affection, Roger continued to experience the unconscious sense of shame/guilt, due to his self-presumed inability to prove himself a ‘real man’ in her eyes.
This could not be otherwise, because there are a plenty of scenes in the movie, which imply that it was a commonplace practice for Mrs. Thornhill to stress out her son’s cognitive infantilism in front of others, which in turn used to traumatize the film’s main character emotionally.
For example, there is another memorable scene in North by Northwest, where Clara is continuing to give his son disapproving looks, while the latter tries to convince people around that he has indeed been kidnapped. This scene alone suggests that deep in her mind; she regarded Roger nothing short of a ‘little boy’, who cannot help remaining utterly defenseless while facing reality (00.24.08).
Consequently, this was causing Roger to grow increasingly doubtful of whether his rationale-driven identity of a responsible adult-male was perceptually adequate – hence, adding to the sheer intensity of the ensuing anxiety, on Roger’s part. The reason for this is that, just as Freud used to suggest, while unconsciously addressing their subliminal desire to have sex with their mothers, men do strive to affiliate themselves with masculine values, as if this would qualify them as their fathers’ legitimate replacements.
Thus, Clara’s tendency to humiliate Roger in front of others, which quite obviously lasted for several years, could not result in anything else but in having her son’ feminized’ to an extent. This explains why, for the duration of the film’s first half an hour, Roger does not appear to be capable of assessing the possible implications of him having been kidnapped adequately.
There is another motif in North by Northwest, which can be referred to as clearly Oedipal. It is being concerned with the physical appearance of Eva Marie Saint and the qualitative aspects of the relationship between her and Roger. First, this particular character is being represented in the movie as a ‘classic blond’, with her facial features radiating the spirit of nobleness.
We can well deduce that the reason why Roger became attracted to her, in the first place, is that he unconsciously perceived Eva as the physical embodiment of his mother’s existential virtues – even the character’s last name invokes the notion of purity. After all, as psychologists are being aware of, men do tend to idealize their mothers to the extent of believing that they are in fact, asexual.
However, the men’s earlier mentioned tendency has nothing to do with the workings of their unconscious id, while being, in essence, the part of the psychological defense mechanism, deployed by men in situations when they face cognitive dissonance.
Hence, the symbolic significance of Eva’s presence in Hitchcock’s film, as an extrapolation of Roger’s deep-seated anxiety to copulate with his mother – although he had this anxiety consciously suppressed, Roger was nevertheless driven by it, while pursuing the relationship with Eva. In essence, he regarded Eva as his mother’s ‘surrogate’.
At the same time, however, Roger could not help experiencing the sensation of emotional discomfort, because of that, as the relationship in question never ceased being evocative of the notion of ‘sin’. In its turn, this explains why the character of Eva can be well discussed in terms of a femme fatale – without wanting it, she nevertheless almost caused Roger to die, after having ‘scheduled’ him to meet imaginary George Kaplan in the middle of an open field.
Thus, just as it happened to be the case in noir films, the character of femme fatale Eva serves in North by Northwest the function of intensifying the plot’s dramatics, as it does prompt male-viewers to get in close touch with their unconscious fears of incest.
What has been said earlier, provides us with the discursive framework to elaborate upon what can be considered the Oedipal significance of the character of Vandamme in the movie. After all, there can be only a few doubts as to the fact that, as opposed to what it happened to be the case with Roger Thornhill, Vandamme is being represented as a violently minded, cynical and yet wickedly witty individual.
Therefore, we can well speculate that, while competing to win the same woman (Eva) with Vandamm, which happened to emanate the ‘saintly’ virtues of nobleness and wisdom, the film’s main character was in all probability regarding his adversary in terms of an oppressive father.
This explains why, up until the film’s very end, Roger appeared having been incapable of opposing Vandamm effectively – quite contrary to the fact that, just as his main nemeses, he could be described as an intelligent and physically strong man. The reason for this is that psychologically speaking, Roger did not only thought of Vandamme if terms of a male-competitor, but also in terms of a fatherly figure.
