BFI THRILLS WITH ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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*Review may contain spoilers.

Hitchcock returns to UK cinemas with arguably his most entertaining film, North by Northwest. BFI re-release the classic romantic thriller UK-wide on the 20th October.

Combining an exhilarating femme fatale, Eva Marie Saint, a “big girl in all the right places”, according to a heroic and lovable advertising executive who takes himself far too seriously, Cary Grant, and a fascinating villain with a penchant for smooth-talk, in the company of James Mason, this charming film is coated in an immaculate web of lies and intrigue, whisked into an almighty suspense caper by the hot-boiled master of cinema and suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The story follows Grant as he is mistaken for a certain “Mr. Kaplan” by Mason’s foreign espionage organisation and framed for a knife murder committed in the U.N. Building, which sends him running for his life on the transcontinental express where he encounters the marvellously sympathetic blonde, Marie Saint. He is wholeheartedly seduced by her intelligence and beauty. She even goes as far to imply that she might not find it objectionable if a man was to explicitly state his desire to make love to her, which Grant assures her he’d never be so rude as to infer.

Hitchcock knows very well how to seduce a spectator on more than one level. And his screenwriter Ernest Lehman was equally a master at writing flirtatious dialogue for awry chuckles, such as when Grant criticises Marie Saint for “using sex like some people use a flyswatter.” Or a more subtle line like “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” suffuses wit with adoration and speaks of the perils that are to be revealed in her character, albeit with an ethereal quality.

After evading the Chicago police disguised as a porter in a red cap, Grant is lured to an Indian prairie in the middle of apparently nowhere, the iconic scene where he is blasted by a crop-duster biplane, surviving to discover Saint Marie is Mason’s partner and dearest love. This is the first big emotional blow, setting in motion a dramatic climax that revels in a few big plot twists and a very fashionable showdown aboard Mount Rushmore. The direction the action takes feels very Bond, except Hitchcock’s pretty pictures fully appreciate the art of dramatic suspense. He preserves good taste by complimenting logic with enough good use of the imagination and turmoil.

The whole picture is deliciously entertaining and thrilling on a level of political intrigue/conspiracy, erotica, obsession, adrenaline, and pure ‘Hitchcockian’ inspiration, which feels as contemporary today as it must have in 1959.

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A Discussion of Film Technique

Sergei-Eisenstein

The early filmmakers and film theorists (many of whom were both) discovered the fundamental techniques of film and hence called for the appreciation of the medium as an art form. Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin discovered the turbulent effects of montage, commonly referred to today as simply the process of editing: the stitching together of a series of shots to form a linear (or non-linear) narrative. [i] With montage, the filmmaker is able to transcend the space and time of a narrative; something that had never been done before cinema and that is taken for granted today. However, montage means far more than merely putting the constructs of a film together and as the masters of cinema have discovered, it is fundamental to their unique expression and intrinsic to ensuing direct control over audience reactions and behaviours.[ii]

The filmmakers in Hollywood began utilising tools of the camera and montage to a classical effect (angles, movements, continuity editing etc.) that reached pitch perfect by the 1940s (or more specifically, 1939, the year commonly referred to as the golden year for film). They used several camera angles to create compositions of varying meaning and perception that allowed greater control over the process and the editor to become the key manipulator of the unfolding story. For example, an editor chooses the exact frame on which to cut the characters action with a reaction (the cause-effect approach); whether dialogue or an action sequence. This formula of Hollywood film technique was flawless; it is the framework for approaching a classical narrative and classical cinema would know no different.

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However, a couple of years later emerged further pioneering filmmakers introducing techniques to Hollywood that laid bare the current rhythmic montage and presented alternate methods. For example, the deep focus shots of panoramic views that allowed for far more effective shot sequences, like introducing a close-up parallel to a master-shot. Orson Welles and William Wyler are forerunners of such movements and throughout the 1940s and 1950s the auteur in film developed as the director implemented a greater and more vigorous understanding and control of their style. For example, in Citizen Kane, Welles uses single shots with a deep focus to cover entire scenes and, thus, carefully lets the audience pick out specific points of detail. Welles had full control to use a close-up or alternating shot to devastating effect simply because he savoured such tools at his disposal (of course, before sound, long takes were common, but scenes remained primitive and classical technique was only in its prospective development).

