North By Northwest


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About a week ago I had a great urge to see some Cary Grant films, and, in particular, North by Northwest.  When the DVD arrived I hurriedly darkened the room, meditated for a few minutes and off it went. Over two hours of pure creative bliss.

Of course, I have seen the film in the cinema at least half a dozen times and on broadcast television several times as well, but this was my first DVD experience of the film. I was immediately struck by the extraordinary clarity of the image, and it took me a good few minutes to realise that this must be thanks to VistaVision, which had been used by Hitch previously for Vertigo.  For those unfamiliar with this now still wonderful but almost obsolete process, it allows a much larger negative  by shooting the frames horizontally along the length of the film, not across the width, which was the choice of the Brothers Lumières for their cinematographe system, on which almost all films were shot until the creation of digital film cameras in the last twenty years.


The UN Building interior studio set which has an extraordinary visual impact.


This, combined with brilliant lighting by the great Robert Burks enabled the film’s images to have a sort of super-reality of almost three dimensional quality. The well known story originated in an idea given to Hitch by the journalist Otis Guernsey. This was honed by scenarist Ernest Lehman and re-honed by Hitchcock and his wife into the story of Roger Thornhill (Grant),  an advertising executive who is mistaken for a non-existent spy and finds himself on the run from both foreign spies and the police.

As in several of Hitchcock’s greatest works,  the film metamorphoses a few times during its course – from mystery to murder story, political thriller and romance. We should remember that, in 1959, when it was made, Hitchcock was two-thirds through his golden era that stretched from Rear Window (’54) until The Birds (’63) in which there wasn’t a single dud. These films were characterised, often, by stylistic and structural experimentation. Rear Window, for exampleis shot, almost entirely, from within a single room. Dial M for Murder was in 3D, Psycho  kills its heroine off after an hour and The Birds has no music.

Beside most of these, North By Northwest is more conventional, but it is also, in its way, somewhat like his famous Buchan adaptation, The 39 Steps  in which a debonair hero is on the run after an Eve Kendall-like spy is stabbed in his apartment.

It also has the characteristic of all great narrative art, that once the wheels of the plot have been set in motion, there is nothing that can stop them. At a business lunch, Thornhill wants to call his mother and hails a bellboy, by coincidence, immediately after a call for George Kaplan had been made. The heavies make the false inference and kidnap ‘Kaplan'(Thornhill) who is blissfully unaware of what is going on.

In that era, Hitchcock was heavily into using the idea of a ‘void’. Remember the opening sequence of  Vertigo (’58) .   Thornhill, here, is thrown  into a ‘logical void’. Seen from his point of view, nothing makes sense. This allows Hitchcock’s playful sense of humour full rein  – Hitch was a noted practical joker and sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to set up embarrassing situations.

The UN Building exterior showing the sense of plummeting out of control following the stabbing
Compare with this famous image following the ‘death’ of Madeleine in Vertigo.


This aspect of the film is beautifully and extensively augmented in a dialogue absolutely full of repartee and innuendo. It is the logical root of several of the film’s most famous lines:

You gentlemen are not really trying to kill my son, are you?

Mother (Clara Thornhill – to the two heavies that are trying to re-abduct Thornhill in the hotel lift): You gentlemen are not really trying to kill my son, are you!?  The heavies and everyone else in the lift except Thornhill laugh!

It is the humour of incongruousness, which we had encountered moments before when Thornhill is examining Kaplan’s clothing in the hotel room.  Naturally, Hitchcock makes the point visually that Kaplan ‘is’ smaller than Thornhill by having the latter try on the former’s clothes. The point here is that Thornhill realises that he has not been mistaken for Kaplan by any visual resemblance.

The other key dialogue line is the famous one in which the stranger at the prairie crossroad says “That’s funny, that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”  There are countless examples in Hitchcock’s work where we become aware that something ‘normal’ isn’t quite right. A couple of crows perch on the bars of a school playground – OK, but a few seconds later there are a dozen and that is the visual trigger for panic. The entire plot of Rear Window is based on Scottie (James Stewart) seeing incongruous aspects of Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) behaviour.

