Archive for July, 2015


TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating:  ★★ 1/2

Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).

 Directed Torn1and produced by Alfred  Hitchcock

 Written by Brian Moore

 Cinematographer:  John F. Warren

 Editor:  Bud Hoffman

 Original Music:  John Addison

 

 

Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques:  a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene.  Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.  So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists;  we know the ship is freezing cold;  and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together.  And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).   This set-up is quite good;  Hitchcock is on familiar ground.  Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.

Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said  “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah.   Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship.  Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message.  He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone.  He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive.  Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “But – that’s behind the Iron Curtain.”  Oh, brother!   Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry.  It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector.  I’m not sure which is more implausible:  that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy.   This lapse in logic causes the whole early portion of the film to suffer.  Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie is the strongest portion by far.  It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.  Now the viewer will see the action from his point of view.

First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room.  This is shot from a distance, all in one take;  the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives.  It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:

“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot.  It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect.  That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman.  The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”

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A shot from a masterfully constructed sequence. The beautiful lighting makes this look almost like a painting.

Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling.  Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie;  he makes the most of every moment he is on screen.  Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit.  Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor.    These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  These shots hold up very well today;  overall the sequence is quite good.

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Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi.  Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent.  Here follows the best sequence in the movie.  Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed.  But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window.  Hitchcock describes the sequence:

“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”

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The killing of Gromek, the best sequence in the movie.

 

After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited.  The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him;  then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety.  This last section of the film is inconsistent.  While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third.  There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America.  This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue.  Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies;  when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot;  we more or less know what is being said.   Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design.  It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage.  Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie.  Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots;  he was an innovator even in the silent film days.  How could he let a shot like this stand?  Did the artificiality not bother him?  It tends to take the audience out of the film.

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The artificial setting detracts from an otherwise well-constructed scene.

 

After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin.  The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives.  This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie;  it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes.  Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason.  The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles.  Hitchcock explains:  “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene.  For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”

Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by?  Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film?  The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.

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Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek).   Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be.  Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden.  They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest.  They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden.  We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.

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Lila Kedrova as the Countess Kuchinska, with our hero and heroine.

Performance:  Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry.  At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies.  Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script.  This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor.  Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.

A lost scene (Gromek’s brother):  Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek.  Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed.  This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek.  He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with.    This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic.  Hitchcock said of it:  “It’s quite effective.  In fact, very good.  I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good.  I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.”  Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry;  he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”?  Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”?  The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.

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A shot from the deleted scene featuring Paul Newman as Professor Armstrong, and Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek’s brother.

Farewell, Bernard Herrmann:  Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators,  editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks.  He would lose another one during post production.   Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well.  Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.”  It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice;  nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for.  But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all.  Herrmann stormed off;  he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired.  Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended;  they would never speak again.

Recurring players:  Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with.  William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent.  And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie:  “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back.  This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.”  This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.

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Hitchcock on the set, providing direction during the Gromek killing.

The resolution:  Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards.   Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they all soldiered on.  Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is.   Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture.  He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.”   How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others?  It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster;  it most certainly is not.   This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones.   Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses.  The film made a meager profit of $1.5 million, which was a bona fide flop, especially considering the director and the two stars.  The reviews were harsh;  some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch.  Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available.  John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good.  The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor.  Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members.  I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year;  surely she would have participated if asked?  Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths.  Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison.  Again, Universal dropped the ball here.  Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes.  Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s.  Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

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The three-act structure is a basic tenet of screenwriting.  Most films generally follow the template:  setup, confrontation, and resolution.     Torn Curtain is a movie where the three acts are clearly delineated through a shifting narrative focus.  As Hitchcock himself said “…the picture is clearly divided into three sections.  The story worked out very naturally in that way…”

So our examination of this problematic Hitchcock movie will attempt to follow the same structure.  This blog entry will be the setup:  how did this movie come to be?  It will also introduce the confrontation:  what went wrong in preproduction.  A second entry will continue with the confrontation and onto the resolution, with a focus on the film itself and its aftermath.

After the release of Marnie in July of 1964, Alfred Hitchcock took some time choosing his next project.  For the majority of his directing career, Hitchcock had worked on multiple projects at one time;  while completing the filming of one movie he would already be involved in the writing of his next movie, and was often looking beyond that.  Those days were over.  Hitchcock, now sixty-five years old, was increasingly conscious of his health.  He also seemed unsure of his next step.  Several months passed, during which time Hitch screened some movies at home, read some books, but seemed no closer to choosing a prospective film.   Two of the films he had screened and enjoyed were The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and he actually talked to Richard Condon (the author of The Manchurian Candidate) and Rod Serling (who penned the screenplay for Seven Days in May). Whether Hitchcock hoped to work with these writers, or just wished to share his admiration is unknown, but nothing came of the discussions.   One of the books Hitchcock read during this period was John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, one of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps.  Several times since the success of Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps he had planned to  film one of Buchan’s sequels, but it never happened.

