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.

Lost In Translation: Ibsen’s Modernism

This article focuses on Ibsen’s theories and ideas on realism and ethics. Ibsen brings the focus of ethics to drama, he does this by explaining that drama involves the content by the historical world which pertains to the present time (the time it was received). Another concept that seems to have started these ideas is Spinoza’s ideas that the world is a constantly changing place that is evolving and progressing in a way that is unpredictable and unstable these ideas are compared to the ideas that were previous that the world was fixed and unchangeable, this theory then leads to the idea of the individual which sparks the idea that the human is both rational and spiritual.

With relation to the film “Lost in Translation” I believe that Ibsen’s ideas come through when we begin to analyze the separate marriages of both Bill and Charlotte. Ibsen says that we define ourselves by commitment, by how we live, think and respond to others, Charlotte (Johansson) is living a life of uncertainty, both in her career choice, marriage and overall direction in life. Charlottes Husband is underwhelming and provides her no authentically shared human intimate experience, a very important factor in her quest for self. Charlotte then meets Bill, a man who can offer her this Ibsinian idea of authentic human experience, which plays with the ideas of ones ability to grow within the social fabric of capitalism and marriage.

Ultimately this tepid affair provides and insight into both characters marriages and on weather they are passionately committed or half hearted in their loyalties to their spouses. Ultimately we are not given an insight into the last words between Bill and Charlotte, we are uncertain even if they are their last words, this realistic approach to the ending of the film brings a raw sense of realism to the storytelling process. The lack of closure to the film is a strong statement that eventually one thing or another happens but realistically we will never know what lies ahead.

The Evolution Of Cinema

We live in an era of profound technology, technology that provides us with entertainment at our fingertips. Entertainment that needs to continually amp things up to keep us happy, like we’ve built up a tolerance to movies, each time needing deeper storylines, bigger explosions and better actors to satisfy us.

It’s not only about the movie, we’ve even grown weary of the environment that we watch it in. Fear not, they have created an environmental cinematic hierarchy for our viewing pleasure – V-Max, Gold Class, 3D … the list is endless and no doubt going to advance even further – Not only do we want to sit in our reclining extra-large chairs, but we want to sip cocktails too. Popcorn and choc-tops are not enough anymore, we need to have a three course meal while watching our overtly complex, but forgettable movie.

I’ve begun to notice that I’m growing tired of this unsatisfiable lust for bigger, badder, and better – I feel this strange desire to return to the unapologetically simple.

Once a month I make a point to go out and watch a movie alone – I usually go to a local cinema in the middle of the day. It’s like my own little adventure, where I can get lost in the world of the movie.

This month however, I stumbled across Golden Age Cinema.  I saw the words “Date Night” and “Matinee”, I even saw “Cult Classics” and “Obscure Documentaries”.

Then I saw it “The Shinning” Friday the 13th of October at 9pm!

Golden Age Cinema boasted a small screen, humble chairs, popcorn, and choc-tops – simple in the way that it should be.

Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and Jack Nicholson! The elements couldn’t have aligned better.

So I would wait, wait for this vintage cinema, wait for this cult classic, wait to sit back and let myself fall into a world that isn’t focused on desperately trying impressing me, but knowing that what it offers is one of a kind.

I’m not attempting to promote the cinema itself, upon further research, there are several cinemas in Sydney that offer this type of viewing experience. What I am attempting to promote however is a mild return to the simpler experiences. The taste for adventure that isn’t handed to you on a silver platter.

Photo Credit Golden Age Cinema