“North By Northwest” Is Very Full Of Improbable Coincidences

Mistaken identity is all a matter of timing. Spoilers for a movie about to turn 55.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest is a classic caper full of incredible coincidences that all lead to Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangling off Mount Rushmore’s giant George Washington face. The coincidences start at the very beginning. Roger Thornhill (Grant), a New York ad man, tells his assistant to call his mother to remind her they’re going to the theater later. He remembers (a moment too late!) that his mother is at her friend’s house, and her friend doesn’t have a telephone. If it weren’t for his mother’s friend just having moved into a new apartment, nothing in this movie would have happened.

3. Because he realizes his secretary won’t be able to reach his mother, Roger has to send her a telegram.

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He has to send his mother a telegram because how else will she remember about the theater?? He flags down an employee in the hotel restaurant where he’s eating a meal — the man he flags is currently calling out the name “Kaplan.” Two crooks, whose plan was to have a hotel employee call out George Kaplan’s name until George Kaplan responded, waited in the wings to SEIZE the man who “answered to” George Kaplan. They are pretty convinced that their plan was bulletproof, and so they don’t believe Thornhill when he says he’s not Kaplan. After all, isn’t that exactly what Kaplan would say?

4. Kaplan has loads of secret identities, which means none of the kidnappers doubt for a moment that Roger Thornhill is the man they’re after. Uh-oh!

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Although Kaplan has “many names,” neither the slippery criminal mastermind Mr. Vandamm (James Mason) nor his henchmen seem to question the fact that George “The Sly Spy” Kaplan always checks into hotels as George Kaplan. It turns out that Mr. Vandamm himself has assumed the identity of “Mr. Townsend” for the evening, so he knows how simple it is.

5. Roger is an extremely competent drunk driver.

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The bad guys try to kill him by getting him wasted and letting him drive off a cliff, but he’s a really great drunk driver, so he gets away. Joke’s on you, bad guys.

6. Roger happens to get into a three-car pileup with a policecar.

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Good thing that bicyclist came out of nowhere and Roger had to slam on his brakes! Otherwise those bad guys probably would’ve caught him.

7. No one believes that Roger was kidnapped. Even Roger’s mom wants to believe the worst of her son.

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Luckily for the bad guys, Mama Thornhill (Jessie Royce Landis) thinks Roger is a drunk (as established in the first scene of this movie), so she doesn’t believe his story about being kidnapped and forced to drunkenly drive. She also undermines him in court with derisive noises!

8. Everyone is so doubtful of Roger that at the scene of the alleged crime they’re not even skeptical when there are books in what is clearly a liquor cabinet.

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Poor Roger, although a successful businessman who mysteriously disappeared from a business meeting yesterday, doesn’t have a single shred of credibility.

9. Nobody demands that “Mrs. Townsend” provide ID or proof that her husband is at the United Nations.

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For “Mrs. Townsend” (played by Josephine Hutchinson), just saying her husband is at the U.N. is valid government-issued ID enough. Incidentally, the real Mrs. Townsend has been dead for years.

10. Security at the Plaza Hotel is so lax that Roger’s mother talks the concierge into giving her a key to George Kaplan’s room.

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That Plaza, always giving out keys to the matronly.

11. No one at George Kaplan’s hotel has ever seen George Kaplan, and no one has raised any red flags about this.

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He hasn’t answered his phone in days. The cleaning woman has never seen him. The cleaning woman has noticed that he doesn’t sleep in his bed. The man who cleans his suits has never seen him. No one has noticed this or thinks it’s strange.

12. No one notices that Roger is considerably larger than George Kaplan’s suits would indicate.

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Well, actually Mr. Vandamm does notice, but brushes it aside.

13. No one notices that Roger gets chased out of the hotel by two men.

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Roger has no credibility, even when he’s being chased out of a hotel.

14. The real Mr. Townsend is knifed in the back right before he says whether he recognizes the photo of Mr. Vandamm. Awful timing!

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15. For some reason, nobody in the very crowded room saw that the knife was thrown, and Roger’s first instinct is to take the knife out of Townsend’s back.

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Now everyone thinks he’s the murderer! This is supported by the way he brandishes the knife and threatens everyone, and then flees the scene.

16. At the train station, the ticket seller just happens to have a photograph of Roger right on his desk, forcing Roger to get on the train without a ticket — a fugitive from both the law and common decency.