Then suddenly, in November, he tried to start three different projects, almost simultaneously.  This sudden creative burst could be interpreted in a couple of ways.  In the first place, it is clear that he was firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking.  But it also appears that the master of suspense was casting about, not sure which direction to proceed.   The younger Hitchcock of the 1940’s and 50’s never vacillated to this degree.

One of Hitch’s three ideas was for a movie that could function as a sort of prequel to Shadow of a Doubt, detailing the exploits of a man who murders several wealthy widows.  He brought in Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and asked him to write a novel that Hitch could then turn into a movie.  Bloch was intrigued, but the project was short lived, in part because of monetary disputes,  also because Hitchcock simply felt no rapport with Bloch.

Hitchcock’s next idea involved a family of crooks that run a hotel as a cover for their criminal activities.  This was a premise that Hitchcock had first thought of decades before.

His third idea involved an American spy.  Hitchcock envisaged a movie as far removed from James Bond as possible; he felt that the new spy movies were outlandish, and also borrowed a little too freely from his own North by Northwest.  He thought it was time to make a very realistic, down-to-earth story about a spy who defects to the Communist bloc.

Hitchcock jettisoned the first idea after the talks with Robert Bloch went nowhere, and proceeded with the other two ideas simultaneously.  He actually approached famed writer Vladimir Nabokov about writing a treatment for these two ideas.  Apparently they met in person, and had phone conversations as well.   The specifics of these talks are unknown, but their correspondence by letter has survived.  On November 19,  1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov at his residence in Switzerland, sharing his two ideas for movies:

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Hitchcock and Nabokov? An intriguing partnership that never came to fruition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion picture or, as far as I know, in literature.  It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector…the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement…”

Hitchcock then outlined his second idea:  “I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term.  She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel.  The [father’s] family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations.  Now into this setting comes our 19-year-old girl.”

Nabokov responded in a letter dated November 28, 1964.  He said in part:

“I find both your ideas very interesting.  The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods…Your second idea is quite acceptable to me.”  It’s interesting that Nabokov rejected the first idea, which would become Torn Curtain, in favor of the second.

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George Tomasini, superb film editor.

Before Hitchcock received Nabokov’s reply, however, he was faced with a  personal and professional tragedy.  On the 22nd of November, George  Tomasini,  who had edited Hitchcock’s last nine movies, died suddenly of a  heart attack while on a camping trip.  Tomasini, an avid outdoorsman, was  only 55 years old, and in apparent good health.    Tomasini was a very  important part of Hitchcock’s team, one of the most important collaborators  of his entire career, and someone whose company he enjoyed.  As Tomasini’s  wife, actress Mary Brian explained many years after his death “Mr. Hitchcock  wanted George to go with him on every location…because he liked his  company, aside from any input that George could give him.  Mr. Hitchcock  always gave George first cut.  He wanted to see his interpretation.  Then they  got down to the fine work.”

This was the first of many losses and setbacks that Hitchcock would face during the preparation and filming of Torn Curtain.   In my next blog entry, we’ll take a look at how all of this loss impacted the final product.

 

By the end of the year, Hitchcock was in a bit of disarray.  His creative spark had been briefly muted.  After losing George Tomasini, he also lost Nabokov, who had backed out of both projects by Christmas.  But in the first week of the new year Hitchcock forged ahead on both projects.  He hired the Italian screenwriting duo of Age and Scarpelli to write the hotel story, tentatively titled “RRRR”.  This project would eventually be scrapped, because, as Hitchcock rather bluntly stated “…Italians are very slipshod in matters of story construction.  They just ramble on.”

Hitchcock brough novelist Brian Moore to Hollywood, to try and entice him into writing Torn Curtain.   Moore had no interest in writing a screenplay, but was convinced by his lawyer to accept, because the money offered was too good to pass up.   After Tomasini’s death, this was the second indication that Hitchcock was in trouble.   Reluctant screenwriters do not make great movies.  But Hitchcock forged ahead.

