“It’s Only A Movie”
In this lesson, we will compare two of Hitchcock’s most popular films to showcase the ways his artistic vision stayed consistent even as film technology evolved.
Grant and Hitchcock
Like James Stewart, Cary Grant made four films with Alfred Hitchcock (Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest). He was also offered the male lead in The Birds (1963), although he refused it. Hitchcock used Grant’s star qualities to great effect, even when casting him slightly against type as in Notorious. Audiences identified Grant as one of the screen’s most graceful actors (he was a former acrobat), verbally agile, charming, and seductive, and his films with Hitchcock only enhanced that image.
Accounting for Differences
In previous lessons, we’ve gained an understanding of Hitchcock’s early life and influences, his working methods, and his major themes. Now we’ll compare films from different stages of his career to see how changes in film technology and American culture changed Hitchcock’s work, as well as how the director’s style kept it consistent.
Notes on Notorious
Two of Hitchcock’s best and best-known films are Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1958), both starring Cary Grant. The movies are analyzed further in Chapters 18 and 32 respectively in the course text, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, by Donald Spoto, The earlier film, made while Hitchcock was under contract to producer David O. Selznick, bears traces of Selznick’s sometimes helpful, always copious, influence.
After loaning Hitchcock to RKO Studios to make the film, Selznick was inhibited by a contractual clause from his usual obsessive involvement in the film. Still, Selznick ardently pursued many suggestions, including the casting of Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian, and he voiced his strong opinions about story construction and character psychology often and loudly. His deteriorating personal life and post-production work on Duel in the Sun (1946) reduced his involvement in the film, however, and Notorious marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s freedom as a Hollywood filmmaker.
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman play the romantic leads. While suave and seductive, Grant has little of the humor or charm he brought to so many other films (including Hitchcock’s 1941 film Suspicion). His bitterness in love suggests the character of Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), who sends Bergman’s Ilsa away to help continue the struggle against the Nazis. Unlike Blaine, however, Grant’s Devlin chooses love over duty, rescuing Bergman’s Alicia from her Nazi captors even though it means exposing his undercover operation.
North by Northwest
North by Northwest was written and filmed in the Cold War era, at the height of Hitchcock’s powers. He had gained independence from Selznick and the major studios — the Hollywood studio system having fallen apart after World War II — and had completed a string of hits that cemented his reputation as one of the world’s most popular directors. On Notorious, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht had to indulge David O. Selznick’s demands, but with North by Northwest, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were free to concoct the ultimate Hitchcock film.
In one of his last major roles, Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, a man as cynical and sardonic as Devlin, but who is, unlike Devlin, uninterested in any cause but his own. As the female lead, Hitchcock cast Eva Marie Saint as double agent Eve Kendall. Like Bergman’s Alicia in Notorious, Eve is blond and sultry, but she is no innocent. She plays Thornhill effortlessly; making her own choices between love and duty, she chooses duty not once but twice. But Thornhill rescues her out of love, and at last renounces his own selfishness.
It is a more cynical world all around than the world of Notorious. The powers that menace America are nameless, and the American intelligence agents who had used Alicia as a pawn in Notorious are willing to sacrifice Thornhill and Eve as well, although to a less-obvious purpose. In North by Northwest, love is a more dangerous game in a more devious world. But North by Northwest — like Notorious before it — affirms love as the most vital element in human life.
Alfred Hitchcock, Master Spy?
When Hitchcock suggested that using the radioactive element uranium as a plot element in Notorious, it struck some executives as far-fetched. But Hitchcock had heard about the Nazi experiments with heavy water in Norway, and about a top-secret U.S. facility in New Mexico. When the atomic bombs fell on Japan, Hitchcock seemed eerily prescient.
Suspense and MacGuffins
Hitchcock loved to hold an audience in suspense, and he used the technique of Pure Cinema to do it. As Hitchcock explained it, suspense differs drastically from surprise. Imagine, he said, that a bomb is under a table and it explodes. Boom! You have surprise and a few moments of screen emotion.
Now imagine showing the audience the bomb under the table — and the people at the table chatting away, perfectly unaware of the danger. Every moment yields emotion. Instead of three seconds of surprise, you have three minutes of suspense, and what’s more, you place the audience squarely in sympathy with the characters, whoever they might be.