Apparently, Vandamme’s very presence used to prove utterly intimidating for the main character, as the latter tended to think that challenging Vandamme to a fair ‘duel’ would violate an absolute taboo, within the context of how sons are supposed to refer to their fathers.
According to Freud, one of the foremost Oedipal anxieties, on the part of men, which develops when they are aged 3-5 years old, is the fear of uncleanliness – while toilet-trained, the boys never cease being afraid of the prospect of failing to act like adults, in this respect.
Therefore, it is fully explainable why being an ‘Oedipal’ movie, North by Northwest features some scenes in which Roger’s clothes become ever more soiled – hence, causing the main character to continue being submerged ever deeper in his Oedipal anxieties. The most memorable of these scenes is the one where Roger ends up being crop-dusted while hiding from an overflying plane in the open cornfield (01.14.09).
As Morris noted, “In the crop-dusting sequence, Thornhill is driven into the ground and covered with a chemical agent, as if the quest for ‘grounds’ in North by Northwest resulted only in the further vulnerability and degradation of human identity” (1997, p. 50). Consequently, Roger’s suit becomes somewhat unrecognizable.
In its turn, this explains why, after having met Eva for the second time, Roger does not talk to her angrily – despite the fact that Eva did set him up in the somewhat conniving manner. From the psychoanalytical point of view, this was because, after having been crop-dusted, Roger became endowed with the complex of subliminal guilt, due to his earlier first-hand encounter with ‘filthiness’.
This, of course, substantially undermined the character’s sense of self-worth – hence, causing him to end up being out of words while facing his femme fatale. One of the reasons why many grown individuals continue to be endowed with the Oedipal complex is that throughout their adult lives, they never had a chance to rationalize their sex-related unconscious anxieties.
In its turn, this is the consequence of these people’s continual exposure to the oppressiveness of the currently dominant socio-cultural discourse, which deems even the mentioning of these anxieties’ shameful’. The validity of this statement can be illustrated in relation to another famous scene in North by Northwest, which symbolizes the society’s unwillingness to allow its members to go about exploring their existential identities, in the way they consider the most appropriate.
We refer to the scene that features Roger and Eva climbing down the ‘faces’ of the Founding Fathers, carved into the Rushmore Mountain (02.12.00).
The close analysis of this particular scene reveals that it was not included in the film for emphasizing the grotesque subtleties of Roger and Eva’s escape alone, but also to promote the idea that the socially upheld provisions of a conventional morality/ethics do prevent many people from being able to address their psychosexual anxieties.
After all, the director made a deliberate point in having the film’s emotionally charged climax unraveling in the foreground of absolutely unemotional stone-faces. Apparently, this was done to accentuate the central aspect of modern living – the fact that people’s psychosexual drives, which in the end define the essence of the relationship between the representatives of opposite sexes and consequently – the society’s very fabric, remain unacknowledged by moralistically minded policy-makers.
Given the fact that, as it was pointed out earlier, Roger’s romantic involvement with Eva appears to be mainly ‘Oedipal’, it will only be appropriate, on our part, to think of the above mentioned scene as yet another indication that, when filming North by Northwest, Hitchcock remained thoroughly aware of the Psychoanalytical theory’s main postulates.
Another notable aspect of how men extrapolate their Oedipal anxieties is that, while pursuing the relationship with women, they strive to ensure the complete ‘ownership’ of the latter. The origins of such men’s tendency can be traced to the time when they were young boys, who would try to do just about anything, in order to win their mothers’ uncompromised attention – even at the expense of putting their fathers in particular ‘attentional’ disadvantage.
Therefore, grown-up ‘Oedipal’ men are dialectically predetermined to exhibit the signs that their unconscious psychosexual agenda is being concerned with objectualizing women in terms of a commodity – even when they do not quite realize it consciously.
Hence, the discursive significance of the scene, in which Roger extends his hand to Eva, grabs her wrist, and says, “Come along Mrs. Thornhill” (02.15.58) – apparently, by having uttered these words, he attempted to do nothing less than taking an effective care of one of his major Oedipal anxieties, once and for all.
