1959, Alfred Hitchcock, Auteur, Bernard Herrmann, Cary Grant, Cinema, Cinema article, David Bordwell, Entrapment, Ernest Lehman, Eva Marie Saint, Film, Film analysis, Film Article, Film essay, Guilt, Guilty Object, Hollywood, James Mason, Key Concepts In Film Studies, Kristin Thompson, MacGuffin, Movie essay, Movies, North By Northwest, Scene analysis, Spy, Stain, Susan Hayward, Suspense, Textual analysis, Thriller, Voyeurism
The majority of Hitchcock’s films contain the same recurring themes but there are certain scenes which are included that destabilize one another to a certain degree. In the fifteen-minute climax in North By Northwest, we get a glimpse into Hitchcock’s most frequent themes, which include voyeurism, suspense, entrapment, perversity of relationships and guilt. Although all of these have different aims during this scene from North By Northwest, they are not separated and regularly undercut one another that unveil significant meaning.
First, Alfred Hitchcock uses certain settings that are categorized into two types – places of order and places of disorder. In this sequence from North By Northwest, the audience witness both. The place of order is the national monuments. These are there naturally and appear striking with a sense of civilization and order behind them. Earlier in the film, Roger observes them through a telescope. He knows it is the whereabouts of Vandamm’s house but audience perceive it as a landscape of order and perhaps as a tourist-attracted location. However, this becomes jeopardised by Roger and Eve wanting to escape and Vandamm’s henchman go after them. Locations are perhaps threatened by specific forces of disorder via the characters and their motives. On the other hand, Vandamm’s house and Mount Rushmore serves as a place of disorder. It becomes the centred location of suspense, entrapment, voyeurism, guilt and the perversity of relationships in this sequence yet at the same time; it is a wealthy, rich-looking modernist house. Therefore, to a certain extent, it could be a place of order too that has been introduced by disordered forces.
The first theme that is introduced into this sequence from North By Northwest is voyeurism, which Hayward (1996, p393) describes as “an act of viewing the activities of other people unbeknownst to them.” The first action takes place from a tracking shot of Roger pacing towards the gate entrance as his upward gaze and long shot of Vandamm’s house becomes the outlook from his perspective. This cuts back to his reaction and he begins to sneak towards the house. Whilst Roger does so, he becomes to not only move closer to Eve but to observe her. The first glimpse he gets whilst trying to watch Eve is from a low-shot in a wide position. We see half of the house as a close-up yet the window, suggestively with Eve inside it, as a long shot. The audience know that the scene places him in that exact position. The camera simply looks upward towards the window whereas the camera looks downward on Roger, which implies that he still has a mountain to climb to save Eve.
From this point, the suspense begins. A lot of tension in cinema relies on music but in this sequence, Hitchcock creates suspense through mise-en-scéne and camera shots. This particular scene is full of suspense and becomes crucial to not only the film’s narrative flow but also to Hitchcock’s auteurist style. For the first few minutes, we experience suspense but not at a highly intense pace. It is Roger’s figure expressions that build it up further as he paces closer to inside Vandamm’s house through multiple still, long and tracking shots. This leaves the audience with fear of Roger being caught and what may happen to him.
The extreme-wide shot of Roger pacing towards the house indicates a sense of entrapment because through that single angle, the camera focuses on the surroundings. Whilst Roger is lurking inside the house, Eve becomes trapped by Vandamm, which the audience can see through physical contact. For example, Vandamm says to Eve “soon, we’ll be off together and I shall dedicate myself to your happiness”. As he said that, his arm is around her shoulder. It is also emotional manipulation from Vandamm as he calmly utters it in a way which he will always be near her. It is her figure expression that signifies her entrapment because she would either look downwards towards the ground or rub her hands together; the latter perhaps serving as significance in this situation to wearing handcuffs.
In the medium shot of Eve, Vandamm and Leonard, the audience see the sequence’s MacGuffin – the microfilm in the antique figure. The two men believe it possesses multiple government secrets that are important to Vandamm and Leonard; however, its purpose and use does not carry the narrative forward. Vandamm described it as “a treasure” yet we never learn why he thinks that. It becomes the MacGuffin too because in this particular moment, viewers see close-ups of the object. Alfred Hitchcock has “defined the term as the device, the gimmick or the papers the spies as the device, the gimmick or the paper the spies are after… the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point” (cited in Maltby, 2003, p479). This suggests that the MacGuffin is simply an object placed into a film which is important to the characters but does not mean anything major to the plot. Some MacGuffins can also be underdeveloped and perhaps if that wasn’t the case, it would’ve been important to the plot.
