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Camera Techniques in North by Northwest

One of the most noticeable aspects in North by Northwest was the incredible camera work and techniques.  The film North by Northwest utilizes a very specific range of camera techniques throughout the film in order to create a feeling of suspense and danger.  The establishing shots, medium shots and close ups, and shot-reverse-shots all play an important part in conveying the suspense to the audience while also creating continuity and adding a believable element.

Perhaps the most noticeable camera techniques being used are the establishing shots.  These long shots encompass the entire environment.  An establishing shot is used in nearly every scene, allowing the audience to have a broader view of the environmental composition where the scene is taking place and showing where and how the main characters are interacting within the environment.  The bird’s eye views contribute to the suspense when the vastness of a location is seen in perspective with the characters in question.  Establishing shots also create a continuity when used in concert with other shots in a scene.  In the scene on Mount Rushmore, several establishing shots are used as the chase scene commences.  Shots from far above showing the entire setting for the chase show Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint being chased by the villains across the face of the monument.  These establishing shots intensify the chase by showing just how impossible the success of their escape seems when compared to the difficulty of their environment.

Medium shots and close ups are also very noticeable and often paired together in many scenes.  Medium shots show the character’s immediate environment and those around him while close ups show his or her reactions to what is happening.  This camera technique is very effective when a scene involves many different emotions and complexities when it comes to character-environment interaction in particular.  An example of this is during the notorious crop-duster scene in which Cary Grant is stranded in the middle of an unpopulated area and being chased by an enemy crop-duster with deadly intentions.  Since he is the only character which our focus is on in this scene, his reactions and interactions with his environment need to supply suspense and a sense of danger.  Medium shots in this scene allow us to see not only Cary Grant and the crop-duster as he is being chased but also the desolate environment at the top of the scene.  These shots alternate with close ups to highlight Grant’s reactions as the crop-duster makes each pass.

The final camera technique that adds to the air of suspense is that of shot-reverse-shot.  Shot-reverse-shot is a method used quite often to highlight emotions in character-character interaction.  In many of the scenes which contain conversations between two or more characters this camera technique is used.  Shot-reverse-shot uses different camera angles when focusing on different characters engaging in conversation.  The first angle shows a close up of one character that appears to be conversing with another character off camera.  The view then flips to the other person engaged in the conversation who also appears to be talking with the other character off camera.  This transition back and forth between the two close up shots that create continuity.  This method can also be used to show tension between two characters which can lead to a distinct feeling of suspense.

The camera methods and techniques in North by Northwest contribute to the feeling of suspense that this film is known for.  Without the varied use of techniques the suspense created by the environment, character-environment interaction, and character-character interaction would be lacking.  Establishing shots, medium shots, close up shots, and shot-reverse-shot techniques all create a smooth, believable and above all suspenseful film.

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2 responses to “Camera Techniques in North by Northwest

  1. I completely agree that the camera techniques employed in this film are crucial to the suspense the audience feels, and arguably the techniques add a huge part to the narrative. Another sequence that I thought expertly employed camera techniques was during Mr. Townsend’s murder. The montage that Hitchcock uses depicts the reactions of those who witness the murder. It captures the audience’s attention and adds to the suspense and drama of the scene.

  2. Pingback: No Pain, No Gain | CheapThrills

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