Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’

Moment #11: North by Northwest (1959)

29 May 2017

Before the invention of VHS, it was an act of dedication to find and watch classic films; sometimes you would catch a ‘live’ TV screening, otherwise it was a trip to a cinema that cared enough about film to show them. Now, a film like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run and all at sea, can be found everywhere.

The theme of the “wrong man” who ends up on the run, both tying to solve the mystery and to clear his name, recurs in Hitchcock’s films. Think of The 39 Steps. But in North by Northwest, in a way that is both more plausible,and more sinister, he’s being left out there as a decoy.

Most of its big set-pieces are well-known; the murder at the United Nations; the attack by the crop duster plane; the final set-piece among the American Presidents on Mount McKinley.

The moment: the sequence before the attack by the crop duster plane, which builds the suspense, and oh, so, slowly.

It’s worth breaking it down a little to see what Hitchcock did.

The sequence starts with a high static fixed shot, probably from a crane, looking back along the road. The bus that Thornhill/Grant is on appears in the distance, and the shot allows it to drive all the way, to the bus stop at the bottom, where Grant gets off, and the bus leaves again. We get the picture: this is the middle of nowhere. It runs for 48″.

There’ then a series of shots, also static, that intercut between Grant by the side of the road, the few cars passing on the road, and the flatness of the Plains. We (spoiler) still think that he’s here to meet “Kaplan”. This sequence runs through 27 shots and lasts 1’52”.

Now something happens. A car appears from a side road (more a track), and stops at the junction, on the other side of the road, where a man gets out. There’s a fabulous shot of the two men, on opposite sides of the road, the  horizon no more than a quarter of the way up the screen. Grant, eventually, eventually, walks across the road towards him; there’s an immediate contrast between Grant’s expensive grey Manhattan suit and the man’s cheap brown suit and hat. Ernest Lehmann’s dialogue is laconic, as we hear the plane for the first time.

NbyNW.001-001

The scene ends as it began, with a bus heading away along the highway, and Thornhill/Grant standing by the roadside. It is also worth mentioning the sound design, although it wouldn’t have been called sound design in 1959. The audio during this whole sequence is “natural” sound; the cars on the road, doors being opened and closed, Grant’s shoes clicking on the dirt as he looks around. No music. In fact, there’s no music until after the plane has hit the truck.

The sequence lasts for just over five minutes; longer, in fact, than the scene in which the crop duster plane attacks Grant. When we call Hitchcock the master of suspense, it’s because of sequences like this, which signal to the audience a sense of foreboding and makes the action more intense when it starts.

Most of the sequence is here.

The Lady Vanishes

29 March 2014

LadyVanishesStillAThe Lady Vanishes, made in 1938, is my favourite of Hitchcock’s pre-war English films. As few spoilers as possible, but it’s about a train journey from a fictional central European country back to England – a journey on which, as the title promises, a lady vanishes.

At its heart the film has the form of a thriller (Will they find the lady? Why has she vanished? Why are these people lying?), and the story is driven along by one of Hitchcock’s favourite devices, the couple who take an instant dislike to each other. (It made stars of Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, seen in the publicity still above with the sinister Paul Lukaz). Along the way we get some fine Hitchcock set-pieces, notably the fight in the guard’s van, stuffed full of magician’s props, and of course (it is set on a train) the climb between the carriages along the outside of the train.

But this is wrapped around with a set of stories that capture the good and bad of inter-war England (yes, I do mean England). The good? The cricket obsessed Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, desperate to make their connection at Basel that will get them to England in time for the last day of the Test match who come good when the chips are down. The bad? The ambitious lawyer who’s taken his mistress on holiday, but (it becomes clear) has no intention of leaving his wife. And also the plucky: the English governess who is not quite what she seems to be. A lot of this is down to the writers, Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, who had completed the script for another director before Hitchcock joined the project. Their work often had a sharp eye for Britain and its culture.

There’s some fine writing here, and some fine construction; the sequence on the train where several people swear that they haven’t seen the vanished Miss Froy for reasons that are to do with their own small worlds, rather than malice or conspiracy, is a wonderful thing.

But there’s a lot more: we get a film that both prefigures the imminent outbreak of war and, in its way, is an elegy for the England that will be swept away by it. (The peerless Philip French called it “a faultlessly cast mirror held up to the nation in the year of Munich.”) The hotel where the action starts is both a metaphor for pre-war Europe, with guests from dozens of countries crammed in by an avalanche, and an anticipation of the privations of war (Radford and Wayne have to share a maid’s room, and take so long dressing for dinner that the restaurant has run out of food).

And the shootout on the train (spoilers here) is almost like Dunkirk: outgunned by the military surrounding them, they are down to their last bullet, and on the verge of having to give up, when they manage to make an unlikely escape.

But, before the escape, one of them decides the position is hopeless and chooses to surrender:

Just because I’ve the sense to try to avoid being murdered, I’m accused of being a pacifist. Alright. I’d rather be callef a rat than die like one. … If we give ourselves up, they daren’t murder us in cold blood. They’re bound to give us a trial.

Despite his white flag, he ends up getting shot – in cold blood – for his pains. Before Munich, before the annexation of Czechosolvakia, Hitchcock – and Launder and Gilliat – knew what was coming.

 

You can watch the film at the Internet Archive, and come to that, all over youtube. The image at the top of the post is from Joe Landry’s excellent Vintage Hitchcock site, and is used with thanks.