Note: This paper was originally submitted as a term paper for a course in Film Criticism (Instructor - Jewell Fitzgerald) at Edgewood College, Madison, Wisconsin, on December 8, 1996.
What is North by Northwest? Is it:
a) Alfred Hitchcock's attempt to remake Hamlet, as Stanley Cavell asserts in "North by Northwest" (249-64)?
b) The model that the James Bond series of films was aspiring to?
c) A remake of The 39 Steps?
d) A remake of The 39 Steps, with allusions from Notorious?
e) A comic thriller?
f ) Any of the above?
The correct answer, of course, is f). For my purpose, I shall analyze
North by Northwest in the light of choice d). In short, North by
Northwest echoes two of Hitchcock's previous films: The 39 Steps
To begin the analysis, it is necessary to tell what North by Northwest is. I could describe the essence of the story, but Donald Spoto, in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, does it very well:
A group of spies, dealing in the exportation of high U.S. government secrets, is headed by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Their target is Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), whom they mistake for "George Kaplan", a decoy created by the American intelligence agency. Thornhill...is forced to "become" Kaplan, and has a brief affair with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who turns out to be Vandamm's mistress...and a double agent working for the United States.... (Spoto 339).
What is the inciting incident? As the bellboy at the Plaza Hotel is paging "George Kaplan", Thornhill snaps his fingers and calls the bellboy over to send a telegram to his mother. How do we get there? In a quickly paced opening scene (not a prologue, and so quickly spoken that Rutgers Films in Print editor James Naremore's book North by Northwest, including a transcription of the dialogue, is most helpful here), Hitchcock informs us by the conversation between Thornhill and his secretary that Thornhill is an advertising man, quite the ladies' man, and a veteran drinker. We also learn that he is dominated by his mother: Thornhill notes, "Sure she does (sniff my breath), like a bloodhound" (Naremore 38). Further evidence of his drinking abilities is shown when one of his companions at the Oak Room remarks, "...there's nobody faster coming down the homestretch" (Naremore 40). In short, the status quo for Thornhill was that of the typical businessman in New York: Dinner at "21", theater after dinner, a little amour in a few days,...
When Thornhill snaps his fingers for the bellboy to send his mother a telegram, Hitchcock lets us know that something is about to break up the status quo with a combination track right/zoom in shot, ending with a medium shot of two grim men. They kidnap Thornhill, and thus Thornhill's journey begins.
It is very clear that Thornhill is a protagonist. How does Hitchcock indicate this? First, star recognition - Cary Grant had, by this time, nearly thirty years of experience in Hollywood. He was a star, period. Second, Thornhill was wearing a light grey suit, which contrasts with virtually everyone else in the film. Third, the camera moves and follows Thornhill in the opening scene, and in many other scenes throughout the film. Fourth, Thornhill is on screen for almost the entire film. And when he isn't, others are usually talking about him. The best example of this is the meeting at the U.S. Intelligence Agency, where the female agent concludes, "Good-bye, Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are" (Naremore 78).
Is there another protagonist? Only two possible candidates exist - the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and Eve Kendall. However, neither qualify as a protagonist. The Professor does not qualify, because he does not do anything. Who saves Thornhill and Eve Kendall at Mount Rushmore? The state trooper, not the Professor, shoots Leonard. Eve is a more difficult case, because Hitchcock does use certain devices that would indicate that she might be a protagonist. Both the Professor and Vandamm talk about her when she is not on screen. When she and Thornhill are in a scene together, they get an equal amount of closeups. The camera follows her like it does Thornhill. And there also is star recognition (Eva Marie Saint having done very well in On the Waterfront ).
However, what finally determines whether Eve is a protagonist or not is her relationship to the crisis and climax. The climax of North by Northwest is the Mount Rushmore sequence, beginning when Vandamm learns that Eve is an agent. But where is the crisis? Could it be Thornhill's decision to play, or not to play, Kaplan for Eve's sake? If he doesn't, Eve will die. If he does, Eve will live, and Thornhill will get to possess her.
But there is another crisis point. Thornhill must decide to either cooperate with the Professor and stay at the hospital until after Eve leaves with Vandamm, or leave the hospital to try to prevent it. Hitchcock hints of what would have happened if Thornhill had stayed put: Vandamm notes that "...This matter is best disposed of from a great height. Over water" (Naremore 155). Neither of these crises involve Eve "doing the deed." Both require Thornhill to make the choice, to take action. Therefore, Eve Kendall is not a protagonist.
However, which of these crises is the crisis of the whole film? Since both crises do change the action of the film profoundly, both seem to qualify. However, since Thornhill's decision to play Kaplan does eventually fail in its purpose, because Leonard finds the blank gun, the crisis of the film is Thornhill's decision in the hospital - go or stay?