This anxiety had to do with the fact that, during the course of his childhood, Roger convinced himself that it is specifically a man that successfully addresses the responsibilities of a hunter-gatherer (husband), which is being in a position to have sexual relations with his mother.
Consequently, Roger associated the notion of ‘husband’ with the notion of ‘being in charge’, and the notion of ‘being in charge’ with the men’s presumed ability to keep their women subservient. Thus, it is indeed entirely appropriate referring to North by Northwest, as a film where the plot’s Oedipal themes and motifs accentuate the true significance of the on-screen action.
The 1958 film Vertigo represents another example of how Hitchcock used to go about appealing to the audience’s deep-seated Oedipal anxieties. Its plot is concerned with the story about the former police detective (John “Scottie” Ferguson) striving to uncover the mystery of his friend wife’s (Madeleine Elster) periodical transfigurations from a cheerful and intelligent contemporary into presumably a long-dead woman from the 19th century, obsessed with the thoughts of suicide.
At the movie’s end, it is being revealed that the ‘mystery’ is question has in fact been staged and that ‘Madeleine’ was Judy Barton – a woman that agreed to act as an accomplice in the murder of real Madeleine Elster. One of the film’s central Oedipal motifs is the main character’s condition of acrophobia (the fear of heights), which he developed in the aftermath of his partner’s deadly fall from the roof, during the course of a police chase.
The rationale behind this suggestion is quite apparent – because his newly acquired mental condition caused Scotty to feel existentially incapacitated and therefore ‘effeminate’ to an extent, we can well deduce that Scotty’s unconsciousness regarded the earlier mentioned incident in terms of the act of ‘castration’.
Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that, throughout the film’s initial scene, Scotty is shown trying to regain his lost masculinity by the mean of attempting to climb up the steps of a stool, in order to prove his condition being manageable. This, however, turns out quite impossible for him.
Eventually, Scotty’s deep-seated realization of its own inadequateness resulted in the film’s main character deciding to follow Madeleine, just as his friend asks him to, in order to figure out what caused her to behave strangely. It is quite clear that, on an unconscious level, Scotty thought of such his decision as having potentially capable to help him to restore his former vision of himself, as a fully functional male.
Nevertheless, it is specifically after we get to see the character of Madeleine for the first time, that the film’s Oedipal undertones become quite apparent. After all, just as it was the case with the role of Eva in North by Northwest, Madeleine radiates the unmistakable aura of ‘sainthood’ around her. The gray-blond color of Madeleine’s hair adds to this impression rather substantially.
The reason why Hitchcock decided to make Madeleine a blonde-haired person is no different from what used to be the rationale for Renaissance artists to represent the figures of female-saints in their paintings in the similar manner. Apparently, men are naturally driven to associate the color of white with the notion of purity, which they in turn associate with the notion of motherhood.
What makes the Madeleine’s appearance even more Oedipal, is that there is a certain unnaturalness to her ‘blondness’ – as if it came as a result of this character having dyed her hair with hydrogen peroxide. This provides us with an additional reason to believe that it were specifically the main character’s Oedipal anxieties, which caused him to become instantly attracted to her.
While being exposed to the sight of this particular femme fatale, Scotty could not help experiencing the sensation of getting in close touch with what used to define his personality back in the past. In other words, it was not Scotty’s attraction with Madeleine, as an individual, which initially prompted him to follow her, but his unconscious awareness of the fact that, despite having not seen Madeline, prior to their first encounter in the film, he nevertheless knew just about everything about her.
We can only agree with Hinton, who suggested that, “While Scottie is looking at Madeleine, or who he believes to be ‘Madeleine,’ he is looking for a ghost, or the truth about ghosts: that ‘Madeleine’s’ possession is all in her head, that she lacks a ‘head,’ rationally speaking” (1994, p. 4). Without realizing it consciously, Scotty considered Madeleine as the embodiment of his mother’s womanly virtues.
In its turn, this reveals the symbolical significance of the fact that, just as it can be seen in the film, while following Madeleine, Scotty was deriving a particular sensual pleasure out of this essentially voyeuristic process. Such Scotty’s tendency can be well discussed as having been reflective of his childhood memories.
