Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Anatomy of a (Hitchcock) Frame

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Thanks to the wonderful folks at Metrograph here in New York City I finally got to see Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 masterpiece North By Northwest on a big screen this past weekend. I've seen most of the big Hitch movies on big screens by now but somehow NBNW kept eluding me. It was, as usual with Hitch movies, revelatory -- these movies were made for this format after all. The bigger the better!

Everything from those gorgeous diagonal opening credits splashed over city glass on down just pops off the screen - those shots of the UN! I am glad I recently visited the UN myself so I could see how spectacular Hitch's camera was making it. And the crop-duster scenes astride the cornfield, the expanse of it after so much business...

... when that plane comes swooping in and violating the sky itself, well, you really feel that danger, and Grant's total vulnerability in the moment. The attack might not make a lick of logical sense, but it hits you in the gut all the same. (And I just summed up so much of Hitch with that sentence.) 

But there's a shot later in the film that 
echoes the one above that I really want to talk about...

I don't think our friend Nathaniel has done North by Northwest for his "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series at The Film Experience but if he had and I had participated it would be this shot that I would choose, I think. Seeing it on the big screen was vital to its impact because there is so so very much happening in the shot that - thankfully Hitch holds it for awhile so you can drink it all in.

I recommend you click on that frame above - I purposefully made it very large so you can see all that's on offer. Let me set up the moment - Eve (Eva Marie Saint) has just "murdered" Roger (Cary Grant) with a blank cartridge in order to finally and fully ingratiate herself with the bad dudes. The two lovers have this last chance ("last" being unbeknownst to Roger) to say farewell before she head off on a plane with the bad dudes. So it's a goodbye scene.

Roger doesn't know it's goodbye yet - he is still posing, playing Mr. Cool. He's just performed his death scene spectacularly, and he's feeling alive. You can see the Professor (the head of the CIA or the FBI or, as he puts it, "FBI, CIA, ONI... we're all in the same alphabet soup.") has moved off into the background to give them their privacy, but only somewhat - he's also leaning conspiratorially into the car and talking with the officer therein. 

Unlike the absence of scenery between the two men on the road seen up top, the scenery here in the woods of South Dakota (and let's just take a moment to revel in the perfectly gorgeous falseness of this obvious sound-stage - I miss this sort of thing) is the opposite - a clutter of vertical lines, slicing the two characters off from one another. There are so many obstacles between them...

Look at that white steed this lady rides upon! Even if her outfit paints her as a Bad Girl, her ride sings another song, all the sweeter in its telling. Her outfit though - if there's one thing Eva Marie Saint knows in this movie it's how to dress the scene. Remember, she's just "murdered" her lover...

... and so she's dressed the role - that is some full-on Bonnie Parker business going on there. That cap! Nobody ever did anything good in a cap like that. The outfit is also appropriately funereal - she is The Angel of Death. The bad dudes she's performing for just see the Death part, but we get to see The Angel.

(One great sidenote about her astonishing wardrobe, via: "Edith Head was unable to leave Paramount to work as the costume designer on North by Northwest, so [Producer Herbert] Coleman instead took Eva Marie Saint to the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York to select a range of costumes from their collection.")

And then there it is, lording over this entire shot - the Mount Rushmore monument that will come to define their immediate future; the stage upon which they will play out the final violent Act of their love affair, and sacrifice for Country.

In an earlier scene when they first arrive in South Dakota (seen above) Grant says, "I don't like the way that Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me," which The Professor replies to with, "Perhaps he's trying to give you one last word of caution... 'Speak softly, and carry a big stick." Very shortly it will become imperative that Grant, as he attempts to rescue his beloved, does speak very softly...

... and as we all know, since the film keeps reinforcing with it's oh-so-subtle hints about this character's charm and manly manliness, that he is carrying the biggest of sticks. Thankfully for Eve, that one's for her...


4 comments:

Pierce said...

The last time I saw NBNW, it was on a flight to Iceland on Icelandair. It had been decades and I decided that, while I love Tippi Hedren (Minnesota girl) and can even tolerate Grace Kelly in Hitchcock movies, Eva Marie Saint is my all-time favorite Hitchcock Blonde!

Bill Carter said...

And did you catch famous blooper in the scene where she "murders" him?

A boy sitting at one of the tables in the background covers his ears to avoid hearing the gunshot before the gun is fired.

Daniel said...

This is far and away the Hitchcock film I've seen the most, so I didn't go to the Metrograph screening of this (funds must be conserved!). But I did see Vertigo there back when they first opened and HOLY CRAP was it a revelation on the big screen in 35MM! The print showed a bit of age but the film itself.... WOW. So yeah, I get it.

LOVE everything about this, BTW. That's a great shot you analyzed and UGH but Eva Marie Saint is just so freaking perfect in this. Grant is pretty good, too - probably my favorite of his performances for Hitch.

Ludovic Joubert said...

Actually, Hitchcock didn't shoot in the UN building because access was forbidden. They stole a shot of Cary Grant walking up the steps to the esplanade (I hope the word is right as I am not an English-speaker) and the shot "inside" the UN is actually a mat-painting. Unfortunately, Vandamm's house is fake too.

I really love how versatile (and sexy and funny) your blog is.