There is something here that illuminates in Hitchcock’s work that we know to be an aspect of his personality. Hitchcock was not just a perfectionist, but an obsessive planner. Every moment, every gesture and shot of his films was planned in extraordinary detail. So what Hitchcock regarded as ‘threatening’ was chaos and the unknown, and by plunging his central characters into chaos, he made us the audience share his own insecurity.

This is also expressed by the ‘obverse’ of chaos, namely order. In North by Northwest that is represented by the spy-master ‘The Professor’ character played by Leo G Carroll. Hitch introduces the security agency with a magnificent visual slight of hand:

How to introduce a the flip side of a complex plot!


... and focus the attention of the audience.
… and focus the attention of the audience.

These two consecutive images from the film, each only a couple of seconds in duration, show Hitchcock’s command of the cinematic language at its purest. Kuleshov must have been jumping for joy in his grave! In five seconds of screen time and no dialogue, we know that the US intelligence service (lovely reflection of the Capitol in Washington to fix the location) is involved and they are keeping an eye on the situation!

The final aspect of the film that I would like to highlight is the very strong eroticism expressed in the relationship between Thornhill and Eve Kendall (Eva-Marie Saint) – the mistress of the leader of the foreign spies. These days, of course, it is tame, but in that era, the representation of a woman going all out to seduce a man was quite something.  And the repartee between the two, full of double entendre is another of the film’s joys.

Additionally there is the extended kiss in the railway compartment which is one of the most captivating love scenes in cinema…



In a way, I started this review to try to clarify in my mind why I love North By Northwest. As I continued to write, I very quickly realised why – there is just so much in it.  I have said barely two percent of what I wanted to say, and already this post is getting too long. Like General McArthur, I will return!

In the meantime there is a lot of wonderful stuff on the film in the Hitchcock Zone’s dedicated page (which also contains the images used in this article).

Keep watching the masterpieces….

How to watch a film




What on earth is this about? Everyone knows how to watch a film!

In fact, though you may know how to watch a film, you probably don’t know how to get the best out of the film that you watch. These are things that are so regarded as ‘automatic’ that they are rarely considered in any rational way.

The first step is to understand the nature of the film experience.  The cinema, that great invention of the Brothers Lumière, was a mechanism for immersing the audience in the film experience.  Its main characteristics, for the purpose of this post, are :

a) It is larger than the person watching it: not necessarily ‘larger than life’, but the screen is physically bigger than the person watching it.

b) It is not in the control of the person watching it.

This is why to watch a film in a cinema environment is very much the best way to get the maximum emotional benefit from it.

Hence Part 1: in a cinema

I know only too well that there are numerous ‘personal’ likes and dislikes about where to choose your seat in the cinema, but the following observations are aimed at giving you the viewer, the best possible experience.

Choosing the best seat is all about physics and geometry. I won’t do the physics and geometry, but I will now tell you the results. Basically the best seat in the cinema is the seat in the centre of the row at which you can comfortably view the entirety of the width of the image on the screen, and not much more.

If the auditorium is well-designed and you enter furthest from the screen, you should simply advance until the portion of the screen where you expect the image to rest is only just in your vision.

The little realised corollary to this is that the place you should sit in the cinema varies depending on the type of film – closer for silent and classical “academy ratio” (all films before 1950) , further for ’60s and ’70’s European widescreen films, even more so for American widescreen films and furthest for CinemaScope-style anamorphic projection.

aspectratioThis image shows the different aspect ratios (screen shapes). There is no way of knowing if the ‘optimum place will be towards the front or the rear of any individual auditorium without having the dimensions to hand.

I said that you should sit ‘in the centre of the row’. This is a general rule that is massively more important now than it was when I started to watch films. Virtually all films these days have stereo soundtracks, so to get the full stereo effect, you should sit on the central axis of the auditorium. The sound is balanced for the centre of the auditorium – that is the midway point between each set of walls, but it is more important that you sit at the correct distance from the screen for ‘full screen’ viewing than try to optimise the sound. There will probably be one ratio of film for which the ‘best seat’ is the same for picture and sound, but it is again dependent on the auditorium which ratio that will be.