In the matter of casting,  Universal wanted him to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.  Hitchcock admired Newman’s early work, and thought he would do well.  He pushed back a little on Andrews, but the studio, and Hitchcock’s agent, said she was “great box-office.”   Hitchcock agreed to both actors well before the first draft of the screenplay was ready.   Their combined salaries (around $1.5 million) was more than the rest of the film’s budget.  And this for a screenplay that had yet to be completed.

Brian Moore’s initial draft was submitted in April of 1965.   Hitchcock cajoled him into writing a second and third draft, with additional rewrites, all done by the first week of August.  Hitchcock asked Moore to do an additional “polish” on the screenplay. By this time, Moore was exhausted, and frustrated with the screenwriting process.  He dropped out of the project, preferring to return to his novels.  Further, he told Hitchcock that the screenplay needed a complete rewrite, not just a polish.   At this point, Hitchcock’s production schedule was already locked in.  Julie Andrews was only available for a limited window in the fall, so he had to proceed.   So Hitchcock hired the British writing team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who stayed on during production, often rewriting scenes only hours before they were shot.  

Now Hitchcock would suffer another devastating loss.  Julie Andrews was scheduled to shoot some test footage at Universal in September of 1965, with Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.  The following is a production memo from Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Roberts:

Friday September 17, Bob Burks “was terribly sick with nerves…and could not shoot the tests with Julie Andrews.”

“On Saturday Sep. 18, in the morning [Burks] called Mr. Hitchcock and it was decided that it would be too risky for him to do the film.”

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Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks prepare a shot on the set of “North by Northwest.”

Bob Burks had been the cinematographer on twelve Alfred Hitchcock movies, dating back to 1951’s Strangers on a Train.  He was arguably the most important technical collaborator in Hitchcock’s entire career.  And now he would be unable to shoot Torn Curtain, due to “nerves”.  Apparently the last decade and a half of nearly non-stop filmmaking had caught up with him.  Hitchcock was disappointed, but certainly did not express any ill will towards his long-time friend.  Hitchcock merely hoped that after taking a breather, they could work together again on future Hitchcock movies.  Unfortunately, they would never have that opportunity, because Burks and his wife would die in a house fire in 1968.

  What had happened to Alfred Hitchcock?  The man who had always been so sure of himself; the man who had worked with almost complete autonomy in the waning days of the studio system; the man who, as recently as 1959, could stand up to the studio heads at MGM and refuse to cut a scene from North by Northwest?  Three years earlier, he could do no wrong.  Now nothing seemed to be going right.

So, the setup:  Alfred Hitchcock can’t decide on a topic for his movie.  He devolops several ideas simultaneously, hoping to find one that sticks.  And he proceeds with the last idea standing.

The beginning of the confrontation:  He had leading actors he wasn’t altogether pleased with; a screenplay that was not ready to be shot;  a shooting schedule that was locked in; and was missing two vital members of his collaborative team in Tomasini and Burks.

This is where we leave Hitchcock as he steps before the cameras on October 18, 1965 to begin principle photography on Torn Curtain.  To be continued…

 

 

The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest is not only one of the most memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work (second only to the shower sequence in Psycho);  it is arguably one of the most iconic sequences in all of American film.  Even people who have not seen the film recognize the image of Cary Grant sprinting across a dusty field with the plane closing in from behind.download (1)What is it that makes this scene so memorable?  It is edited in a way that is not typical for Hitchcock, with many short, quick cuts.  But more about that in a minute.  First, lets let Hitchcock himself set the scene, explaining why he chose this particular setting to shoot the scene:

“Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger.  Somebody is going to come along and bump him off.  Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable.  Now I decide to do something quite different…therefore, I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.”

This sequence is 9 minutes and 45 seconds long, and contains 133 editorial cuts, which means the average shot length is only 4.4 seconds.  This is very atypical for Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini, who often employed long takes, and avoided standard cutting whenever possible.  (It is worth noting that  Tomasini edited nine films for Alfred Hitchcock, including the classics Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  Tomasini edited 23 feature films in total, inexplicably never winning an Academy Award, before his life was cut short prematurely at the age of 55, by a massive heart attack.  His only Oscar nomination was for this movie, North by Northwest.)

This sequence opens with a dissolve, from a close-up of Eva Marie Saint’s concerned face, to an overhead shot of  a desolate, empty field, flat to the horizon.  A bus approaches and discharges one person, then continues on its way.

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This opening establishing shot lasts about 56 seconds.  Here is Hitchcock again:

“Now we get him off the bus and we stand him, a little tiny figure, showing, establishing very clearly the complete wasteland everywhere…the mind of the audience says ‘Well.  This is a strange place to put a man.’  Now we go down and we go close on him, and this is where the design comes in.”