In addition, Roger is mistaken for George Kaplan, a CIA agent, who turns out to be non-existent. This becomes vital to Roger as it is what has made him a fugitive, yet the background surrounding “George Kaplan” is not taken into consideration. This MacGuffin connects to Roger being a character of guilt and voyeurism from the perspective of others. First, he is a falsely accused man in whom the police attempt to follow and watch him. The audience know that he is innocent but the characters believe him to be guilty. Also the fact that he runs away from the police and spies initiates his guilt, even though he and the audience know he is not guilty of anything.
While Roger is observing the circumstances of Eve being trapped by Vandamm and Leonard within the house, we see that the medium-shot of his observation only focuses on his eyes and fixed gaze upon the situation. In fact, they are in the centre of the screen and become the stand-out feature within the shot. Furthermore, when Eve enters her room through a wide shot, Roger is still watching her. At this time, the lighting on Roger changes, particularly around the mouth and nose area of his face. Before Eve enters, his nose and mouth appear as shadows yet when she does, the lighting becomes slightly clearer. However, the strong array of lighting does not change on his eyes. This reinforces his observation of Eve. After throwing an object to catch her attention, the majority of characters all look at someone or something – Roger watches Eve, she looks outside on the balcony after hearing a sound and out of suspicion, Leonard watches outside.
Leonard goes back inside and a conversation between him and Vandamm commences, once again from Roger’s perspective. During the dialogue, the camera continuously cuts back to Roger. Through these cut-backs, Hitchcock wants the audience to get a glimpse of Roger’s reaction to what he is seeing. This perhaps links Roger’s perversion of the relationship, possibly homosexual, between Leonard and Vandamm. As Roger is watching, Leonard says to Vandamm, “I know you’re terribly fond of Miss Kendall” while he has an angry expression on his face. Vandamm responds to “I think you’re jealous” at which point, Leonard gets a gun out and suspense is suddenly built. Once again, the camera cuts to Roger’s uncomfortable response, which reveals to the audience that even he is uncertain of what may occur.
In this particular incident, we witness the appearance of a stain, another Hitchcock auteurist trademark, which is an occurrence or prop that is purposely wrong, in which both the characters and audience establish. As Leonard pulls out the gun, he fires it but the audience do not see any bullet strike Vandamm, not to mention he was not wounded by it. It can be argued that Leonard’s gun is a toy because no bullet was fired but the fact that he is a spy, it must have been a real one to him. Some could argue that stains are bloopers on Hitchcock’s behalf seeing as it is clear ‘mistake’ but as he is known for deliberating portraying these stains, it becomes another auteurist style of Hitchcock’s. As a result of this gunshot, the camera now moves inside the house with two reverse medium shots of Vandamm and Leonard. This suggests that the audience too are intruding, yet perhaps trapped, not only into the house but the possible homosexual tension between them.
Suspense picks up intensely when Roger climbs through Eve’s window and writes her a message on a matchbox with his initials engraved on. On the note, it says “they’re onto you – I’m in your room.” So, we know Roger is aiming for Eve to read it but Hitchcock’s use of extreme close-up shot whilst Roger is writing it implies viewers to read it. This matchbox turns out to be the sequence’s guilty object. Its significance is that it serves as an important prop which is transference of guilt on behalf of a certain character. Hitchcock used this in the majority of his films seeing as to certain degree, guilt is reflected. We see it serves as an important prop through a close-up shot that introduces it and we still follow the small box, not entirely through camera movement or whether it’s in shot or not, but the knowledge that Roger has written the note for Eve and suspense of whether she will receive it or not. It becomes important to Eve because her reaction and discovery of Roger’s intrusion is perhaps a way out of her guilt seeing as she’s been guilty throughout the entire film. Nevertheless, although the matchbox is only included for approximately one minute of the sequence, it becomes vital to the characters as it builds up further suspense.