As Freud used to point out, even though they know perfectly well that their mothers will never choose them as sexual partners, young boys nevertheless cannot help experiencing a strong sensual attraction towards them. As a result, young boys never skip an opportunity to watch the process of their mothers being undressed, for example – even when it requires them to remain hidden in the room or to peek through the door’s keyhole.
Thus, there can be only a few doubts, as to the Oedipal roots of men’s tendency to indulge in voyeurism. What is means is that, as he proceeded to follow Madeleine in his car, Scotty was gradually beginning to think of this particular activity, on his part, as such that constituted the value of a ‘thing in itself’.
The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to one of the film’s memorable scenes, in which Scotty expresses its displeasure with Midge Wood’s (his female friend) attempt to win his romantic attention, by the mean of having herself depicted wearing the same old-fashioned dress, like the one that used to be worn by Madeleine’s grandmother Carlotta (01.01.46).
Apparently, it never occurred to Midge that the reason why Scotty used to take an interest in listening to the stories about Madeleine’s grandmother had nothing to do with his mental fixation on the particulars of this woman’s physical appearance. Instead, it had to do with the main character’s subtle understanding that, while finding out more about Madeleine/her grandmother, he was regaining the long-lost part of his self-identity.
The above-statement also helps to explain the persistence, with which Scotty went about dressing up Judy (who acted as ‘Madeleine’, before the person’s presumed death, due to having fallen off the monastery’s tower). Because of how he worked, in this respect, we can well assume that the relationship between Scotty and Madeleine was in fact ‘unidirectional’.
That is, it was not Madeleine in flesh in blood, who Scotty believed to be in love with, but rather this woman’s fetishized image, which in turn was nothing but the visually observable sublimation of the main character’s Oedipal longings.
The assumption that in the Hitchcock’s film Scotty acts as an individual endowed with the Oedipal complex also sheds light on the discursive significance of the scene in which he fails to prevent ‘Madeleine’ from committing suicide, by the mean of jumping of the monastery’s tower (00.52.28).
This is because, according to the Freudian conceptualization of the concerned anxiety’s effects, Oedipal individuals experience two diametrically opposite desires – the desire to achieve a sexual satisfaction with the object of their psychosexual fixation, on the one hand, and the desire not to have information about this revealed to the morally oppressive society, on the other.
In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, while addressing life-challenges, people are being forced to observe the conventional code of behavioral ethics, adopted within the society – hence, allowing their super-ego to define the qualitative aspects of how they position themselves in life. However, as a result, people often develop some life-impending ‘secondary’ anxieties, such as the fear of committing a ‘sin’ and allowing the society to find out about it.
Because the workings of people’s ‘archetypical unconsciousness’ inevitably cause them to believe that the sin’s ultimate consequence is death, they cannot help acting in the manner that their super-ego prescribes them to – hence, the phenomenon of people’s endowment with what Freud used to refer to as the ‘instinct of death’.
What it means is that, on an unconscious level, Scotty was aware that his relationship with Madeleine was bound to end up in tragedy. This is the reason why, even though there were strongly ominous overtones to how Madeleine asked him to forget her in the scene where she was about to jump off the tower, Scotty did not move a finger to prevent Madeleine from realizing her suicidal intention before it was too late.
This is even though he did not hesitate even for a second jumping in the water after Madeleine when she tried to kill herself the first time. Apparently, at this particular moment in the film, Scotty’s ‘instinct of death’, enforced upon him by his realization of the ‘sinful’ nature of his relationship with Madeleine, prevailed.
After the incident, Scotty is shown dealing with acute depression. The sensation of depression, on his part, was so intense that the film’s main character ended up undergoing psychiatric treatment in the clinic. In its turn, Scotty’s depression was triggered by his sense of guilt, on account of his failure to save Madeleine.