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Now Hitchcock begins a series of shots that establish a POV style of shooting and editing.  First, we see Cary Grant looking at something, as in the above shot.

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Next, we see what Cary Grant sees, from his point of view.   The next shot returns to Cary Grant.

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This pattern of cutting from Cary Grant looking, to a point-of-view shot, back to him reacting to what he sees, continues for the first 34 shots, which take just over two and a half minutes.  This puts  the viewer in Cary Grants place.  We have seen what he sees.   And the bright, flat expanse fills us with dread.  Every passing car could be a potential killer.  Hitchcock continues to ratchet up the tension.  He explains:

“Motion picture mood is often thought of as almost exclusively a matter of lighting, dark lighting.  It isn’t.  Mood is apprehension.  That’s what you’ve got in that crop duster scene.”

“…he looks around him and cars go by.  So now we start a train of thought in the audience.  ‘Ah, he’s going to be shot at from a car.’  And even deliberately, with tongue in cheek, I let a black limousine go by…Now, the car.  We’ve dispensed with the menace of possible cars or automobiles.”

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“Now a jalopy comes from another direction, stops across the roadway, deposits a man, the jalopy turns and goes back.  Now he’s left alone with the man.  this is the second phase of the design.  Is this going to be the man?  Well, they stand looking at each other across the roadway.”

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This is a fantastic shot composition, breaking the back and forth between Cary Grant and his point of view.   This is the 49th shot of the sequence, occurring about three and a half minutes in.

Here is Hitchcock again:

“Grant, our hero, decides to investigate, and casually walks across and talks to the man.”

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Up to this point in the sequence, the camera has remained static.  But now, as Grant walks across the road to the man in the brown suit, the camera tracks towards him, again in the form of a point of view shot.  The tension has continued to escalate, all this time.

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When Grant first addresses the man (played by veteran character actor Malcolm Atterbury, who appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows) the sequence has gone on for 4 minutes and 10 seconds with no music and no dialogue.  But it feels like much less time, because of the manner in which the sequence has been edited together.  When is the last time you saw a movie that had no dialogue or music for over 4 minutes?  Let’s hear from Hitchcock again:

“…obviously nothing is going to emerge from this man…Now the local bus comes and just as it pulls up – and this is a matter of timing – just before it gets to the stop, the man says to Grant ‘That’s funny.’  And Grant says ‘What’s funny?’  He says ‘That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.’  Before this can be gone into in any way at all he’s on the bus and gone.  So now you’ve got the third phase.  The audience says ‘Ah, the airplane.'”

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Again the sequence returns to the earlier format of showing Cary Grant, showing us what he sees from his point of view, then showing us Grant again as he reacts to what he sees, which in this case is the crop duster plane running him down and shooting at him.  Up to this point in the sequence, everything has been shot on location.  In the movie, it is an Indiana highway, but in reality the sequence was shot on California Highway 155, near the town of Delano (north of Bakersfield.)North-By-Northwest-on-Google-Maps

This is what it looks like today, according to Google Maps.  As you can see, it really hasn’t changed much at all.  The scene is improved by being shot on location.  There is no question that you are really seeing Cary Grant, running at full speed, sweat on his brow, his tailored suit getting dusty and his tie flapping over his shoulder.  There are a few inserts though, that were shot in the studio.   These occur when Cary Grant dives to the ground and the plane passes, and shoots at him.  The first of these is the 73rd shot of the sequence.

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So this is a process shot, filmed back at MGM studios.   There is a screen behind Cary Grant, projecting footage of the plane passing.

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You can see how this was achieved in this rare behind-the-scenes photo taken during filming at MGM.  Watching this sequence on blu ray, these basic process shots hold up very well.  One of the keys to this is again in the quick cutting.   The cutting between the studio shots and the location shots is fluid and seamless.  The back-and-forth cutting between Cary and his point of view continues, but now the shot length is getting shorter; many of the shots now are averaging less than 3 seconds in length.  He ends up in a field of dried cornhusks, and again the close-ups of Cary in the corn were shot in the studio.

nxnwdecon11Time to hear from Alfred Hitchcock again:

“There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield.  Now, you do in the design a very important thing.  You smoke him out with the very instrument that you’re using, a crop duster.  Theory being, don’t have a crop duster without your using it, otherwise you could have any airplane…It must be used according to its function.  All backgrounds must function.”