As Roger throws the matchbox onto the floor at an opportune moment, it becomes the centre of the audience’s attention for a brief time, intensifying the suspense. This is still at a high-shot from Roger’s perspective. Leonard’s pacing towards Eve sparks fear that he may find it, especially when it appears right below his feet. Leonard discovers it but the camera cuts to Roger’s reaction. He illustrates his uncomfortable, tense expression by removing his hand from the wall, implying that he may need to run and hide, yet he still keeps eye contact. Luckily to Roger and the audience, however, Leonard overlooks it and places it on the table – indirectly leading it to Eve. Hitchcock still allows viewers to follow the matchbox and Hitchcock creates perhaps a two-shot between it and Eve. It is her sudden movement towards the matchbox which leads to her discovery. In a sense, Hitchcock leaves a touch of ambiguity at this point because her head is back to the camera and she reads the note in which she shudders; hence leaving us to imagine her reaction. Nevertheless, we are aware that she wants to get out of this trapped predicament she is in at the hands of Vandamm and Leonard but because she realises Roger is there to rescue her, suspense has rapidly strengthened. Leonard and Vandamm have yet to learn but it arouses nerves and anticipation that they will and also, Eve’s safety is now in jeopardy and of concern to the audience.
Eve has a brief moment with Roger in her room, successfully preventing his presence from Vandamm and Leonard. However as she leaves, Vandamm’s housekeeper Anna spots Roger’s intrusion in reflect of the TV. The camera illustrates that she looks at something and the TV is the result. Hitchcock cuts the camera back to her to get a glimpse of her reaction, in which she appears calm. However, she disappears away from the camera and out of sight which raises suspenseful questions – where is Anna going knowing she’s seen Roger, what is she going to do and what will happen if Roger comes across her?
Suspense tightens even more as Anna holds a gun to Roger, appearing as a threat to shoot him. A wide two-shot of the two arouses tension because it takes place inside the house and the audience know that they are the only two characters within. In addition, Roger becomes trapped; not only that the duo will discover him and the fact he has a gun pointed towards him, but that the entire scene takes place near a cliff. During this incident, the gun is central to the significance of entrapment because the gun’s consequences become Roger’s prevention from overpowering her and escaping, otherwise he will be killed. As this is happening, Vandamm and Leonard are outside walking with Eve towards the plane through a medium shot of all three characters. This angle not only Vandamm’s physical manipulation of Eve but Leonard’s eye contact on her. We perhaps already established that Leonard is jealous of Eve because she gets affection from Vandamm but his fixed eye contact on her and his behind positioning on the screen implies that he’s the outsider and at this moment, becomes of no interest to neither Eve nor Vandamm.
Just as Roger is being restrained by Anna, Eve is still being dominated by Vandamm. As they are walking out of the house towards the plane, Eve’s eye contact towards Vandamm and his dominance towards her signify her entrapment and anxiety. He is still physically holding her with his arm and she still appears similar to wearing handcuffs. After seeing the plane, Eve’s anxiety builds up and Hitchcock establishes this through a close-up, to which she looks backwards towards the house. The camera moves backwards away from it as she does, which could mean it’s a point-of-view. Also, she knows that Roger is inside the house and expects him to save her from Vandamm and Leonard. She still remains calm as she edges closer towards the plane. We get a brief moment of suspense in this incident too as Vandamm asks Eve why she looks anxious to which she lies. The audience know that she is but tension builds because we do not know if Vandamm believes her or whether Eve will suddenly run away from him. She also feels guilty at this point because she knows Roger is inside the house and prevents it from Vandamm and Leonard. So, she finds out something that they do not know, not until Roger reveals himself and her guilt in this incident becomes demolished.
As they approach the plane, the audience hear a gun-shot and distinctly witness Roger leave from the house. His escape from the housekeeper appears off-screen and Hitchcock once again leaves the audience to imagine what happened. As a result, Vandamm and Leonard know of Roger’s presence and his ambitions to rescue Eve. This is when the suspense heightens and the entrapment tightens. The suspense becomes more action packed as it relies on the figure expressions of each character. The entrapment of the gate being locked forces Roger and Eve to run away with Vandamm and Leonard following them. Roger and Eve become trapped by the entrance gate being locked and find no other way but through the woods, an even more confined territory. As the couple brush past trees, there is a brief moment of entrapment in which Eve’s scarf gets tangled and ends up being left behind.
Roger and Eve know that they will be followed like the audience do and through a wide shot, Hitchcock illustrates that Valerian and Leonard are in pursuit. This wide shot sees the separation of the two which indicates mystery of where they are heading to and implies further confinement for Roger and Eve. Whilst they are still running, the couple approach the top of the monuments, identical to the edge of a cliff; therefore, suggesting that they are almost certainly trapped. Roger and Eve’s figure expression staying in the same position and point-of-view shots of the two henchmen approaching them.
