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Subversion through tonal shifts in North by Northwest

North by Northwest, celebrated director Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film, is considered a classic spy drama. The commonplace elements of the genre—including a debonair lead, the mysterious love interest, a case of mistaken identity, and betrayals galore—are all in place in this film. However, the film also uses atypical additions that stand out from convention. The tonal shifts in North by Northwest subvert the expected elements of the “spy movie” genre.

The opening of the film sets up protagonist Roger Thornhill as a blasé, inconsiderate man who lies often and easily. A startling kidnapping, though the dramatic inciting incident for the events of the rest of the film, draws only humorous confusion and mild fear from Thornhill, instead of extreme terror and anger that might occur if the film were using a straightforward tone to convey the suspense of the kidnapping. By keeping this event at arm’s length, the film informs viewers early that this will not be merely a tense thriller, but rather a film that does not hesitate to mix tones. The method by which the devious kidnappers choose to attempt to kill Roger is decidedly ridiculous (as later pointed out by several characters in the film, including the police and Roger’s own mother), subverting expectations of a cold-blooded criminal mastermind that viewers would normally expect from such a film. Other humorous additions make the viewers’ laughter as common a reaction as their suspense.

The chase that Roger endures due to his mistaken identity, pursued by both the police and the criminals, seems at first to unfold according to convention. Framed for a murder he didn’t commit, Roger is forced to wear sunglasses and attempt to be discreet as he boards a train to Chicago. It is on this train that the most obvious tonal shift takes place, due to the introduction of Eve. From the moment Eve comes into the film, it is clear that she is an appealing, forward-thinking, confident, assertive, witty woman, unlike many of the classic female leads of the era, but bearing much similarity to female love interests in many films to come. However, Eve’s entrance into the film seems to mark the beginning of a different film entirely—a romance at the center of the thriller. From the point of Eve’s introduction, Roger remains concerned with the mystery of George Kaplan, even arranging to meet him, but he is also consumed with the whereabouts and actions of Eve. He takes her supposed betrayal in a very personal way, and then later he does everything he can to rectify his mistake when he finds out she is an American operative. The romantic preoccupation of a male lead is and was not a new concept, but this motivation and subplot seem almost to be tacked on to a much more action-packed caper of a film. The two tones don’t exactly co-exist peacefully, with the changes at tone at times seeming jarring. One example of this bizarre balancing is the auction scene, in which Roger reveals to Eve that he knows of her betrayal, and Eve begins to cry. The heightened emotion of this scene would seem to fit better in a melodrama, not the type of tongue-in-cheek spy film that North by Northwest has henceforth established itself to be. However, the care that the audience has invested in Eve and Roger’s capers up to this point means that the film can insert this scene without losing the audience’s engagement.

Perhaps the most distinctive cut of this film can be seen as an instance of meta-commentary on the strange marriage of tones. At a moment of intense dramatic action, as Eve seems like she is about to tumble down the face of Mount Rushmore, clinging precariously to Roger’s tenuous grip, the scene is graphically matched to Roger pulling Eve up into a bunk, presumably on their wedding night. The film exaggerates the easy ending that most films have, skipping over the resolution of the tension and going straight to the epilogue. This cut suggests which tonal theme the film prefers, as the union of Eve and Roger is emphasized over any continuation or resolution of action.

In conclusion, the film North by Northwest showcases its own determination to subvert expectations throughout the film. This intention is realized through injections of humor in suspenseful situations, as well as with the insertion of a prominent romantic plot that is given equal consideration to the main plot of intrigue and suspense. North by Northwest is a film that delights in challenging the viewer’s preconceived notions, and it does this primarily through playing with the tone, making for a unique viewing experience.

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2 responses to “Subversion through tonal shifts in North by Northwest

  1. I completely agree, there are major elements that take this film beyond the regular thriller genre. I believe this is because the characters are fully constructed with detailed backstories and complex motivations, as opposed to instruments of the suspense. This makes the thrill of the movie more real, because like real people, we do not know how the characters are going to act and react.

  2. I agree with this post immensely. What I find particularly interesting is all the cases that you have pointed out when Hitchcock goes directly against the audience’s expectations. By juxtaposing the thriller elements with the comedic tone Hitchcock expertly makes the audience aware that this is not your “typical” spy film. This type of audience expectation is again subverted when the character of Eve is introduced. She is so vastly different than common women characters at the time the audience is again shocked. This type of subversion is an introducing to Hitchcock’s other films, like Psycho, that employ this style.

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