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After Cary Grant gets smoked out of the corn he runs towards the road, and there is a shot of him from behind, running.  This shot breaks the point of view pattern that has been established up to this point.  Grant runs into the road and tries to flag down a truck.  Again we return to the previous pattern, cutting from Grant waving his hands, to the truck getting closer and closer, until the truck is right on the camera, and the viewer.

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The truck stops, almost running Grant over in the process, and the plane, out of control, crashes into the truck.  There is a quick sequence here of the plane striking the truck and bursting into flames which appears to be a model shot.  These two model shots last literally less than a second, almost subliminal, and then Hitchcock cuts back to location, and the full-size plane already engulfed in flames.  Again this section works because of the rapid and seamless cutting.

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As soon as the plane crashes, a Bernard Herrmann musical cue begins.  This is the first music to appear in almost nine minutes of screen time.  The sequence ends with Cary Grant stealing the pick-up truck of an onlooker, and finishes as it began with another dissolve, this time to the abandoned truck on the streets of Chicago.

So what Alfred Hitchcock (and George Tomasini) have managed to do in this sequence is build tension and menace first and foremost by confounding the viewers’ expectations, putting us in a bright, shiny place where nobody could hide; then shifting our focus from one element to another.  This was accomplished using almost no dialogue and even less music, all through the brilliant and seamless editing.  Let’s let the master have the final word:

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Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant on location, shooting the famous crop duster sequence.

“Oh, well a cut is nothing.  One cut of film is like a piece of mosaic.  To me, pure film, pure cinema is pieces of film assembled.  Any individual piece is nothing.  But a combination of them creates an idea.”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★

Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard),  Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Editor:  George Tomasini

Original musical score:  Bernard Herrmann

Production Design:  Robert Boyle

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards.  Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months.  If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II.  He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition.   Whew!   I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.

So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously.  In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming.  His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart.   This meant that Vertigo, which was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature.  And what would follow Vertigo?

MGM was in turmoil at this time.  At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic.  MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified.  So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.

Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation.  He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together.  And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North by Northwest.  

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An image from the iconic Saul Bass title sequence.

North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy;  Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music.  The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus.  The message is clear;  the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind.  When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking.  This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress.  There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene;  that will come later.  Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity.  A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent.   The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason.   Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.

 

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Cary Grant is interrogated by Martin Landau and an amused James Mason.

Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police.  We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.   Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again.   (Many sources have cited that Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother.   Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant.  Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now.  Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904.  So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).

Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search.  Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder.  Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.  It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film.  And once she makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced.   So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.

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Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are essentially having sex with their clothes on; this is about as sexually charged a scene as Hitchcock ever shot.

This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction.  By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not.  Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacks.  So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies.  Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.

Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt.  The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history.  Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone?  It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane.  Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace.  Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene.  ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)

download (1)This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.   He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn.  He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive.  This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard.    VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession.  At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?”  Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be.  Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.

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Cary Grant’s character is beginning to assert himself, and now it is Eva Marie Saint who feels like a pawn as the two men tower over her, discussing her as if she were an object.

 

Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill.  He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk.  This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself.  Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM.  The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.

Themes:  One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes.  First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police.   He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work.  Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady;  the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist.   There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard.  Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”  And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous.  There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.

Hitchcock and the censors:  Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career.  There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however.  When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.”  This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”  If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.

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Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay;  it was Hitch’s own invention.  As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration.  Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.

Hitchcock and final cut:  At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career.  But it certainly doesn’t seem like it;  the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags.  A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz).   But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time.  They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular:  when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes.  Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respecfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame.  In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences.  This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.

Performance:  Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters.  Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so.  James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villians to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.

Academy awards:  North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations:  best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman;  best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color.   It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur.  That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars.  While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur  in the editing category, I honestly feel like North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category.  The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief.  Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.  Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Strangers on a Train.  Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds.  Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window.  Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train.   Kenner G. Kemp had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie.  Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds.  Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot.  Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious.  Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious.  Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notorious, and Vertigo.  Bert Stevens was in The Paradine Case and Marnie.  Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur. 

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence.  At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.

What the actors said:  Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character:  “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes.  From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”

Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”

James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch as a director used actors like “animated props.”

What Hitch said:  I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available.  First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking.   This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray.  The soundtrack is high quality as well.  The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant:  A Class Apart, as well as three other documentaries:  The Master’s Touch:  Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock:  The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest:  One For the Ages (25 mins.)   Also included is a commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.

 

 

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