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Come on. We all know the police aren’t this on top of catching fugitives.

17. Eve Kendall (Saint) times bumping into Roger perfectly and saves him from capture by the police.

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EXCELLENT TIMING, EVE.

18. Because Eve propositions Roger for sex, Roger doesn’t question her motivation at all.

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“I just have that effect on women.”

19. Nobody recognizes Roger because he’s wearing sunglasses.

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Terrible glare on the train — why aren’t more people wearing sunglasses, you know?

20. The police searching the train don’t check the giant bed compartments in which a grown-ass man could easily fit.

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Come on, cops.

21. Nobody recognizes Roger because he’s wearing a porter’s uniform.

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The cops don’t have time to check underneath hats while they’re searching for an alleged murderer!

22. Nobody recognizes Roger because he’s shaving.

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The cops don’t have time to check underneath shaving cream while they’re searching for an alleged murderer!

23. At a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, Roger is a natural at dropping to the ground really fast, and he manages to not get hit by either a plane or a truck.

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Skills!

24. Although the plane waited for five vehicles to pass before going after Roger and paused the attack for a sixth, the pilot doesn’t see this gas tank and the plane crashes right into it.

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Roger also has miraculous skin and suffers no ill effects from being doused in 1950s pesticides.

25. When Roger goes to Kaplan’s hotel, the concierge happens to mention the time Kaplan checked out — before Eve even made the phone call that morning.

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She set him up! Good thing he found out now.

26. Roger turns around and sees Eve in the lobby. She’s staying in the very hotel he’s currently standing in!

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What are the odds that she’d be in the lobby right now!

27. Luckily, Eve has a very strong arm and the address of the secret location she wrote down is indented on the next sheet of hotel notepaper, so Roger can follow her.

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Such strong hands.

28. At an art auction, Mr. Vandamm says he thinks Roger was trained by the FBI, and Roger finally starts to put things together.

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Poor Roger, everyone knew his alleged identity except for him.

29. Eve, although in every other regard a stone-faced liar, can’t contain her emotions about Roger.

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She gives herself away!!! Now Vandamm suspects she’s a government agent!!!

30. The police in Chicago don’t recognize Roger, giving the Professor enough time to make a phone call on his behalf.

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Goofballs.

31. When the FBI-approved Professor (Leo G. Carroll) shows up, Roger trusts him even though the Professor doesn’t proposition him for sex.

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With every reason to stop trusting everyone, Roger keeps trusting. If you stop trusting, the bad guys win.

32. Roger and the Professor devise a plan where Eve shoots Roger with blanks so Mr. Vandamm will trust her again. Luckily, no one in the very crowded room notices he’s actually unharmed!

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Spies and their cockamamie schemes, right?

33. Roger, because he’s a trusting guy, never suspected that Eve wanted to maintain her cover so that she could stay undercover.

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“I thought she would run away with me!” (Guys, he’s both forgiving AND trusting, so he let that whole “she tried to get me cropdusted to death” thing go.)

34. Although Roger’s locked in his hospital room faking dire injury, no one thinks to lock his window. Luckily, the ledge is as wide as a sidewalk and Roger easily escapes.

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35. Coincidentally, Roger is watching from outside right when Leonard reveals that Eve must be a spy because, coincidentally, Eve didn’t unload the blanks from her gun!

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Leonard (Martin Landau) is clearly a real go-getter, but what are the odds that a woman so worried about being found out wouldn’t unload the blanks she used to pretend to shoot someone?

36. Roger happens to have a matchbook with his initials on it — initials which he (luckily!) discussed on the train with Eve. He’s able to get a message to her!

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37. No one sees Roger lurking around upstairs for minutes on end, but then the maid happens to spot his reflection in the television!

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She holds him up!

38. Roger escapes from the maid unharmed because Eve didn’t unload the blanks! The getaway car is just outside!

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Eve breaks away just before she steps on the plane!

39. Hotly pursued, Eve and Roger end up dangling from the face of Mount Rushmore, where Roger catches Eve’s hand just in time!

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40. Also, the police coincidentally shoot Leonard just before Roger falls with Eve.

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Good timing, boys.

41. And a train coincidentally enters a tunnel just before Roger enters Eve.

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FIN.

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