From the 1960s, film technique (or rather exploration of) explodes and is sewn together by innovative filmmakers from across the globe with an eye to pitch their new wave of style.[iii] It is clear, however, that the foundations of film technique and even experimental forms, were all manifest and in practice from the classical era of filmmaking. Exploitation films and progressive/subversive genres simply got buried beneath the mount of classical cinema until the disintegration of the studio system in 1948 (Paramount Case[iv]). B-movies started getting more attention and filmmakers plunged into the deep waters of making films on shoestring-budgets. However, really one needn’t look no further at the vast world of cinema, which today rehashes and replicates all that has come before (albeit with particular visions), than the pioneers and masters of early and classical cinema, if one wishes to gain a fully comprehensive understanding of film and technique.

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I want to briefly discuss the film technique of Alfred Hitchcock (he is always a good place to start), a filmmaker who utilised just about every technique the cinema has to offer within his tales of deceit and murder. From revealing pans in trembling close-ups to harsh low-angles of towering objects and from suspenseful montage (and direction) to layers of allegoric meaning, he has carved a succinct and colossal discourse of film techniques.[v]

How is suspense created? We have all heard of Hitchcock’s label “The Master of Suspense” and whilst he did continually make thrillers, they didn’t necessarily have to have the same degree of suspense – this is the touch of Hitchcock, if you like. The basic indicator of suspense is revealing the horror before the subject (or in terms of dramatic construction – dramatic irony). For example, in Psycho the audience sees the shadow of the killer as he raises the knife behind the shower curtain before our heroine, who witnesses the latters brutal attack. Yet, Hitchcock has a certain aura (or added layer) of creating such suspense and this is accomplished by his specific use of film technique. Suspense is a narrative technique, like mystery (the reversal of suspense) or surprise (the coinciding revealing of an event), and whilst narrative technique and film technique are inextricable (one can’t exist without the other; just as to film something you have to apply a film technique – the cameras viewpoint), Hitchcock enriches, upholds and resolves the former technique with the latter.

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The camera lingers in the shower with our heroine, immediately shadowing the heroine’s narrow field of vision. Amidst this field, Hitchcock moves his camera above the subject (she is nothing but an ant about to be stamped on) and across the axis (the 180 line: a relatively strict rule cinematographers abide by in order to keep the audience in line) to reveal all sides of our victim; she is weak and so are we. Hitchcock has offset the audience by his sequence and it is then that the killer is revealed in the shadows. Hitchcock has built up the suspense, in effect, before he has applied it. Whilst, you could rightly label narrative techniques under the heading of film techniques, in my analysis I am aiming to refer specifically to technical devices; the camera and the editing; the two vital and expedient processes of cinema.

Film technique is arguably more powerful than any story and plot structure, as it gives you infinite control over what the audience sees and how and when they see it. You cannot scatter a narrative and execute it to the same effect (Tarantino explores with the limitations of this effect notably in Pulp Fiction); scenes must retain a reasonably substantial order; each must punch into the next. However, a choice of film technique is immeasurable and impossible to avoid; it is what nurtures a filmmaker’s vision. The filmmaker can represent the subject however they please within the wondrous three-dimensional space that is offered to them. Beginning a scene in a close-up or a wide shot is the filmmakers choice, the narrative, or rather the plot, remains fundamentally the same, but the filmmaker can alter the audience’s reception to the narrative with film technique. Such is the power and the language of the cinema. It is not just shot composition, but the sequence of editing the shot compositions together that the filmmaker should adore. A close-up may be repeated, or only used for one second instead of four, as intended; all processes change the expression of the filmmaker and his judgement of the narrative. Indeed, a daunting process for the filmmaker is working out how to cover a scene, by cover I mean what shots they will use, and how they will stage and block the scene. Of course, there is nothing more exciting than this exposition, it is discovering the inner fibres of your film and it is also discovering the fibres of yourself, the filmmaker.

