Spectacular Modernism
Leo Goldsmith on North by Northwest

In an age of “Real-D” digital Scorsese films, traffic-cone-orange Loraxes, and Tim & Eric Awesome Show, it may seem strange to some youngsters that one of the iconic images of Hollywood spectacle is of a lone man in a field being chased by a plane, made more than a half-century ago. Somewhere in the AMPAS bylaws, it must be written that each Academy Awards show must feature at least one direct citation of the famed scene of Cary Grant running from a malevolent crop-duster. This year, it was honored with an interpretive Cirque du Soleil dance piece.

Yet what’s curious about this scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, when watched in full, is how cannily it bridges old and new ideas about “movie magic,” the image of the star, and the creation of cinematic space. There is the Buster Keaton–esque pitting of man against anonymous machine, the abstract geometries of an Antonioni-like wasteland, the Bond-to-Bourne swagger (and chin) of the isolated action hero. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this scene, at least from our vantage point, is the notion that Hitchcock plays with throughout North by Northwest: that of the composite image. We’ve become habituated to the digital collaging of actors, scenery, and bits of code into a single unified image—such recent examples include Avatar’s virtual junglescapes and The Mill and the Cross’s artfully jigsawed recreation of Brueghel paintings—but here Hitchcock is working with more analogue means of combination. Matte shots, rear projections, process shots: these are the artisanal predecessors of the digital image, and Hitchcock used these to control every detail of landscape, color, flesh, and movement within the frame.

Hitchcock’s fondness for special effects and other means of graphically manipulating the image stretches right back to the beginning of his career. As a designer of intertitles in his early career, he was already thinking of the film frame as a canvas of shapes in motions. The intertitles for 1927’s The Lodger displays a unique sense of the relationship between story and geometric form, as text competes with circles and triangles in a fascinating graphic evocation of the story’s architecture. And Hitchcock would increasingly bring this spatial, dimensional sensibility into the frame, as in the circular motifs in films like The Ring or the persistent images of whirlpooling spirals in Spellbound, Vertigo, and Psycho, to name only a few of the most obvious. His fondness for models, gadgets, and trick shots is evident right from the start, too, as in the famous glass-floor shot from The Lodger, the use of models in the action set-pieces in The 39 Steps (which served as the ur-text to North by Northwest), and the elaborate train crash at the climax of Secret Agent, for which Hitchcock had hoped to enlist the services of New Zealand abstract filmmaker Len Lye.

It’s little surprise, then, that Hitchcock had such a fruitful collaboration with title designer Saul Bass. The first images of North by Northwest offer a rich illustration of the film to come, with a striking, ambiguous frame full of green—suggestive of a tennis match, a billiard table?—immediately crisscrossed by the vectors of a grid. This is the figure of the web, the matrix, but it also evokes the rigidity of modern life, the strict diagonals of postwar architecture, and even train tracks. Soon, the swatch of green gives way to an image—the mirrored face of the CIT Financial Building—and we enter an even more emphatically modern world of silver surfaces and bustling anonymity. This is the flat, shiny world of Roger O. Thornhill—indeed, it’s the Madison Avenue building where he works as an advertising executive—but it’s also the image of insubstantiality and superficiality. As we discover, the “O” stands for nothing, and Roger, despite his charm and readiness with a one-liner, is said by his ex-wives to lead too dull a life.

From the modernist glimmer of New York’s skyscrapers to the gray colorlessness of the crop-dusting sequence to the deep reflective properties of that suit (insert obligatory Mad Men reference), North by Northwest is also Hitchcock’s fullest exploration of the silverness of the silver screen. And what better to offset that silverness than the tanned face—“It’s a nice face,” as Eve Kendall tells him—of Cary Grant? Like Jimmy Stewart, another star of four of Hitchcock’s films, Grant serves as the face of a particular kind of masculinity. But where Vertigo and rest of the James Stewart cycle are about the sublimated, domesticated malice that simmers beneath the surface of ordinary bourgeois life, Freudian id-monsters lurking beneath the veneer of everyday life, North by Northwest and the Grant films are about the veneer itself, the playful ambiguities of the surface as springboards for the fantastic, the impossible, the romantic. (Even Suspicion, which plays with Grant’s potential for murderousness, is more about his unreadability than the darkness that might lie behind it but, crucially, doesn’t.) Both Grant and Stewart find themselves beset, even persecuted by the vagaries of Hitchcock’s paranoiac modernity, but where Stewart is always plummeting back down to earth, Grant vaults from the rooftops.