We have already noted one instance of foreshadowing (the track right / zoom in at the Oak Room), and there are two other particularly notable instances. First, the violins at the Plaza are playing "It's A Most Unusual Day" (Spoto 346). This affective use of effective music is certainly an understated ironic foreshadowing. Second, various references to airplanes foreshadow the cropdusting sequence. These references include Thornhill at Grand Central Station calling his mother: "...there's no place to hide....jump off of a moving plane?" (Naremore 79)
The dénouement involves, according to Hitchcock, the one symbol of the film. From a shot of Thornhill beginning to lift Eve from the precipice, a match cut makes it seem that he is lifting her directly into an upper berth on the Twentieth Century Limited. As they kiss, Hitchcock cuts to an exterior shot of the train entering a tunnel. Hitchcock states to Cahiers du Cinema, "It's a phallic symbol, but don't tell anyone" (Naremore 182).
Regarding the technical aspects of North by Northwest, there are several aspects worth noting. Hitchcock's camera work is notable for his use of bird's eye view shots at key points of the film, in order to increase the suspense at the end of a scene. The most notable example was the very high bird's eye shot of Thornhill leaving the United Nations. This shot is his best use of a Schüfftan shot: A shot combining models or paintings with live action by use of a special glass. Hitchcock uses this process in the Mount Rushmore sequence (Naremore 30).
Hitchcock's use of rear projection as another way to combine two images on film is legendary, and he uses it to good effect throughout the film. The most impressive sequence, the cropduster sequence, was the one where I expected to find a lot of rear projection. But of the 133 shots, only eight were rear projection shots. The shot that I expected to be a rear projection shot was Shot 670. However, this shot, where Hitchcock, trucking back in a slightly low angle medium shot, shows Thornhill running away from the airplane, down the dirt road, was not a rear projection shot (Naremore 102-10).
As for his rhythm, Hitchcock kept the pace quite fast. He tended to increase the suspense for a while, relieve the tension with a joke, then increase the suspense again. A good example of this was Thornhill's boarding the train in New York. The tension builds as Thornhill sees the headline, avoids the police at the observation window, tries to buy a ticket, and sneaks onto the train without one. Then, his encounter with Eve relieves the tension - just a bit: "Seven parking tickets." Hitchcock also showed his fast rhythm in his A/B shot/reverse shot exchanges, where he tended to either cut just before one character finishes speaking or just after the other begins to speak (Naremore 29). Such use of time overlap is, of course, an alienation device.
Hitchcock's use of lighting was notable in two respects. First, his use of lighting to emphasize something about his characters is notable in two scenes: The scene between Thornhill and Vandamm at Glen Cove, and the scene between the Professor and Thornhill at the airport. In the former, the lighting ensured that the audience would empathize with Thornhill, as Vandamm was in eerie shadow, while Thornhill's face was key lit. And another key light on Thornhill at the airport (ostensibly from another airplane) is used as a metaphor (Thornhill - "Now I get it!") and as a transitional device to move to the next scene at Mount Rushmore.
Second, Hitchcock uses his day for night sequence at Vandamm's house and Mount Rushmore as something more than realism - the moon by itself couldn't provide anywhere near all of the light shown. This clearly is something to help maintain psychic distance in the film.
Speaking of alienation, Hitchcock needs a lot of it. Why? Because there is a lot of empathy generated merely by Thornhill's situation. Thornhill is on the run because of circumstances beyond his control. I felt a lot of empathetic response throughout the film, merely because of this. Hitchcock helps ensure that we empathize with Thornhill by keeping him on screen for virtually the entire film.
I have mentioned the blatant affective lighting in the Mount Rushmore sequence and the time overlap in the dialogue as alienation devices Hitchcock uses in North by Northwest. He also puts the very beautiful scenery to good use as an alienation technique throughout the film. And lots of expressionistic camera angles, particularly the bird's eye shots, help Hitchcock keep an appropriate psychic distance.
However, Hitchcock's key alienation technique is the script. Or more precisely, all of the comic irony in the script. When the film invokes the motif of acting or advertising, this irony is especially pronounced. Thornhill says that there are no lies, just "...the expedient exaggeration" (Naremore 38). How ironic is it to see Thornhill become a victim of a better exaggerator? The headlines and the radio news in Rapid City drive this point home. And regarding acting, this exchange between Vandamm and Thornhill is quite revealing (Naremore 122):
V: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan?....Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors Studio.
T: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
V: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.
T: I wonder what subtle form of manslaughter is next on the program?....
Spoto calls North by Northwest a "comic thriller (339). I must concur. But is there any praxis or theoria? No theoria exists in North by Northwest. But there is praxis; it may be stated as: When Thornhill rescued Eve, they lived happily ever after (Italics mine).
Now it is time to confront my thesis, that North by Northwest echoes
two of Hitchcock's previous films: The 39 Steps and Notorious.
