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Suspense and Tone in “North by Northwest”

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense in modern cinema, and rightfully so. Films like Psycho and The Birds keep audiences on the edge of their seats with their eyes glued to the screen. North by Northwest is a curious film because it has several elements that would make it an excellent thriller: a case of mistaken identity, a pair of deadly assassins, and a dangerous femme fatale. However, very early on in the film Hitchcock decides to take the film in a different direction, providing a number of humorous moments that seem to undercut the suspense of the film.

The film begins by introducing the audience to the busy life of the ad agent Roger Thornhill.  During a business meeting he has to make a call, but before he can he is grabbed by two men and forced into a car at gunpoint. Obviously this is a very suspenseful moment in the film but it is undercut by comedy in the next shot. Once the group is in the car Thornhill asks, “Well, where are we going?” and continues to be nonchalant about the whole affair. Since Thornhill appears to be comfortable with being kidnapped the audience loses some of the suspense created earlier in the scene.

Another suspenseful scene in the film is when Roger Thornhill and his mother are going around trying to figure out what happened to Roger the night before. The scene builds suspense by having “Mrs. Townsend” contradict Roger’s tale of events and having the set pieces, such as the cushions and the liquor cabinet, match her telling of events, and opposing Roger’s. These suspenseful elements are once again undercut by Roger’s mother, whose very appearance in the film provides a rather peculiar quality. Roger Thornhill is a man who appears to be in his mid to late thirties and when he’s arrested he calls his mother? But, during the scene at the Townsend estate, after the liquor cabinet is revealed to have books instead of bottles, Roger’s mother says something to the effect of “I didn’t know they stored bourbon in books now” or some other one liner that makes the audience laugh but takes away from the suspense of the scene.

Near the end of the film there is a scene where Thornhill is being driven to the airport to meet the “Professor”. The professor fills him in on George Kaplan and tells him that Eve is a double agent and is in danger of being exposed if Thornhill doesn’t aid in her escape. It’s a tense & crucial scene in the film. Once again however, the scene is undermined by another comedic one-liner. Thornhill says “I have a couple ex-wives, a lawyer, and two bartenders that depend on me” which is probably one of the funniest lines in the film but it does take away from the suspense of whether or not Thornhill will come to save the day.

All of these comedic moments throughout the film undermine the suspenseful nature of the plot. The light-hearted tone of the film was probably a major selling point to audiences at the time and may be the reason it was so successful. I think that if the film had ditched the comedic one-liners and gone with a more serious tone, the film would’ve held up better for contemporary audiences and could have ranked among other Hitchcock classics like Psycho.


5 responses to “Suspense and Tone in “North by Northwest”

  1. tnp773

    Very straightforward and effective analysis. Do you think that pressure from the studio influenced the style of film because it’s not not really HItchcock’s usual tone? I never thought about the peculiarity of Thornhill’s mother within the early scenes. It did take away from the horror of the situation of mistaken identity. I agree on all points. Great job!

  2. ltimlin ⋅

    The humor you discussed is something I had noticed as well. Just as you mentioned, most of the comedic one-liners broke tension in whichever suspenseful scene they were in, which, for me, made the movie more enjoyable. It’s as though Hitchcock was proving that his story can still be suspenseful even with a bit of light-hearted humor.

  3. I think Thornhill’s humor reflects how the character would act in the situation, he does not seem to take life seriously, and were he as dramatic as the audience would expect him to be, it would be untrue to his character. In addition, I think the contrast between humor and suspense adds to the thrill of the movie, the audience is taken on a roller coaster of ups and downs that should be present in a thriller movie.
    However, I do agree that some dialogues and characters were played up solely for comedic effect. Thornhill’s mother was completely random, and her unexplained and convenient disappearance from Thornhill’s life leaves a major plot hole in the film.

  4. kperetz ⋅

    I really enjoyed Roger Thornhill’s comedic remarks throughout the movie, and I like how you highlighted some of them. I do, however, agree that if the tone hadn’t been as comical, it would be considered as one of Hitchcock’s major works.

  5. bjones109

    I agree that the film could have been much more suspenseful, like many other Hitchcock films, however, the comedic moments in the film provided audience with a small comedic break, a technique used in films from other successful spy thrillers like James Bond. Though it does break up the action, I don’t believe it takes away from the suspense, but rather, adds to it. The comedic moment adds depth to the character, making the audience care more about Thornhill, and enhancing the suspense.

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