"North by Northwest"-- The Anatomy of the Film

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This Analysis Contains Spoilers

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This not a review of the classic Hitchcock film, but rather an analysis of the film from the perspectives of a film student and/or film maker, based on three crucial questions regarding the film. I may do a review of the film at some point, but it would be positive as the film is extremely well made and entertaining. It came out in 1959 but in no way feels dated. This is due in large part to Hitchcock's visionary film making. His groundbreaking techniques have influenced modern film makers and things that may seem common and ordinary in film now, were quite new and unusual in Hitchcock's day.

I hope you enjoy this analysis.


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The basic plot of the film revolves around a Madison Avenue film executive named Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) who is mistaken for someone he is not (a federal agent) and is nearly murdered. he sets out to clear his name and find out who has set him up and why.



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North by Northwest


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

MGM, 1959

Starring:

Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill

Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall

James Mason as Phillip Vandamm

Martin landau as Leonard

Leo G. Carroll as The Professor

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Official Trailer

Question 1.

Based on the opening five minutes of the film, what do we learn about Roger Thornhill and how does Hitchcock use these characteristics against him throughout the film?


We first see Roger Thornhill rushing from his office to a taxi on the way to a hotel to have drinks with some friends (business colleagues) of his. With him is his secretary who’s frantically taking notes that Roger is dictating to her. Thus, our initial impression of Roger Thornhill is a sense of him being a man of some importance and busyness (after all, if one is not busy or important, one would not have a secretary).

We also learn that he is a fairly heavy drinker.

The most striking thing we learn, however, is Thornhill’s cavalier attitude towards the truth. When he directs his secretary to mislead a client she objects saying that’s untruthful. He responds by saying that there is “no such thing as a lie, only an expedient exaggeration.” This leads me to believe that Thornhill may not be entirely trustworthy and may be of questionable moral character.

Hitchcock uses the lies and the alcohol consumption against Thornhill throughout the film. The most striking example is after he’s given drink and forced to drive drunk to escape from his would be killers. While we, the viewer, know that he’s been forced to drink against his will and was forced to drive inebriated to escape, no one believes him. Certainly the story would be fantastical and hard to believe but his mom especially is skeptical because of his propensity for drink and history of stretching the truth. Throughout the film you see Thornhill struggling to make others believe him (the murder at the UN is another example) and this is set up by the first few minutes of the film.

Question 2:

If "Rear Window" is about tight framing, reaction shots and, therefore, "being stuck", it seems that "North by Northwest" is a film about scale, tracking shots, angle shots and constant movement. Discuss one scene where Hitchcock uses tracking and angle shots to create this affect.


Having seen several Hitchcock films prior to North by Northwest , I was struck by how, even though the film oozes Hitchcock, the way it’s filmed is drastically different from other films. Whereas films like The Birds, Rear Window and Psycho use a lot of close and tight in shots, North by Northwest relies a lot on long tracking and high angle shots. The shots of the train moving along the track and the scene where the crop duster chases Roger Thornhill, these scenes are quite impressive because of the high scope of the shots. In the case of the train shots, they show the hugeness of the train and the length of the journey. With the crop duster, it shows the aloneness of Thornhill and heightens his vulnerability.

The shot, however that instantly struck me was the huge overhead shot of Thornhill escaping from the UN. To accomplish this birds eye view, Hitchcock placed the cameras way above the action, probably on a crane or fixed object on the building and pointed down at the "tiny" actor running across a concrete pathway. The shot makes Thornhill appear antlike as he escapes the UN, slowing down his escape and pointing out his vulnerability, contrasting with the sharp sense of self importance that Thornhill’s character seems to possess. It was very striking to see him scurry along the long corridor from the UN to the street to a waiting taxi as he fled the scene of a murder he did not commit. It was a brilliant usage of scope and scale that furthered the emotional and psychological state of Thornhill at that point in the film, and thereafter.

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Question 3. As light and entertaining as "North by Northwest is", what are some of the specific scenes in the film that have a darker aspect?

Any time you’re dealing with death and murder and mayhem, you’re going to, by nature, have a dark aspect. There weren’t many overtly dark scenes in this film but I did find the scene where Thornhill was driving the car drunk after escaping from his murderers to be somewhat dark. He was drunk and endangering his own life and the life of others. It was not filmed in a humorous or light manner and, of course, the scene took place at night, so, it was naturally dark.

The darkest scene, though is the sinister and infamous crop duster scene. The wrongly accused Thornhill is set to be murdered but not with a bomb or a stabbing or a gun but by an airplane. Death from above. Even though the plane is fast, it is a slow and terrifying attack. It’s dark in its deliberate uniqueness. It’s dark in the fear scene on Thornhill’s face and is made even more dark by the setting of a vast landscape in the middle of nowhere.

The fact that this scene occurs in broad daylight makes it even more sinister.

Works Cited

Dick, Bernard F. The Anatomy of Film. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's. 2010 PRINT

North by Northwest. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. MGM. 1959 FILM

Thanks for Reading.

