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.

Suppressed Emotion in Un Chien Andalou

The film Un Chien Andalou, directed by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, has no plot or continuous narrative. According to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, it is specifically tailored to make no sense, and indeed the filmmakers laughed away attempts at explanation. However, the theme of suppressed emotion is prevalent throughout the film and can be used as a way to glean some meaning from it.

The opening scene is the film’s most famous—and possibly its most confounding, though there are many contenders for this title. The cheery music that had played throughout the credits gives way to a shot of a man on a balcony, and soon after a razor blade slicing what we are supposed to believe is a human eye. This image is startling and violent, even with the knowledge that the eye belonged to a dead calf and not a woman. The opening sequence seems to want to tell the viewer that this watching this film will be nothing like the experience of other films, that this film is not afraid to take something gruesome and make it the focus of the very beginning. Usually, especially in the 1920s, films would not begin with something so repulsive, but this opening encourages the audience to let go of preconceived notions of what a film is like, as well as general ideas of propriety and convention. In including this image as the opening shot, the filmmakers suggest that violence is something natural that society encourages us to repress, and that this film—and by extension, the viewers—will not heed society. The various taboos and norms broken throughout the course of the film are all startling to varying degrees, but beginning with the eye slicing promotes the idea of the natural impulse to cause pain.

Another sequence in the film that evokes the suppressed human instinct is the one in which a man sexually assaults a woman. This attack seemingly comes out of nowhere, and though one could argue that this is due to the logic (or, rather, lack thereof) of the film, it could actually be suggesting that all men are inches from acting on their desires constantly, and need little incentive to do so. This extended sequence is very forward in its depiction of the man’s advances, and is, like the opening sequence, shocking and unpleasant to watch. It is debatable whether the intent was to portray the man’s actions in a negative light—for a film made by those who cherished the idea of breaking social norms, perhaps unwanted sexual advances are another way of breaking the tight grip of social demands—but there is no doubt that this extended sequence highlights the single-mindedness of sexual desire.  As the woman fights back, you wonder if this is a symbol for continuing repressed ideals in the face of newfangled surrealist thinking. Should the woman give into the man, and her own inner desires? Or is the film saying that perhaps not all heeding of instinct is a good thing? Another possibility is that none of this makes any sense, and the filmmakers simply presented a series of provocative images to make the audience feel ill at ease—another breaking of established convention.

In conclusion, though the short film Un Chien Andalou has no central narrative to speak of, it is clearly not a film completely lacking in meaning. Even if each scene was only intended to provoke a reaction, the infusion of base human emotion gives the film a thematic resonance that echoes the filmmakers’ surrealist leanings.

The Use of Shadow and Flashback in Mildred Pierce

The film noir Mildred Pierce is a murder-mystery that unfolds primarily through flashbacks. The film uses both the flashback structure and a recurring shadow motif to indicate the inevitable conclusion and the reasons for its occurrence.

The film begins with the murder of Monte Beregon, as revealed in a brief initial scene, which shows only the barest details of the circumstances surrounding his death. Mildred walks along a pier immediately following this, the crashing of the dark waves only adding to the sense of bleakness that is evident from her distraught expression. Her face is shadowy and damp, and her heavy fur coat reinforces the idea that there is a mantle of darkness surrounding her. As Mildred is persuaded away from the edge of the pier, toward the lights and the music, she seems as separate from that world as the audience is from hers—looking through a window at the lives others lead, with the muted music and the indistinct conversation highlighting her aloneness. Even when her old friend Wally pulls her inside the bar, she cannot even pretend to belong, instead drinking grimly and saying ominously, “I’ve learned how these past few weeks. I’ve learned a lot of things.”

The use of shadows is prominent in many scenes, such as when Wally discovers Monte’s body on the floor of the beach house, an obvious moment of thematic darkness. Later, a flashback features the silhouettes of Wally and Mildred against the wall as they leave together to attempt to buy Mildred’s restaurant. “Oh Wally, you’re wonderful!” the shadowy form of Mildred says, to which Wally replies, “This is all business, remember?” Though both characters seem optimistic and at ease with each other in this scene, the shadows hint at the dark turn this friendship will soon take, when Mildred attempts to frame him as the murderer. Another example of this shadowy foreshadowing is the silhouette of Bert crumbling the newspaper that announces the marriage of Monte and Mildred, a union that was, as the audience already knows, doomed from the start.

The first hint the audience receives in the flashbacks that Mildred may, in fact, be capable of violence is an example of when the shadowy visuals and importance of flashbacks collide. As Mildred finally realizes the truth of the extent of Veda’s greed and corruption, her face in the close-up has none of the half-shadow of her earlier confession scene, but is completely illuminated, fitting for the moment in which she, as she herself puts it, sees Veda for the first time. Veda’s slap on the staircase literally forces Mildred into the shadows, and as she rises and utters her shocking pronouncement—“Get out before I kill you”—the shadows begin to creep in on the edges of her face. The use of chiaroscuro, the harsh lines of shadow, is effective in emphasizing the importance of the scene, but not so obvious as to distract from the action.

The final shot of the movie, in which the two parents of the murderess leave the world of shadow, together, to emerge in the light, is a poignant last shot of the film—with the darkness that crept in between them firmly in the past, they can, perhaps, look optimistically toward the future at last.

Both the flashback format and the use of light and shadow are essential in telling the story at the center of Mildred Pierce.  The flashback structure means that the viewers will consider each image, event, and spoken word in the context of what they already know is to come. Seemingly inconsequential lines become illuminating when they are regarded as possible motivation for future events. This fact is a distinct advantage of using flashbacks in regards to the film noir genre, since this ensures that the audience will be paying close attention in order to find out who committed the crime. The same is true when using distinct visual styles, such as a shadow or chiaroscuro, to reinforce the storytelling, whether by causing the viewer to question the goodness of a character or making them reconsider what is happening in regards to future events. Viewers that may not normally pay attention to visual storytelling techniques are pulled in by the mystery and end up paying attention to the methods used to tell the story, making a richer viewing experience for all.