First, there are too many similarities between The 39 Steps and
North by Northwest to conclude anything but that these two films
are very closely related. Spoto notes that, in both The 39 Steps
and North by Northwest (Spoto 38-41, 342):
a) The protagonist is fleeing from the police and the antagonists,
b) He must catch the antagonists in order to clear his name,
c) He becomes involved with a beautiful woman, and they don't trust each other,
d) The protagonist must surrender his real identity temporarily,
e) No one seems to believe the protagonist when he is telling the truth,
f ) And an airplane menaces the protagonist during his flight.
There are other similarities (for instance, both protagonists are rescued from the antagonists by getting the police to arrest them), but these are sufficient to prove that the two films are closely related. As for Notorious, there are two interesting elements that bear examining. First, in both Notorious and North by Northwest, a loose woman's relationship with a foreign agent is exploited by an American intelligence agency (Cavell 251). This is a derivative element, similar to the elements mentioned above, that came from Notorious and went to North by Northwest. Also, in both Notorious and North by Northwest, there are people on both sides who are trying to control the events. In North by Northwest, these roles are played by the Professor and Vandamm. In Notorious, they are played by Prescott and Sebastian.
Second, Cary Grant is in both films. However, his role in North by Northwest is almost a mirror image of the role that Ingrid Bergmann played in Notorious. In Notorious, Grant plays the agent who recruits and directs Bergmann. In North by Northwest, Grant is playing the role that Bergmann played in Notorious: A heavy drinker that misplaces his trust in someone who betrays that trust, thus placing his life in jeopardy (Spoto 345).
So perhaps North by Northwest is not the greatest film that Hitchcock
ever made. It is, however, a good film in its own right. It should be,
with The 39 Steps and Notorious as close relatives. It also
does showcase a good deal of Hitchcock's career in one neat package.
Now for a brief word about our auteur, Alfred Hitchcock. There are certain elements of Mr. Hitchcock's career that parallel that of another acclaimed filmaker - Chuck Jones. Yes, Hitchcock had multi-million dollar budgets, feature film actors that any other director would kill for (Cary Grant, Leo G. Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, just to name a few), and some very good writers (Ben Hecht and Ernest Lehmann). Meanwhile Jones only had a shoestring budget, Mel Blanc, and one of the most famous film stars of all time (Bugs Bunny). It is clear that Hitchcock has had a far greater effect on the art of motion pictures than Jones did.
Both began their American directing career in 1938. Both learned to "cut in the camera": that is, to pre-edit their films. In Leonard Leff's study of the partnership between David O. Selznick and Hitchcock, he reveals that Selznick loved to edit his films. However, he and Hitchcock disagreed on various aspects of filmmaking. And since Selznick was the producer, Hitchcock did not have the final cut. So, in order to make it more likely that Selznick would cut the film in the manner that he wanted, Hitchcock "cut in the camera". This was no guarantee that Hitchcock would have the final say, because Selznick was willing to spend huge sums for retakes and supplemental scenes (Leff 215-6). Jones, on the other hand, learned to "cut in the camera" because of simple economics: His producers demanded that each film last exactly six minutes (Jones 179).
Second, both Hitchcock and Jones used the technique of storyboarding to maintain precise control of what appeared on the screen. The storyboarding was done before principal photography began, but after the shooting script was ready. This allowed the director to preplan camera movement and actors' blocking. Hitchcock always used a storyboard, using it to even detail lighting setups (Leff 145, Spoto 463-99). Jones used storyboarding differently; he used the storyboard as the device to plan camera setups as well as to write the story (Jones 68-70, 154).
But where Hitchcock really shined was at the art of manipulating images to ensure that the audience responded in the manner that they wanted. In North by Northwest, Lehman had written the cropdusting sequence so that the camera would cross-cut between the pilot and Thornhill. Hitchcock redesigned the scene in such a way that the only perspective was Thornhill's (Naremore 13). This change enhanced the feeling of empathy we feel toward Thornhill. The timing of Hitchcock's cuts also enhanced empathetic response. His composition of images (different angles, different perspectives) also help the director maintain psychic distance - in effect, this could be one way Hitchcock tells us "It's only a movie!" Jones could not even approach this ideal - he had only one actual camera to work with, and only six minutes per film. Jones did, however, have some ability to simulate different camera angles in the animation process. Budget and schedule constraints often limited how much of this process he could use.
Alfred Hitchcock was very good with routine special effects, such as rear projection. Other directors may have treated them lackadaisically, but Hitchcock never did. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock used it sparingly in the cropdusting sequence, to have a better effect than it would have been if he had used it more.
Hitchcock said once, "... the best way is to do it with scissors"
(Spoto 529). Whether he was talking about editing, murder, or both, who
Cavell, Stanley. "North by Northwest." A Hitchcock Reader. Eds. Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1986. 249-64.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. North by Northwest. 1959. Videocassette. MGM/UA, 1983.
Jones, Chuck. Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist. New York: Farrar, 1989.
Leff, Leonard J. Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O Selznick in Hollywood. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.
Naremore, James, ed. North by Northwest: Alfred Hitchcock, director. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion
Pictures. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, n.d. 338-53.