Part II: Home viewing

This is where things start to go awry.  Watching films outside of a cinema environment has been with us for over sixty years, indeed for longer than the earlier era when cinema was the only ‘platform’ available.  Originally in the fifties, film companies started selling TV transmission rights to their old stock from the thirties, then gradually more and more. Originally the problem was that early TVs were very small, and for westerns (to name one instance) the great vistas that were often shown lost an enormous part of their impact. Then, as colour became the de facto standard for film production,  while TVs remained in black and white, that became a major issue. Eventually, in the seventies, colour TVs and ever increasing size of TV screens made TV presentation the favoured choice of many – for reasons of economy and convenience.

But for all art, and especially visual art, scale is an integral part of the experience, and on TV, the essential scale of image to viewer is inverted. At home, you are larger than the image. (unless you have a video projection system).  There are clear analogies to be drawn – in visual art, you cannot say that you have really seen a painting if you have only seen a postcard of it, or a reproduction in a book. The same thing goes for music: the recorded music experience is not as powerful as the concert experience (except where the performance is execrable).

In the theatre, digitally broadcast performance – drama, opera or ballet – is not as electrifying as the ‘real thing’, and you will not get the real sense of a great building by looking at a 3D walk-through on your computer. Nor will you experience a great novel in all its magnificence by reading the Readers’ Digest version.

The same thing goes for film at home, but there are some things you can do to improve your experience.  First, get the best quality and biggest TV you can afford. There are lots of physical differences between a reflected/projected image and an emitted/broadcast one, and one of the most important is the ratio of luminosity to darkness and the intensity of colour. Film makers spend huge effort and money in capturing their images with certain visual characteristics. The least you can do is to put some small effort into trying to reproduce the effect that they were trying to create.

That means trying to black out your room, ensuring there is the minimum of interruptions (disconnect the phone !). Sit reasonably close to the screen – if you are only two metres from a 120 cm screen you are getting almost 70% of the cinema experience.  Then there are the psychological things. Commit yourself to watching the entire film at one sitting. Sit for five minutes in semi-darkness before the film.

I will be staggered if you don’t conclude that the extra effort was worth it and your experience was better than you had anticipated. This is really only common sense when you remember the old adage: you only get out of life what you put into it. That which arrives apparently free, is rarely valued in the subconscious.

This brings me on to the notion of downloading. I am not against downloading for any po-faced semi-legal reasons, nor because I want the film companies to make massive profits (though, of course, without today’s blockbuster, tomorrow’s intimate masterpiece might not be made).

The problem is that if you download for little or no cost, you are unlikely to give the film your full attention when you watch it (an extension of the ‘you only get out what you put in’ idea. Buying used DVDs is relatively inexpensive and you can re-sell them to minimise the cost, but the act of buying them is a commitment and you are much more likely to get the most out if the film.

Keep watching the masterpieces…






A new beginning….

MotoGimpSept15 407
A new angle on film….

I should have done this years ago.

For all my working life I was privileged to spend my days talking and thinking about films – not just any films, but the great masterpieces that make the cinema the dominant cultural construct of our modern world. Now, instead of wasting my time on trying to keep the house manageable between the visits of my cleaning lady, I’ll be setting down as many thoughts as I can manage that have been filtered through my experience still bearing the tag ‘valuable’.

Most, but not all posts will feature aspects of cinema that are important in that they continue to be meaningful after several years or decades. There will be review of films, mainly  ancient but also fairly modern. There will be reflections on the nature (in the ontological sense) of cinema and the film experience, and I will throw in curved balls from the other arts (I tend to call them ‘the lesser arts’) and current affairs.

As anyone who knows me can well imagine, I know where I am going, but have no great idea exactly what route I will take to get there. That will make the blog more unpredictable, which I hope will also mean less boring.

The emergence of youtube is an extraordinary resource for those seeking to explore and explain the cinema and I hope, therefore, to  provide a plethora of links to illustrate my observations. Didacticism is the aspect of modern cinema (in fact all cinema), which I find most indigestible, especially when it is directed towards moral attitudes and so I hope to avoid this in these pages and ask only that readers consider my observations as attempts at understanding and certainly not Holy Writ.

That’s all for now and I leave you with a treat from 100 years ago: Easy StreetChaplin, 1916. Click on the image to see full film. Enjoy! (You will see the reason for the title of this post…)


Keep watching the masterpieces….