A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY) CONSIDERS HIMSELF A POET FIRST AND FOREMOST BUT IS ALSO A SKILLED SHORT STORY, BIOGRAPHER AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION,DIGGING TO CHINA, WILL BE RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AS WELL AS YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.

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Comments 24 comments

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Iguide, thanks o much for your read and your comment. I appreciate your input and insight!


iguidenetwork profile image

iguidenetwork 3 years ago from Austin, TX

Thanks for your spot-on analysis of one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. It is really sinister film all around, and cleverly made. Up, awesome and a following from me. :)


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks, Flora. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I've only seen a handful of hitchcock films, but my fave actually is Shadow of a Doubt, followed by this one and The Birds. Thanks also for the observation about drinking. I hadn't thought of all that, but you are correct. Thanks for reading and commeint and Bruce, thanks for sharing!


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 4 years ago

Thanks to Cogerson for the link to this article. North By Northwest is second only to Rear Window in my preference list of Hitch films. He is my favourite director. I have lost track of the number of times I have seen NByNW. Regarding the alcohol, his taste in what Thornhill drinks changes over time. Originally, he and "Kaplan" have vastly different tastes in drinks. Once he becomes fully committed to playing Kaplan in the hospital, he starts to drink bourbon on purpose, rather than scotch/gibson. Voted up and interesting.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Bruce, it's never too late. I'm glad you enjoyed this and I appreciate the share. Always nice to see you. I have a storyboard on Shadow of a Doubt I'll be posting soon. Thanks for stopping by!


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 4 years ago from Virginia

Excellent read....I am sorry it took me this long to find this excellent hub....and I see some people that are Hitchcock fans have not commented...I will be sending them this link.

I agree Hitchcock does an excellent job of showing us Thornhill's vices in a very short period...I think he is a much better man at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning of the movie. Hitchcock does an excellent job with space in North by Northwest...this is another example of why he is such a master. Voted up and awesome.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks, Ruby. I'm glad you enjoyed this!


always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

I loved this movie. Your review is excellent, and you are correct, Hitchcock is a cut above all the rest. He was one-of-a-kind. Thank you..


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

I agree, GClark. He did more with less. I actually don't care for directors like Michael Bay and James Cameron because they are so reliant on technology and don't care about story. Hitchcock was interested in both.


GClark profile image

GClark 4 years ago from United States

Enjoyed your analysis of one of my all time favorite movies by Hitchcock. Voted Up. I don't believe there has been another movie maker since to rival Hitchcock's genius; especially, when you consider that present day directors have lots more technical expertise and innovations at their disposal for special effects, etc. GClark


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks, Till. He's a terrific film maker and this is a terrific film


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Vinaya, I agree. He was a true cinematic genius


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Deborah, I actually watched this for film class and the questions here are the ones I was supposed to address. I didn't read your hub but I'd love to and I'd love to cross link it. Can you send me a link? Thanks for reading and commenting!


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

Hitchcock has always been my favorite. He uses everything at his disposal to make his films draw you in and pay attention. Your analysis is from a point of view not often seen about his films. Very enjoyable and informational. Voted up. Thanks for SHARING.


Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

Interesting analysis of the classic. Hitchcock is one of my favorite film makers. I have watched this movie.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

I absolutely love this movie, and loved this hub for giving us a film student's perspective. Your questions and answers really get to the heart of what makes this film so wonderful. Just last week, I included this movie in my hub of five classic movies to watch. I would love to think you saw my hub and were inspired to rewatch the movie and provide us with this great analysis. But if not, that's okay. : )


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Alocsin. The scale of this film is, to me, what makes it stand out!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Alecia, I think M Night tries to do a lot of Hitchcock style work, but, the problem is, M Nigt is a good story teller, but he's lousy with endings. Hitchcock was great with endings. Thanks for reading!


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

This is a different perspective on one of the great movies. I like how you pointed out the difference in scale between N by NW and films like Psycho. Nicely done. Voting this Up and Interesting.


Alecia Murphy profile image

Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

I have to say, I enjoyed reading this hub very much. Hitchcock to me is a filmmaker who is beloved but enough modern directors don't take the right cues from him. While they may take his devices in some ways, they don't make them tight enough to work in the ways that he does. I have only seen one movie of his that didn't work and that was Marnie but considering the circumstances they were under while it was made, I'm surprised it got released. This is a great read! Voted up, awesome, and interesting.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thomas, I actually really like Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock claims also is his favorite. But it is hard to choose. The man was a master!


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PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Tammy, you're welcome. why are you listed as unverified?


tammyswallow 4 years ago

Well done PDX guy. I haven't seen this movie but I am a fan of the oldies but goodies. Thanks for sharing this. Voted up!


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Justin...

You picked, perhaps, my favorite Hitchcock movie which is not an easy list to order if you have ever watched more than one. That said...this is mine. Great analysis of a great movie.

Thanks,

Thomas

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    Justin W. Price (PDXKaraokeGuy)742 Followers
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    Justin W. Price, AKA PDXKaraokeGuy, is a freelance writer, blogger, and award- nominated author based out of Portland, Oregon.



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