Suspense and Pure Cinema
Hitchcock’s camera angles and editing further enhance suspense in his films. In Notorious, for example, he shows Alicia stealing the key to the wine cellar and then leading Devlin to search it while a party takes place upstairs. Hitchcock cuts between close shots of the dwindling party champagne, Alicia and Devlin in the wine cellar, and the suspicious Alex Sebastian, who wonders where Alicia has gone. Hitchcock’s use of images tells the whole story, and by the time Sebastian comes down the stairs for more champagne, the suspense is all but unbearable.
North by Northwest also features signature moments of suspense. Best known is the crop-duster scene, set in a blandly flat landscape in broad daylight. The scene is largely wordless, as Roger Thornhill gets off a bus and waits for a man he is supposed to meet. Hitchcock intercuts sustained shots of Grant waiting and his subjective viewpoint. We see through his point of view as vehicles pass on the highway, a crop-dusting plane works in the distance, and a man comes up to the bus stop across the highway.
The suspense builds through long periods of silence as we wait, with Grant, for the metaphorical bomb to explode. When it does, and the crop-duster swoops down to attack, Hitchcock speeds his editing to build our suspense even further.
In both films, Hitchcock shows his consistent strengths as a cinematic artist. He communicates purely with the composition of his shots and editing, making his cinema into a language as universal as silent film. In fact, while the soundtrack adds to the enjoyment of these scenes, you could turn off the sound and still get the effect Hitchcock intended.
Both films also feature Hitchcock’s characteristic plot device, the MacGuffin, an object of great concern to the characters that motivates the plot. In Notorious, the MacGuffin is the uranium hidden in Sebastian’s wine cellar. In North by Northwest, it is microfilm of sensitive government secrets hidden in an antique idol. In neither case does Hitchcock care too much about resolving what happens to these much sought-after objects; the spy games are primarily an excuse to explore the human relationships at the heart of each film.
A Monumental Ending
For North by Northwest’s climactic chase across the presidents’ faces, Hitchcock wanted to film on the actual Mount Rushmore, but the National Park Service refused. Instead, a replica of the monumental carving was built, at great expense, on an MGM soundstage.
The Culmination of Hitchcock’s Cinema
Although made at different stages of Alfred Hitchcock’s career, Notorious and North by Northwest show a number of striking similarities in plot, theme, and cinematic technique. Let’s conclude this lesson by seeing how changing technical and cultural conditions affected what many people call the ultimate Hitchcock film, North by Northwest.
Between the production of the two films, times changed and with them so did Hollywood’s Production Code. Long the arbiter of morals in American movies, the Production Code was tested by controversial films like Otto Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue (1953) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and by 1959, its power was waning.
Scenes in Notorious that the Code Office found offensive in 1946 (such as the extended kiss between Grant and Bergman) no longer raised eyebrows. In North by Northwest, Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill clearly sleep together, their dialogue is frankly sexual, and Hitchcock recaps the Grant/Bergman embrace with a lengthy clench between Grant and Saint that begins to resemble vertical lovemaking.
This new sophistication in dealing overtly with sexuality was matched by a growing technical sophistication in filmmaking. While Notorious was shot in black and white in the standard small screen dimensions of its day, North by Northwest was shot in “thrilling Technicolor” in the wide-screen process known as VistaVision. This allowed Hitchcock a larger canvas, enhanced his creativity in framing shots, and gave him the opportunity to add color to his list of artistic devices.
North by Northwest used all of these elements to perfection, as Ernest Lehman’s screenplay gave Hitchcock sumptuous settings, beautiful sunsets, and Mount Rushmore itself (or at least a replica of it).
The movie was consciously intended to be a culmination of Hitchcock’s cinema. Lehman and Hitchcock took elements from many of Hitchcock’s earlier films with the intention of improving upon them. Like the early double-chase movies, North by Northwest thrills us with improbable action sequences and narrow escapes — like Notorious, it foregrounds the theme of love and duty; like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), it shows ordinary people caught up in intrigue and mystery. It synthesizes all these elements so successfully that North by Northwest remains perhaps Hitchcock’s most popular film.
Having looked at some of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, now it is time to look at their impact. In the next lesson, we’ll wrap up our study of Hitchcock by assessing his lasting influence on film genres, filmmakers, and popular culture.
Assignment: The Ultimate Hitchcock Thriller
Read Chapters 18 and 32 in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock.
Donald Spoto sees Notorious and North by Northwest as among the best of their types — romance and comedy, respectively — in Hitchcock’s work, and even calls the later film a sequel to Notorious. Why does Spoto consider North by Northwest the ultimate Hitchcock film?