Beta & Gamma Characters: Roger O. Thornhill in “North by Northwest”

Beta & Gamma Characters and Hybrids: Alternatives to Alphas Part 2: Roger O. Thornhill in “North by Northwest” –  the Resourceful Beta

Beta heroes might be anything but heroic at the start. From my perspective, the greatest, most resourceful, most intelligent, and interesting beta hero is Roger O. Thornhill of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

ThornhillThe middle initial “O” stands for nothing – an unintended admission of the void at the center of Thornhill’s life (whether the initials “ROT” — particularly on his monogram — have any significance goes unexplored – draw your own conclusions). He is an ad executive who has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth. He is twice-divorced, drinks heavily and juggles a small harem of girlfriends while truly loyal only to his domineering and increasingly doddering mother. Thornhill (Cary Grant), although a charmer on the surface, seems like the last person anyone would rely on as a hero.

But Thornhill turns on a dime when a case of mistaken identity causes a pair of thugs involved in some murky way with foreign espionage to kidnap him.

They take him to a sumptuous manor house where no one believes he is who he says he is, where the ordinary rules of society don’t seem to apply, and where he’s threatened with death if he tries to escape. Soon he’s not only on the run from the spy goons but from the police, who consider him guilty of everything from drunk driving to grand theft auto to murder. He tries to convince everyone of the truth, but no one believes him except for the government agents responsible for his case of mistaken identity.

They created the identity Thornhill’s been mistaken for as a decoy. With no one designated to fill the role, the agents decide to abandon Thornhill to his own devices. They find his almost certain demise regrettable, but unavoidable, collateral damage.

Lacking the resources and aggressive temperament of his adversaries, Thornhill is left to outthink them, in increasingly dangerous and desperate circumstances. He often takes his best shot with no guarantee of success. His sole assistance comes from the occasional helping hand of a brilliant and beautiful woman (Eva Marie Saint) who may or may not be his ally.

In the end, his game of cat and mouse succeeds admirably. He saves and clears himself and – more heroically – saves the woman. Cats: 0, Mice: everything.

Thornhill’s tale is one of a survivor who loses the illusion of predictability that we all use to structure our day-to-day lives. Thornhill is left to dodge flotsam, jetsam and falling debris when the whole reassuring framework collapses. This is why the tension mounts so quickly: In Thornhill’s vulnerability we recognize our own.

The famous crop-dusting attack on him in the open, isolated fields, where he seems helpless and alone is the perfect metaphor for what he faces during the entire story, and what each of us feels could easily happen to us. Think it couldn’t happen in fantasy or magic realism, when powers beyond our comprehension lurk right outside the door, and we’ve developed no means to challenge them? Think, on the other hand, that such fantastic forces wouldn’t serve as a parable or metaphor for the corporate and/or government institutions lurking outside our doors right now?

Tell me again why Thornhill-like characters wouldn’t work in fantasy, or why such fantasies have become irrelevant.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.