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The Secret Role the CIA Played in Producing Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North By Northwest’

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Moviepix / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection / Moviepix / Getty Images

North by Northwest is largely considered to be the spy movie that set the industry standard, inspiring future works like the James Bond franchise. What many people don’t know, however, is that the production process included involvement from a real-life spy agency, the CIA. They were heavily concerned with what Alfred Hitchcock put in the film, telling him what could and couldn’t be included. They even went so far as to influence the final title.

North by Northwest

Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason made up the star-studded cast of Hitchcock’s 1959 spy thriller. It follows Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is mistaken for a spy and is kidnapped, only to stage an escape. By this point, the intelligence agency running the operation Thornhill is involved with has realized the mistake, but they refuse to get involved out of fear they will compromise things.

Cary Grant in a suit and black sunglasses stands with Eva Marie Saint in a black jacket.
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959. (Photo Credit: Sunset Boulevard / Corbis Historical / Getty Images)

North by Northwest was released to significant praise, with reviewers calling it a masterpiece. This sentiment hasn’t gone away over the years, as many still consider it to be one of the best movies of all time. For this reason, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Although the movie turned out well, it wasn’t smooth sailing the entire time. Hitchcock had to deal with a certain spy agency getting overly involved in his work.

CIA intervention

Hitchcock’s new work would be the first major Hollywood film to use the CIA name as part of the plot. There was just one problem with this: the CIA was already heavily involved in what the movie industry was producing and would be just as involved with North by Northwest. The agency worked to ensure that Hollywood was producing art that aligned with a ‘pro-America’ and ‘anti-Communist’ agenda.

Alfred Hitchcock in a black suit and tie lifts his arm where a stuffed crow sits.
Alfred Hitchcock poses with a stuffed crow in a promotional portrait for his film The Birds, 1963. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection/ Moviepix/ Getty Images)

This can be seen in how they forced the end of the Animal Farm film to be changed. They also planted an agent in the industry, who worked in production and casting. One of his known tasks was to cast African-Americans in major films so that the US didn’t seem to have as many problems with racial discrimination as the Soviet Union made out. In a less hands-on way, the CIA also worked to keep their name out of the movies, like in North by Northwest.

Alternative plans

After scratching the original name, The Man in Lincoln’s Nose, when the Parks Commission of the Department of the Interior refused to let them film at Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock wanted to go with The CIA Story. This completely went against the ongoing CIA mission with studio lawyers to ensure that all references to their agency were removed from scripts before production. This meant that the name had to be changed to something new, with Hitchcock settling on North by Northwest. 

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint hold each other while standing on a fake set of Mount Rushmore.
Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall make their escape onto a fake Mount Rushmore in a scene from North by Northwest, 1959. (Photo Credit: Silver Screen Collection /Moviepix / Getty Images)

Some credit Hitchcock with being the first person to expose the CIA to the public, although it seems unlikely that this was really the case. Either way, his vision for North by Northwest was certainly changed. MGM, the production company he was working with, was also pressured by the CIA. They forced Hitchcock to remove his numerous references to the agency within the script. He was allowed to keep only one line that referenced them along with other agencies like the FBI.

More from us: 9 Outrageous Rules Actors Had to Follow During Hollywood’s Golden Age

The final change that was required for production to go ahead was the removal of a sign reading, “Central Intelligence Agency,” which was used on set. Instead, a much smaller sign was made, and it still had to be partially covered.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.