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.


Surrealism in Meshes of the Afternoon

Surrealism is a type of art that displays dreamlike images and situations. Surrealist films started appearing in the 1920’s, but Meshes of the Afternoon was produced later in 1943. Meshes of the Afternoon has several elements, such as the repeating scenes, the moving objects, and a few cinematographic tricks which help construct a dreamlike mood for the audience.

Unlike many surrealist films Meshes of the Afternoon actually has a narrative which in a way explains why there’s a dream and what’s going on outside the dream. The film starts out with the woman entering the home, exploring it a bit, and then dozing off in a chair in the living room. The film ends with the man walking in and discovering the woman, dead in her chair. The dream sequence starts with a copy of the woman chasing a hooded figure with a flower, the woman running up and down the stairs and then looking out the window at the hooded figure being chased by another copy of the woman. This sequence repeats itself until there are three copies of the woman in the house, each aware of each other’s presence. The fact that all the women go through the same motions as the original, with slight variations, mimics how people can have the same dream repeatedly, which helps create a surreal effect within the film.

There are also several objects inside the house which move around as the dream sequence progresses. In the first scene, the woman walks in to find the knife in the bread, the phone of the hook, and the record player on repeat. The disarray of the items in her home creates an eerie feeling and foreshadow events to come. The next time the woman runs through the knife is on the stairs, the phone has been moved to the bedroom, and the record player has been moved into the living room. The movement of these objects paired with the unnerving sound effect of the hooded figure definitely makes the audience feel like they are in some sort of nightmare.

The camera work in Meshes of the Afternoon helps create a sense of struggle within the film and can change the rules of reality. The cinematography in the first scene isn’t too crazy, just a few POV shots which allow the audience to get into the mind of the woman character. Once the dream sequence starts the camera work becomes much more bizarre. The stairs in the house are where most of the fancy camera work comes into play. During the first copy’s run up the stairs the footage plays in slow motion as she begins her run and cuts from an extreme low angle of her feet to an extreme high angle looking down on the character. This transition is meant to disorient the audience and the slow motion adds a dreamlike effect. After the woman hangs up the phone in the bedroom the camera begins to cant and continues like this as she heads down the stairs. The canting of the camera makes the audience feel uncomfortable and in this shot the canting makes it seem like gravity has been altered and the women has to climb down the stairs. All of these tricks with the camera help construct the dream sequence.

Cinematographic Elements in Mildred Pierce

        Mildred Pierce is the 1945 film directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred Pierce follows the story of a selfless mother who attempts to cover up the murder of her husband, Monte Beragon, by her step daughter, Veda. Curtiz uses a variety of cinematographic elements to progress and expand upon the narrative. Such elements include, a variety of establishing shots, excessive use of shadows, and a number of different visual elements which demonstrate the passage of time.

Every scene that introduces a new setting has an establishing shot to show the location of the scene as well as giving the audience a sense of the mood of the following screen. The first shot of the film was a high-angle shot of the beach house at night.  This shot introduces the audience to Monte’s beach house has an ominous tone because of the darkness in the frame and the high-angle shot makes the scene more dramatic. The pier Mildred walks along can also be seen in the background of this shot, providing some slight foreshadowing to events later in the film. Another establishing shot is when Mildred is starting to tell her story, the camera pans over their neighborhood. In this shot the sun is shining and kids are playing in the street, which portrays a blissful mood which is how Mildred felt with Bert before he left her.

Mildred Pierce has a number of scenes that use shadows. These shadows are used to magnify the emotions in certain scenes and are also used as a symbolic features. The scene where Mildred is trying to frame Wally for Monte’s murder uses a lot of shadows, like when he is running around the house he has his giant shadow following him, and all of the items in the room are casting large shadows, so large that you pay more attention to them than the actual objects the shadows come from. They even have a shot where Wally is trying to get out through a door which is not actually in the frame, all the audience can see is the shadow of him trying to escape. These shadows are used to show the rising fear and panic felt by Wally as he learns he is being set-up for the murder of Monte Beragon. When he breaks out of the house the police put up a spotlight on him, illuminating him from the shadows, his demeanor does a complete 180 and he goes from a panicked mess to calm. He is so calm that he tells the officer “You got a stiff in there” even though his previous actions of breaking out of the house might make him an obvious suspect in the case. Another use of shadows is in one of the later scenes when Mildred goes to the beach house to confront Monte after he sold his share of her company. She walks in on two silhouettes kissing. When Mildred walks in the couple steps into the light and they are revealed to be Monte and his stepdaughter Veda. The shadows serve as symbolic element here as the relationship between Veda and Monte had been kept a secret until it was revealed as the couple stepped out of the shadows and into the light as Mildred learns of their affair.

The film’s plot is non-linear and spans over a multi-year time period, so Curtiz uses a number of setting elements to show the passage of time throughout the film. In the police station scene there are several shots of the clock. The first shot of the clock is a little after one and then when they do another shot of the clock the time is around two in the morning, showing that Mildred has been in the station for around an hour before she is called in for questioning. Another visual element that shows the passage of time is the sunrise in the inspector’s office at the end of the film. After Veda is arrested the inspector lifts up the blinds to reveal that it is now morning after Mildred tells her story, so they’ve been talking for several hours. The dawn in this scene not only indicates a passage of time but serves as a symbol for the new life Mildred might live now that she is free of Veda and Monte, who have been a hindrance on life.