This once again confirms the appropriateness of the suggestion that, throughout Vertigo, Scotty acts as an ‘Oedipal’ individual, in the classical sense of this word. After all, as we are well aware of, when trying to maintain the posture of the society’s productive members, people have no other option but to suppress their Oedipal anxieties consciously, which cannot result in anything else but in creating prerequisites for these people’s mental states to grow increasingly deteriorated.
The process’s ultimate consequence is depression. In Scotty’s case, his depression appears to have been brought about by not as much the sensation of loss, on his part, but rather by his unconscious realization that, even while adult, he proved himself inadequate in the relationship with his ‘subliminal mother’ – Madeleine.
As it was implied earlier, it is in the very nature of Oedipal men to idealize their mothers as ‘saintly’ figures. Such their tendency can be discussed in terms of a psychological defense mechanism – while suspecting that it is precisely their unworthiness, as thoroughly dependent individuals, which prevents them from being able to have a sexual intercourse with their mothers, young boys natural tend to refer to the objects of their latent sexual desires, as being somewhat ‘unapproachable’.
The reason for this is that it helps boys to reduce the strength of the anxiety of worthlessness, on their part. At the same time, however, it causes boys to think of women, in general, as something that they are not really in reality, which in turn is being capable of incapacitating these boys cognitively, by the time they reach adulthood.
This helps us to explain the significance of the scene, in which Scotty drags ‘Madeleine’/Judy to the top of the tower, as if his condition of acrophobia did no longer have any effect on him (02.07.04). Once, he realized the illusionary essence of his self-constructed image of Madeleine, as a ‘saintly’ figure, Scotty’s acrophobia evaporated into thin air, because it occurred to him that there was in fact nothing ‘sinful’ about his attraction to this woman, in the first place.
Therefore, by dragging Judy up the staircase, Scotty wanted to confirm to himself once again that it is namely men’s possession of a penis, which defines the manner in which they pursue relationships with women – in Scotty’s eyes, the monastery’s tower became nothing short of a phallic symbol. In its turn, this allowed Scotty’s id to escape the oppressive boundaries of his super-ego, which empowered the film’s main character to an extent that he instantaneously forgot about his fear of heights.
In other words, the concerned scene subtly suggests that it is only when men become aware of the fact that they themselves contribute to the sensation of having been ‘castrated’, in the allegorical sense of this word, by the mean of adopting a rather uncritical view of women, that they may cease being ‘Oedipal’. In this respect, the earlier mentioned message, read between the scene’s ‘lines’, appears entirely consistent with how the Theory of Psychoanalysis addresses the issue of people’s endowment with the Oedipal complex.
After all, according to this theory, the pathways towards the reestablishment of emotional equilibrium, inside the ‘Oedipal’ individual’s mind, cannot be discussed outside of the concerned person’s willingness to recognize the counter-beneficiary effects of how his super-ego assess the surrounding psychosexual reality.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the suggestion that there are indeed some clearly Oedipal overtones in the films North by Northwest and Vertigo, is entirely consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. It is understood, of course, that many insights, contained in this paper, are somewhat speculative.
This, however, does not undermine these insights’ overall legitimacy, because even today it remains a commonplace practice, among psychoanalysts, to go about identifying the suspected psychopathology in a person, by the mean of exposing the objectiveness of his or her subliminal anxieties.
In this respect, we did not act any differently. Thus, it will only be appropriate, on our part, to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that the films North by Northwest and Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock do contain clues as to both: what causes people to become ‘Oedipal’ and what they can do, in order to have the acuteness of their Oedipal anxieties substantially reduced.
Freud, Z 1977, Introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis, New York, Norton.
Hinton, L 1994, ‘A “woman’s” view: the Vertigo frame-up’, Film Criticism, vol. 19. no. 2, pp. 2-22.
Morris, C 1997, ‘The direction of “North by Northwest”’, Cinema Journal, vol. 36. no. 4, pp. 43-56
North by Northwest, 1959. Film. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Pommier, G 1997, ‘The psychoanalytic concept of childhood’, Critical Quarterly, vol. 39. No. 3, pp. 8-15.
Vertigo, 1958. Film. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. USA: Paramount Pictures.