In these circumstances, they are almost totally confined with Roger suggesting the only way is to climb down the monuments as he said “We have no choice.” It is the couple’s wealthy costume design and make-up which signify their danger. Roger is wearing a shirt and Eve in an orange dress. In addition to losing her scarf, her heels break and she is still wearing gloves, lipstick, has fashionable hair and holds a handbag. This also suggests Hitchcock is misogynistic as he allows women, even when looking good, to become the centre of danger.
As Roger and Eve are climbing down the monuments, Hitchcock uses certain shots that signify their entrapment even further and provides further tension for the audience. For example, there is an extreme long shot focusing on one of the monuments. In this particular angle, the audience witness Eve and Roger climbing down to escape close to one side of the monument’s head and a henchman near the other whilst heading in the same direction to pursue the couple. In a sense, this adds a fatalistic atmosphere because viewers know the opposing aims in this situation and they all are heading towards each other, yet none of the characters know it. Therefore from the perspective of Roger and Eve, they will become trapped if they manage to climb down because the henchmen are still following them. Their entrapment becomes sealed when they discover Leonard pursuing them through a long shot, which immediately change direction to their right. However, Roger and Eve have yet to see the second henchman that appeared in the extreme long shot on their right as they were climbing down; consequently implying to viewers that the couple are about to be completely trapped.
However, just before that occurs, the audience get an intense but brief moment of suspense in which the couple are crawling across the monuments, hoping not to get caught. They do not know that Vandamm’s henchman is right above them yet the audience do. The medium shot of Roger and Eve shows that they are slowly pacing but the camera zooms out and implies that something is wrong – the henchman. The space between the three characters signifies that the couple become completely trapped and fights break out. Although the suspense regarding whether the henchmen will get to the couple has ended, it still continues. Viewers become closer to the action and anxiety is there as to whether Roger and Eve will triumph over these henchmen. At the same time, they are still trapped because there are limited spaces for them to fight seeing as the location is quite literally down a cliff. While we get multiple close-ups and long shots of the surroundings and fights, suspense intensifies when Eve is dangling from the edge of a cliff and Roger is almost falling too. The close-up of Roger’s hand is the only thing that is preventing both him and Eve falling, and probably dying. Leonard notices this and in a slow manner, the camera slowly moves down towards his foot, implying that he will stamp on Roger’s fingers that’ll result in their fall. This could become a personal vendetta on Leonard’s behalf because we already saw that he is jealous of Eve due to Vandamm’s physical affection and Roger has also been on Vandamm’s mind throughout most of the film. So, he perhaps wanted to kill both of them at this point because then they could no longer have Vandamm’s affection after which he could. However, all of a sudden, Roger and Eve become safe from the henchmen as Leonard is shot and falls off the monument to his death.
Eve and Roger are still dangling from the edge but suddenly, he slowly pulls Eve up. Hitchcock gives the audience little time to actually see Roger pull her up so instead, the camera suddenly cuts to the couple inside a cabin. The audio of “Up you get, Mrs Thornhill” does not synchronize with Roger hoisting Eve onto the cabin bed but it does argue that this could be a visionary scenario in the mind of the two. At this point, the guilt that Eve has been feeling throughout the entire film is wiped away because she transgresses from the guilt of serving as a CIA agent against Roger and being associated with Vandamm and Leonard to becoming “Mrs Thornhill” in the final few seconds of the film. The same could be said for Roger too. We do not find out if everyone finally realises that he has been falsely accused all along but the “Mrs Thornhill” in the final two shots is perhaps Hitchcock showing the audience what he wants us to feel about the characters. The final shot of the tunnel is perhaps a significance of passion because the previous shot showed the couple kissing. So, the underground tunnel could be a loose reference to the notion of a couple being inside the bed and having sexual intercourse. Nevertheless, Hitchcock ends North By Northwest as a “happily ever after” by giving the audience what they want to see, yet it ends ambiguously as we do not get an exact explanation as to why it ended the way it did.
To conclude, Hitchcock’s work on North By Northwest is among many others that have established him as an auteur and its climatic sequence illustrate how each of his separate characteristics connect to one another. Hitchcock may have been known as the ‘Master Of Suspense’ but his legacy of filmmaking has been branded as ‘Hitchcockian’ (cited in Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2011, p412). Thus, in North By Northwest and throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock has proved himself to be one of the most creative and influential filmmakers in cinema history.