The Thinker

North By Northwest: Modernism & Hitchcock

The concept of modernism can be understood in the film by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest”. The film can be understood as modern in two different aspects, the first being cultural and the second being technological. The cultural aspect is seen through the movies’ use of unconventional themes of deception, mistaken identity and the technological aspect can be seen through the use of filming, set design, costuming and editing and post production.

Alfred Hitchcock typically uses a certain style and mood in his movies, but his typical style of darkness, uncertainty and horror was broken by the film North by North west, he stated that he wanted “something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies.” This statement can be seen as an offence to the movie as it is full of symbolisms’ and it is these symbols which make the film modern. Even the title can be seen as symbolism it is a reference to the play Hamlet, a play which is also unbalanced by the concept of reality.

The most important plot element which represents the idea of modernism as a cultural form in the film is the idea of the “MacGuffin”. In an interviewed in 1966 by Alfred Hitchcock, he illustrated the term “MacGuffin” he popularized both the term “MacGuffin” and the technique, with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers” It is evident that North by Northwest uses this plot element to engage the audience and does so perfectly this idea of the “MacGuffin”, the physical object that everyone in the film is chasing after but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. They have been trying to kill Thornhill, who they believe to be the agent on their trail, “George Kaplan”. Indeed, the fictitious Kaplan himself could be the “MacGuffin” of the film as Thornhill, as well as the villains, spend most of the movie vainly trying to track him down. This new concept of plot is an imperative example of modernism within the film North by North West.

An important example of modernism throughout the film is the use of the concept of theatre/play acting, where everyone is in on the reality of the story, except the central character. Each character plays a part, but no one is who they pretend to be. This is reflected by Thornhill’s line: “The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.” There is a constant reference to the idea of “playing/acting” and this is also a modern ploy to confuse the audience between reality and fiction.

Not only did this confuse the audience but also confused the actors. In the role of Thornhill, Cary Grant was distressed with the way the plot seemed to wander aimlessly, and he actually approached Hitchcock to complain about the script. “I can’t make heads or tails of it,” he said (unwittingly quoting a line that Thornhill utters in the film). This quote is very adequate in explaining the element of the film, nothing is what it seems, nothing is black and white, but all shades of grey.

The second important aspect of demonstrating modernity in North by Northwest is the technological aspect. Elements such as filming, set design, costuming, editing and post production are all used in order to make the film modern. North by Northwest took place between August and December 1958 with the exception of a few re-takes that were shot in April 1959. It is important to know that this was the only Hitchcock film released by MGM. This is important as it is relevant to the direction of the film. Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film’s length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused. The film was made in Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of the few VistaVision films made at MGM. Another important aspect of technology and culture was the fact that one of Eva Marie Saint’s lines in the dining car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said “I never make love on an empty stomach,” but it was changed in post-production to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” It is said that the censors felt the original version was too risqué.

The United Nations Headquarters is the site of a scene in the film. At the time, the United Nations prohibited film crews from shooting around its New York City headquarters. Hitchcock used a movie camera hidden in a parked van to film Cary Grant and Adam Williams exiting their taxis and entering the building. This technique, even though it wasn’t planned was really effective in creating a sense of concealment and the audience gains a feel for the movie. This technique is modern for the time and therefore displays how the technique is a tool for how the film represents modernism.

It is clearly evident that through both aspects of the film, culturally and technologically, that the film displays modernism. Through plot elements such as symbols and the “MacGuffin” theory Hitchcock redefines films and cinema, not only are his films modern of the time but also greatly influential to other films which come later.

Referenced Material

Alfred Hitchcock. North by Northwest, 1959
Oxford English Dictionary.
Video of Interview.

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