In North by Northwest, everyday locations—the genteel study of a Long Island mansion, a Chicago auction room, and the Mt. Rushmore cafeteria—are transformed into theatrical spaces, places in which dissimulation and playacting have the power of metamorphosis: bottles of bourbon become books, sports cars and agricultural machinery become weapons, sex becomes a fly-swatter, and a centuries-old Tarascan sculpture gives birth to top-secret microfilm. (To say nothing of those similarly transubstantiating glasses of milk and bottles of wine elsewhere in the Grant films.) This mutable modern world, which Roger traverses by train, plane, and automobile, is slippery and sinister, but it has its euphoric aspects too, just as mistaken identity exposes Roger to the threat of murder and avails him to the play of impersonation.

To match the plasticity of the world, Hitchcock deploys every trick he knows to manipulate the image. And this bring us back to those rear projections, which have for so long been the most divisive elements of Hitchcock’s later works, in which the rear-projections take on increasingly uncanny forms, culminating in the many avian onslaughts of The Birds and Marnie’s baroque, Freudian horseback ride. In a recent short essay for Film Quarterly, Laura Mulvey has confessed a certain enjoyment of this often obvious, but still fascinating device, highlighting the ways in which rear projections convey what she calls a “clumsy sublime.” For Mulvey, process shots necessarily present the viewer with a “dual temporality,” but also a dual spatiality: the “artificiality of the studio scene” in which the actors frequently stand and interact and the “‘document’-like nature of the projected images,” usually scenery, of the image behind them. But this kind of juxtaposition can be unnerving for some viewers. Even Stanley Kubrick apparently evinced a nonplussed reaction to Hitchcock’s work on these grounds, according to his widow, Christiane Kubrick, who cited her late husband’s distaste for “all that phony rear-projection.” And yet, Eyes Wide Shut finds Kubrick entering Hitchcock country with a particularly eerie use of rear-projection in images of Tom Cruise riding in the back of a taxi and even walking down the street with an otherworldly, bizarro Manhattan behind him, and especially when he crosses the East River, heading straight towards a sign that reads “Glen Cove” on his way to another mysterious Long Island mansion in which nothing is quite what it seems.

During Hitchcock’s late fifties, however, his use of rear-projection technology was still expressionistic, but rather more restrained. As scholars like Robin Wood and Debra Fried have pointed out, Vertigo deploys rear projections at precise moments to mirror the characters’ spiraling descent into delusion: think of the film’s two most significant kisses, Scottie and Madeleine’s famous clinch next to the suddenly swirling shores of San Francisco Bay, and Scottie’s hallucinatory return to the carriage-house when he finally embraces the transformed Judy. Rear projection becomes an aesthetic of juxtapositions—of different temporalities, spaces, states of consciousness, and especially scales. And North by Northwest is in many ways a film about scale: the iconic status of the Hollywood star versus the anonymity of the Madison Avenue ad-man, the killing-a-fly-with-a-bazooka crop-dusting sequence, or the comparative importance of international conflict and the individual, so dramatically conveyed in the vertiginous matte shot down the northern face of the United Nations General Assembly building to the diminutive figure of Thornhill fleeing the scene of a murder. This often jarring sense of scale comes through in the characters, too—as Raymond Bellour famously put it, “Thornhill is nothing but a big baby,” and even Eva Marie Saint crafts a fascinating, subtle performance that enables her to house a smoldering libido, murderous duplicity, and tender pathos in her feathery frame all at once.

This reconciliation of these disparate, even competing elements into a single, unified image—the compositing of figures into a landscape or of the warmly personal and romantic into the most cold-blooded of Cold War narratives—is a testament to Hitchcock’s mastery at the level of the image and the story. We see this in a final, spectacular sequence of cuts: from the precipice of George Washington’s underchin to the upper berth of a sleeper car. It’s a marvelous sequence that neatly embodies what scholar Richard Allen has called Hitchcock’s “romantic irony,” creating a dazzling deus ex machina that reaches into the frame to force a resolution with a magical cut on action. It’s an ironic reversal that creates a new transformation: a possible plunge to the death becomes the big plunge of marriage. This being Hitchcock, there’s also the final, absurdly blunt visual pun of a steam engine penetrating a railway tunnel, a dirty joke rendered on a spectacular scale.

North by Northwest played March 9 and 10 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.