Calm Before the Storm: Analyzing Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”

One of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films, North by Northwest, is a masterful example of creating and holding tensions or suspense.
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films, North by Northwest, is a masterful example of creating and holding tensions or suspense.

When it comes to iconic directors of the Studio Era of Hollywood, one cannot overlook the masterful movies of Alfred Hitchcock. A visionary behind the camera and a good eye for talent, his movies were cinematically stunning as well as incredibly entertaining. North by Northwest is a perfect example of this talent. Every actor is a Hitchcock regular, each perfectly cast for their roles. But what are truly breathtaking about this film are the painstakingly implemented aspects of mise-en-scene that are present in every shot. These aspects work together flawlessly to produce a vivid and extraordinary film. While it is hard to pick just one scene to analyze from this film, let’s look at the unforgettable crop duster scene. This being said I am more personally interested in the parts of this scene that take place before the crop duster begins attacking our leading man. Therefore for the purposes of this exploration, the scene begins when the shot fades away from Eve Kendall’s face and ends when the car with the farmer appears in the distance.

First, let’s consider the lighting of these shots. Everything is extremely bright – so much so that the vast empty fields of brown and yellow almost hurt your eyes. This is definitely high-key lighting, used to match the time of day presented in the film, supposedly around two o’clock in the afternoon. The whole area is lit like this, not just the space around the main character, thus drawing our eyes all around him, forcing us to notice the setting in which he is standing. There is little in the frame to cast shadows at any point, making the environment look even more barren. The bus, cars, and Thornhill himself do cast long shadows, but Thornhill’s is barely noticeable as the camera is rarely above him, but is placed at about waist level the majority of the time. In summary, the lighting contributes to the visual sense of flatness, of emptiness that the audience sees returned to again and again in this scene. It gives us nothing to look at but the glaring nakedness of the setting. The audience will later realize when Thornhill is being attacked by the plane, why this lack of features was so impressed upon them: he has no cover, nowhere to run for safety.

One of the most iconic scenes in movie history, it's impact owes much to the way in which the scene before it was set-up.
One of the most iconic scenes in movie history, it’s impact owes much to the way in which the scene before it was set-up.

The costume/makeup aspect of mise-en-scene, while understated in these shots, is nonetheless vital to the impact of this scene.  When Thornhill steps off of the bus, he is a dark splotch on the otherwise mono-color light brown and yellow landscape. The bus itself, being a bright white, also draws our eye as it passes through the shot. When the camera does close-ups on Thornhill, the dark grey of his suit, while in the same general color-scheme of yellow and brown, stands out from the light dirt in the road and the cloudless blue sky, forcing the audience’s eyes to follow him. Thornhill’s dark hair and suit also causes the light-colored dust sticking to him to be noticeable as it is blown onto him by a passing truck, illustrating the dryness of his surroundings without the need for any dialogue.

This relates directly to the aspect of acting and staging. There is no dialogue in this scene and very little diegetic sound as well. The only sounds the audience hears are the sounds of the vehicles on the road as they drive past Thornhill, the distant sound of the crop duster, and Thornhill’s own feet as he shuffles in place by the bus stop sign. The audience’s ears are as empty as the setting before them and this forces them into a state of high alertness, making them wary of any sound or object that they catch sight or sound of. This, in turn, heightens the feeling of suspense. So does the physical acting of Cary Grant as the anxious Roger Thornhill. Without any dialogue, the audience can only read his body language to see how he is feeling. He stands tensely at the bus stop for a moment, looking around. All of the camera shots are long and far away. We are constantly reminded of how empty this place is by shots of the road from eye level, stretching off in either direction with nothing around it. Likewise we are allowed to see from Thornhill’s perspective as he looks around at the fields, barren, with no buildings except those way off in the distance. In one of these shots, we see and barely hear the distant crop duster, spreading its pesticides so far away we can barely tell what it is, let alone attach any significance to it. This is a classic Hitchcock device, where he lets you see the object of danger long before you are aware it poses any risk.

A faint speck in the distance, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has no idea of what's about to happen to him.
A faint speck in the distance, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has no idea of what’s about to happen to him.

We watch every moment of Thornhill’s exploration of the space, never skipping ahead to see him still waiting – no ellipses are used. His hands go into his pockets, but his upper body remains tense, his eyes always moving. Every time a car or vehicle drives by, there is the slightest lifting of his hands out of his pockets, as if he is always preparing to initiate some action, but is then disappointed when no car stops. The audience watches three of these exchanges, which stretches out their sense of the time within the scene. The audience is waiting with Thornhill, and like him, they cannot make a move until an action occurs. The combination of Cary Grant’s great physical acting and Hitchcock’s choice of long, perspective shots combine to increase the suspense felt by the audience while emphasizing the delicacy of Thornhill’s position – he has been lured into the wilderness and abandoned there to be killed and he doesn’t even know it yet; for that matter, neither do we. We only sense, as he does, that something is wrong.

These aspects of mise-en-scene and their use together with space and time work together to reinforce the narrative by creating and sustaining a feeling of suspense and tension within the audience. It also keeps the audience focused on the action of the main character, while still managing to frame his position with several wide, vanishing point perspective shots. Without the aspects of mise-en-scene mentioned above, one of the most famous spy thriller scenes of all time would have seemed flat and tensionless, putting the audience to sleep.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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