South by Southwest: Hitchcock in the New Hollywood

The declining years of the studio system began what many critics believe to be the peak years for Alfred Hitchcock. Films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) were tremendously successful and Hitchcock was becoming a household name, if it had not been already. Thomas Schatz book, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, notes that screenwriter Ernest Lehman, with a firm understanding of Hitchcock’s signature style, was looking to write a Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films with “glamour, wit, excitement, movement, big scenes, a large canvas, innocent bystanders caught up in the great derring-do, in the Hitchcock manner” (486). The script he wrote for what became Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) may not have ended all other Hitchcock films, but it surely has plenty of glamour, wit, excitement, etc.

Schatz provides pre-production details for North by Northwest including the production studio used and the budget they designated. Schatz suggests that Hitchcock did not really have a typical studio that he enjoyed to work with, and for this picture, MGM was the acting production studio. The initial budget was set at $3.1 million, but due to multiple location shooting and falling behind schedule, the cost rose to $4.3 million. No complaints from MGM were heard because of their complete trust in a Hitchcock-Cary Grant project.

Given all of the adjectives that Lehman used to describe the script he wrote, the film does stand out as an action-thriller more so than a psychological thriller, which is a more “Hitchcockian” genre. Car chases, conspiracy, murder, sex, romance, gunplay, and a climactic scene taking place on top of a national monument (Mt. Rushmore) highlight what the film presents, and all of the above would be typical of any big budget blockbuster today. In her book, Hitchcock’s Films, Robin Wood describes North by Northwest as “a lightweight work, a relaxation, in which we see Hitchcock working at something less than full pressure” (98). Wood does not dislike the film. She means that the film does provide the sort of depth that other Hitchcock films have in terms of symbolism above all else. She includes a quote from Hitchcock from Cahiers du Cinema No. 102 that directly reinforces the lack of symbolism that reads, “There are no symbols in North by Northwest. Oh yes! One. The last shot. The train entering the tunnel after the love-scene between Grant and Eva-Marie Saint. It’s a phallic symbol. But don’t tell anyone” (98). Predictably, Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, and Eva-Marie Saint’s character, Eve Kendell, were going to wind up together; the couple whom the phallic symbol is associated. However, some plot twists along the way put that prediction in peril, including a twist that has Eve send Roger to his possible death by way of a crop duster.

In what is regarded as one of the greatest sequences of any Hitchcock film (or possibly any film), the protagonist, Roger, takes a bus to the middle of nowhere to meet with a man who we later find out does not exist. Eve gave Roger the address to this alleged rendezvous, but in a slow, suspenseful, tension filled sequence, Roger and viewers discover that he is sent there to be murdered. The sequence begins with Roger patiently waiting for his meeting partner, George Kaplan, to show up. One car goes by, then another car, then another, and finally one last car that drops off a man on the other side of the road. Of course, this is not George Kaplan. It is a man waiting for a bus who so brilliantly deduces that “that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” Roger stares at the plane befuddled but begins to figure out what is going on when the plane starts coming right towards him. The plane makes a couple of attempts to hit Roger, but the third attempt is the most famous shot of the sequence. The camera begins to track backwards with Roger running toward it and the plane coming from behind. Without the influence of music, this shot carries on until the plane has just barely missed Roger as he ducks out of the way.

In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock discusses his thoughts about the seven minute crop duster sequence. He says the reason for the longer shots instead of an up-tempo editing style was due to the open space of the setting. If quick editing were to be used, the audience may not be as conscious of the surrounding space. By showing the entire path the plane takes, the audience has more of an idea of how big the surrounding space is, how long it takes someone to run in the space, and how long it would take the plane to reach that person. With temporality unaffected by editing in the sequence, a more suspenseful atmosphere is created, which is exactly what Hitchcock does best.

One of the more distinguishable shots of the film comes after Roger is framed for the stabbing of a United Nations employee. Roger begins to run frantically to escape the building without being taken into custody. Once he gets to the front door, an incredibly high over-head shot, presumably taken from the height of the United Nations building, is presented. It is difficult to even see Roger from this shot.

Wood discusses the shot in her book and calls Roger a microscopic figure and a “smug, self-confident advertising man, so sure of the effectiveness of his personality, reduced to an almost indistinguishable speck, and a completely isolated speck, for he is now pursued by the forces of order as well as of disorder” (102). He is a speck on a radar of the world. The shot symbolizes the difficulties of finding one man in a world with so many. Hitchcock embraces the wanted man mentality light-heartedly in the film in a scene at Grand Central Station. Several law enforcement agents are scattered throughout the station and with a slow pan, Roger is seen sitting in a telephone booth. Once he gets up, he puts on sunglasses as a “disguise.” The situation is slightly comedic because of the vulnerable position Roger is in, in combination with the sunglasses. Roger must be careful still, but he also must figure out who framed him.

Shifting back toward the Roger and Eve relationship, after all of the plot twists and turns have been revealed, a beautiful long shot is seen with Roger on the edge of the left side of the frame and Eve on the right side. Between them are tall trees with casts of shade from a calm sunlight to illuminate an appropriate setting for the beginning of a new life together. Wood discusses the scene more thoroughly when she writes,

We see them in long shot gazing at each other from the extremities of the screen,
across the space of trees and filtered, everything still, the two hesitant, as if shy of
each. Then a shot of Thornhill as he begins to move: the camera with him, left to
right. Cut to a shot of Eve as she starts: the camera tracks with her from right to left.
And so they united: Hitchcock beautifully involves the spectator in their towards each
other… (108).

Hitchcock is deemed the “master of suspense” but he also understands romance and the emotions that come with it. He can find a beautiful image and utilize it in an effective way that coincides with the context of the story as he does with the described sequence. He involves the spectator in Roger and Eve’s relationship, as Wood describes, with his camera work. His treatment of romance and human emotion is not an element to be overlooked in his films.

North by Northwest was a very popular film at the time of its release. It is a film that could be classified as a blockbuster today with the prediction that Hitchcock would use special effects that are available today. Hitchcock demonstrates his understanding of creating suspense, excitement, and romance with his control of timing, pacing, camera work, and mis-en-scene. In a time when studios were losing control, having a large name as a filmmaker and having large names to star in films was a huge advantage in generating success critically and in the box office. After North by Northwest, Hitchcock created a low budget film in 1960 in a very short amount of time that is set at a small place called The Bates Motel. The film is Psycho, which many consider his masterpiece. Decades of work stemming from the 1920s and, still, in his fourth decade he was still reaching the peak of his career. It is no wonder that filmmakers of the French New Wave name Hitchcock as one of the greatest influences for their films.

-Greg Davis



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