An Analysis of the Opening of ‘North by Northwest’

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Film is one of the most popular media of the 21st century. One of the benefits of analysing media is so we can decipher the truth from the lies, as so many forms of media lie.

The film I am analysing is called ‘North by Northwest’. It is a thriller movie starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who were some of the biggest stars of 1959. The director of this film is Alfred Hitchcock, a great innovator in the medium of film.

The film is about a high-flying New York businessman who is caught in the middle of a case of mistaken identity. He is forced to travel around the USA, running from gangsters, trying to survive and clear his name.

The film opens with the MGM logo. This logo is internationally recognised and gives an impression of quality, as it is very dramatic and the music is orchestral. This connotes that the following film will be of good quality; it also prepares the audience for the beginning of the film.

The opening credits take place on the side of a building. This represents a New York street map, as the edges of the panes represent the blocks/streets. The actors and staffs names fly in from all angles. This is unpredictable, which connotes that the film will be unpredictable, as you would expect from a thriller movie. The opening music adds to the thriller feeling- it is very dramatic and nervy. This has the effect of building up the tension before the real movie starts.

The opening scenes of the movie are mostly shots of business people- regular New Yorkers travelling to and from work. For example, we see a high angle shot of a subway entrance. This is to emphasise the sheer volume of people in New York. It also gives a hint as to what the film could be about. This is because there are so many people, and a case of mistaken identity could happen easily- as happens to Thornhill. Some of the other opening shots give clues as to where the film is set e.g. yellow cabs.

One of the features found in all of Hitchcock’s films- intertextuality- can be found in the opening scenes of this movie. The audience sees a full shot of Hitchcock missing a bus. The purpose of his ‘cameo’ role is to make the audience feel clever- by spotting him. This sets a good mood for the rest of the movie. While this happens, Hitchcock’s name appears again for emphasis.

The opening music begins to fade at this point, symbolising a shift from drama to everyday life. This gets the audience’s attention and surprises them.

As the doors of a lift open we see the hero of the film emerge. As soon as the audience lay eyes on him, they can tell he is a professional as his suit is shiny and expensive-looking. He is also central to the shot. The shot used is a two shot, to highlight the relationship between our hero and his secretary. The secretary and the people around him are the main way we find out about the hero of the film. For example, as the hero is walking out of the lift, another man in a suit says ” Hello Mr Thornhill”. This also indicates that Mr Thornhill is important, as he walks right by him and doesn’t stop to talk.

Mr Thornhill’s action also show that he is important. The way that he moves through the building; slower and more rhythmic in comparison to all the other New Yorkers who’s movements are rushed and jerky. Mr Thornhill also smiles, indicating that he is in control and ahead of the game. Mr Thornhill’s constant obstructing of others shows that he believes he is important and cares about no-one but himself.

As Thornhill and his secretary leave the building, we notice that Thornhill speaks more than his secretary, and most of the things that he says are in the form of statements. Using statements denotes that Thornhill is knowledgeable and knows what he is doing. Another way the audience can see that he is in control is by how he physically commands his secretary. Thornhill grabs her arm and pushes her through the crowd- once again obstructing people- towards a taxi.

The film then moves on to show a three shot of Thornhill, his secretary and a male stranger. In this scene, we see how Thornhill interacts with strangers. The audience sees Thornhill dominate the stranger- who is just about to climb into a taxi. He manipulates the man by talking fast and lying to him. For example he says “I’ve got a very sick woman here”- holding his secretary. He says this; but his secretary is absolutely fine. Confused, the stranger struggles for something to say while Thornhill and his secretary clamber into the stranger’s cab. This shows us that Thornhill is manipulative and exploitative as he tricked the stranger and effectively stole from him.

What is even more shocking to the audience is Thornhill’s reaction to what he just did. He feels no guilt for stealing the cab and no remorse for exploiting an innocent member of the public. Thornhill continues to talk in the cab, justifying his unjust behaviour. This comes back to haunt him in the latter part of the film. It is ironic because when he is in the police station later in the film, the police do not believe what he is telling them. He seems to have a reputation for denying his past actions.

The opening of this film’s aim is to create a mood of tension and anxiety. It leads the audience to expect a highly tense film , where they are unsure what will happen next. The rest of the film relates to the opening, as it is tense all the way through and the audience are anxious, wondering what will happen next.

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