You will hear, “script is king”. Well, the filmmaker (film director) is “king” and queen. He is the sense and sensibility of the script and the pioneer of its land. Of course, you must have a great script, and a great filmmaker can make a great script great, but a great script on the shelf is not a great film, it is nobody. A great filmmaker would be silly to direct a script that wasn’t great (or at least that he/she thought wasn’t great) and therefore this discussion of script (or screenwriting) is vain to an analysis of film technique; we can assume the material that a filmmaker has chosen to work with is good.

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I don’t wish to dismiss contemporary pioneers of film technique. Wes Anderson is a prime suspect of innovation and flair in filmmaking. Metaphorically, he creates a symmetrical box in which to frame his action that can move up, down, left, right, or in and out. Occasionally, the camera jumps to the far side of the box or sits on the roof, but it never breaks this manner of primitive and proportioned framing. Whist this is innovative, it is no more than a fresh refurbishment of film techniques; the director has utilised the techniques of the camera and staging to create his own style within his canvas, as should any great film director (or artist, in relation to their canvas). I will further define how I am using the term film technique (it often gets used as common excuse for anything film production), the technique is the central grouping of film compositions (shots), montage (edits) and sequences (scenes); techniques that have phenomenal undergrowth of exploration and which belong exclusively to the cinema.

These cannot be changed, the close-up shot will always be the close-up shot, but it is how the filmmaker uses it that I am concerned with. This draws on a fundamental principle of the cinematic language, it shows and then it tells; and film directors have often stressed the importance on how you show it that matters (this is characteristic to the subsequent telling). No contemporary filmmaker is able to pioneer, for example, the close-up shot (I believe first used by Georges Melies of the moon in Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)), but they can structure it effectively within a sequence that makes it innovative and appear utterly fresh and convincing, but it will be innovative only to that filmmaker’s style. In other words, technique, at its innermost core, is never new, but if it is utilised by a master, it can appear as such.

A reductive approach could argue that all film technique is drawn from the other arts, at the core of its invention, the seventh art is photographic, steals a generous palette from painting and it pinches the actor from the theatre. Of course, this can be ridiculed by modernistic approaches to film; the illusion of the moving image itself as a new phenomenon provides generous possibilities for techniques to evolve. The surrealists had an art form that is able to uncannily blend fantastical elements with the real; painting could never achieve the same impact. The close-up first appeared in painting, but the close-up in film will have an entirely different effect. Distinguishable meanings and implications are, of course, the beauty of each individual art form; and meaning in the cinema continues to blossom at the cutting-edge.

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Lets not forget that film has been praised and simultaneously impugned for its tendency to merge multiple arts under one umbrella, but this is why the medium is home to some of the greatest artistic geniuses. Why did Woody Allen start making films? He could express his artistic values: his favourite music (Jazz), comedy (his own stand up and Mel Brooks), art, sculpture, photography (The Museum of Modern Art) literature (The Catcher in The Rye), theatre (Broadway), architecture (New York) and films (from Bergman to Bunuel) under one canvas. Indeed, as a true auteur of his craft, it also allowed him to express layers of meaning from his own life and concurrent philosophical insights – death, religion, moral relativity etc. – and appropriately (and with great talent) digest those interests via the language and technique of film.

I want to end this discussion by saying that if film technique is used correctly, if it connects with the concurrent meaning and implication of the subject, then it will create good and stimulating cinema. If it is masterfully constructed, if it connects with every sequence, act, and the entire story while adding an ambiguous but concise layer of allegory, then it almost becomes magic and is certainly categorised as great cinema. If you witness a masterpiece, it is because the magic of the film technique (there are other factors of course, you need a great story, but as mentioned earlier, a bad film director – a filmmaker who hasn’t mastered the language and his technique – won’t make a good film) used by the filmmaker seamlessly catches your tongue and sews you to the story, layer by layer, so you can only succumb to praise of what is an impeccable execution of the form. A separate discussion is raised, an audience’s varying interpretation of film technique (though this should be at the unconscious level – a filmmakers technique should pass the spectators eye integrally, or, in fact, unnoticed – at least this is the case for typical audiences). Let’s conclude that if the filmmaker has executed his technique how he wished (and he is closest to the material) then it will be so purely inscribed that even if you (as a viewer) don’t connect with the filmmakers intentions it will otherwise have an equivalent effect (possibly at the unconscious level) in an equal and opposite direction.

