The R.O.T Matchbook From North by Northwest

THE R.O.T MATCHBOOK FROM NORTH BY NORTHWEST

This matchbook was an instrumental graphic prop in the classic mystery / thriller from 1959, North by Northwest. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, this movie is full of twists, turns and one-liners that still hit home today. Warning, this blog post does contain spoilers!

 

At the end of the first act, Roger Thornhill is on the run for a crime he didn’t commit and manages to escape New York on a train to Chicago, where he meets Eve Kendall. They sit down to eat together on the train and Roger offers Eve a light for her cigarette and pulls out his matchbook.

For those unfamiliar with matchbooks, as I was a few years ago, they were invented in 1892. Manufacturing peaked during the 1940s and 1950s, then steadily declined and properly fell out of use during the 1980s. Matchbooks were little card holders containing about 10 – 15 wooden matches stuck together. When a light was needed, you would simply snap off a match, strike it on a strip attached to the matchbook and light up. Matchbooks had another purpose too, much like business cards today, companies would print their name, address and sometimes elaborate designs on them, to give out to customers as a form of advertising. Prominent individuals in society would also have their own branded matchbooks to show status and as a form of self-advertising.

Anyway, back to the film. Rodger and Eve are flirting at the table on the train and Eve wants a smoke so Roger gets out his matchbook. The plain white matchbook has just 3 letters on it in a squared-off, sans-serif, art-deco style typeface, which reads “R.O.T” and Roger says it’s his “trademark”. Eve replies “Rodger O Thornhill. What does the O stand for?”, to which he responds “nothing”. This is all viewed as part of their mysterious, flirty banter as they size each other up, however this throw away moment serves as an important part of the plot. The matchbook itself, as a piece of graphic prop design, is simple and elegant. The blocky typeface is reflective of Rodger’s masculine character and fits its purpose well. It’s also great to see a graphic prop get so much attention.

The matchbook unexpectedly appears again however, near the end of the film. Eve is in an apartment, waiting to leave on a plane with the two villains she’s secretly been double crossing. Rodger breaks in upstairs and wants to warn her after he overhears the two villains discussing their plan to throw Eve out of the airplane but needs a method to subtly contact her.

Rodger then pulls his trademark R.O.T matchbook from his pocket, knowing Eve will recognise it having discussed it together at the beginning of the second act. Credit to screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, for creating this clever plot device. Using a pen, Rodger writes a message to Eve on the inside of the matchbook, “They’re on to you – I’m in your room”. He then throws it down to her, hoping she’ll see it and pick it up. However, tension builds as Leonard, one of the two villains, played Martin Landau, comes over to talk with Eve. He looks down, sees the matchbook on the floor and even picks it up! Now at peak suspense, Leonard casually throws the matchbook onto the table and walks away. Eve finally spots it, reads it, and the rest is history.

It is rare and wonderful to see a graphic prop at the centre of so much suspense and tension, especially in such a classic movie. There are no graphic designers credited on the production of North by Northwest, so the creator of this famous piece of cinematic prop history was either Harry Edwards who is credited as working on Props and John Ricardo who was Second Props. If you’ve seen any films with a graphic prop used to such good effect, please leave a comment as I’d love to hear.


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