 

To be continued…

 

Notes:

[i]For a discussion on the three pioneering techniques of Soviet montage and related topics see Eisenstein Film Form and/or The Film Sense.

[ii]For a great book on film editing, see Walter Murch’s In The Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing.

[iii]See Peter Cowie Revolution!: Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties for an insightful introduction to world cinema and disparate styles of filmmaking.

[iv]For a discussion surrounding the studio systems collapse and the battle between the competing world industries (specifically Europe and America) see David Puttnam’s The Undeclared War: Struggle for Control of the World’s Film Industry.

[v] If you are interested in Hitchcock then there are plenty of great books to discover more about his technique and style. Here are a couple of my favourites: Hitchcock: Centenary Essays edited by Richard Allen S. Ishii Gonzales and Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut.

Quotation Inflation

 

So here is my relatively long list of favourite quotations, though I’m sure there are many great quotes I am yet to discover. I find all these quotes stimulating, thought provoking and most of all inspiring. Many of these are from famous film directors or those involved in the industry. Enjoy the wisdom and please comment below as I’d love to hear your favourites.

 

“Anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion, whatever they’ve got. I can’t possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to.” – David Cronenberg

“Every great film should seem new every time you see it” – Roger Ebert

“All you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl” – Jean Luc Goddard

“Drama is life with the dull bits cut out” – Alfred Hitchcock

“We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” – Walt Disney

“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” – Steven Spielberg

“A Hunch is Creativity Trying to Tell You Something.” – Frank Capra

“Photography is Truth. The Cinema is Truth Twenty-four Times Per Second.” – Jean-Luc Godard

“I Am Certain There is Too Much Certainty in the World.” – Michael Crichton

“The Only Safe Thing is to Take a Chance.” – Mike Nichols

“Why Pay a Dollar for a Bookmark? Why Not Use the Dollar for a Bookmark?” – Steven Spielberg

“We tend to do period stuff because it helps make it one step removed from boring everyday reality.” – Ethan Coen

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Picasso

“I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself.” – Francois Truffaut

“Surrealism had taught me that reason comes after creation, and creation is a true deflagration when confronted, not with a solution, but an obstacle.” – Georges Franju

“For me, the cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“People say I pay too much attention to the look of a movie but for God’s sake, I’m not producing a Radio 4 Play for Today, I’m making a movie that people are going to look at.” – Ridley Scott

“I cannot just make a film and walk away from it. I need that creative intimacy, and quite frankly, the control to execute my visions, on all my projects.” – Michael Mann

“I’ll rebel against powers and principalities, all the time. Always, I will.” – Paul Thomas Anderson

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna lose our jobs. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.” – Steven Spielberg

“To me, watching a movie is like going to an amusement park. My worst fear is making a film that people don’t think is a good ride.” – Darren Aronofsky

“There’s a certain truth that you do end up making the same film again and again so if you vary the genre you have a chance of breaking that cycle.” – Danny Boyle

“I think audiences get too comfortable and familiar in today’s movies. They believe everything they’re hearing and seeing. I like to shake that up.” – Christopher Nolan

“The audience seems hazy to me, shrouded in a veil through which I can’t see.” – Park Chan-Wook

“I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about JAWS is that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” – David Fincher

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese

“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” – Stanley Kubrick

“I don’t believe in elitism. I don’t think the audience is this dumb person lower than me. I am the audience.” – Quentin Tarantino

“I don’t think about technique. The ideas dictate everything. You have to be true to that or you’re dead.” – David Lynch