My three favorite Hitchcock films are NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW and NORTH BY NORTHWEST... And it’s kind of strange to think that the same guy directed them - because they might all have suspense, but all have very different tones. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a comedy chase film with so much clever dialogue and so many farcical scenes that you might forget about the cool plot twists and large scale set pieces. Though movies like SAN FRANCISCO had big set pieces before this, I can’t think of any film with *as many* set pieces.
This is where all of our action films came from, and many say where the version of James Bond on screen came from. Screenplay by Ernie Lehman, who is an amazing short story writer, an amazing novelist, an amazing screenwriter and producer and won a bunch of Oscars. If you’ve read any of his stories, or seen the film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, you know he travels in some nightmare version of the TV show MADMEN - where you have to sell your soul to sell a product. Here we get the lighter version of the Lehman lead - Cary Grant as an ad man who lies to everyone, has a liquid lunch often followed by afterwork cocktails, too many girlfriends and not a single real friend... except his mother. He’s charming... but all surface - he doesn’t want to know what’s underneath. Who really cares?
Nutshell: If there was ever a boy to cry wolf, it’s Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) - what does the O stand for? Nothing. In the opening minute and a half, we get a quick sketch of adman Roger - momma’s boy, playboy, liar, drinker... before a silly mistake in identity has him kidnaped by two armed thugs who think he’s a CIA Agent. They take him to this big country estate owned by Lester Townsend, where he meets the man of the house (James Mason at his best) who has just a minute before dinner guests arrive to decide whether he should kill Roger or not. Mason’s secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau) is thin and impeccably dressed and single - you do the math - and seems to enjoy causing people harm. When Roger keeps saying he’s *not* this CIA Agent George Kaplan, and even has a driver’s license to prove he’s Roger Thornhill, Leonard answers: “They make such good ones.” Roger - who tells lies for a living - can’t get anyone to believe him. Mason’s threats are so sophisticated and urbane that it takes you a moment to realize they *are* threats. Mason has Leonard kill Roger - with Bourbon and a sportscar, but Roger escapes death... and now can’t get anyone to believe that spies are trying to kill him. Guess what? Lester Townsend is a big wig at the United Nations - and doesn’t look anything like James Mason. No one in this film is who they claim to be - and nothing is as it seems. Mason is really an enemy spy named Van Damm... and Roger ends up framed for the real Townsend’s murder. There is no one to turn to - so Roger runs. He must find the real George Kaplan so that Van Damm will stop trying to kill Roger. By trains, planes, and automobiles Roger heads North by Northwest looking for the real Kaplan... and becoming an accidental spy and man of action in the process. The man who took nothing seriously grows up - and becomes a man of his word.
Hitch Appearance: Right up front, trying to catch a bus... and failing.
Sound Track: A great Bernard Herrmann score! Also, by the way, a great opening title sequence.
Great Scenes: They’re all great scenes. Seriously. The great thing about NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that you can take the smallest and most forgotten scene in the whole film - and it’s great! Here’s an example - a junk scene where Roger leaves Kaplan’s hotel and takes a taxi to the United Nations to ask Townsend what the hell is going on and why me? A pair of assassins are following him. But here we get a comedy version - Outside the hotel a Doorman has secured a cab for a Tourist Couple, when Roger bolts out, pushed them aside, gets in the cab and takes off. The Doorman hails a second cab for them, opens the door for them... and the Two Assassins bolt out of the hotel, push them aside, get in the cab and take off. The Doorman looks at the Tourist Couple, then cautiously looks for another cab. That’s just one of those scenes that gets the character from point A to point B!
Here’s another junk scene - Roger is locked in a hospital room and needs to get out - basically, another scene that will get him to a location where a “real scene” will take place. So Roger opens the hospital window, steps out onto a narrow ledge, gracefully walks along the ledge to the next hospital window, opens it and climbs into the room. A sleeping woman - not bad looking - yells: “Stop!” Then puts on her glasses and looks Roger over... then says: “Stop” in a much sexier voice. Now Roger has to get out before she tackles him! Another funny scene that is basically there to get Roger out of a locked room.
Every scene in the script - even these funny ones - move the story forward. This is a *relentless* script - it’s always moving. It is always a fast paced film - there are screenwriters who complain that movies today are designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation (wait - how long has MTV been around? When the Rolling Stones sing about their generation - that’s a bunch of AARP members!) and these danged kids don’t want to take the time to build up to a story for a half an hour or so before the plot kicks in. NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made in 1959 - not only kicks into gear a minute and a half in, it doesn’t let up!
Bourbon And A Sports Car: Three martini lunch Roger is held down by the Two Assassins as Leonard forces him to drink a full bottle of Bourbon, then they put him behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible on a winding cliff-side road... and send him to his death. The great part about this is that it is smart on the side of the bad-guy spies - Roger’s death will look like a drunk driving accident. Problem is - Roger takes control of the car and manages to barely miss driving off the cliff... so the Two Assassins give chase in their car! Now we have a car chase with a very drunk driver. This adds an extra element to an already exciting car chase. One of the cool things about this scene is that Hitchcock gives up a driver’s POV through the windshield shot alternating with Roger behind the wheel so that *we* are driving the car on this dangerous winding road. Another thing he does is give us Roger’s *drunk POV* at times - with double vision (which road is the real one?) and blurry vision. Again - by putting us in Roger’s shoes and in the driver’s seat we feel like all of this is happening to *us*. If you’ve seen the car chase on the big screen - those POV shots as we head to a cliff or an oncoming car are scary! Any time you can find a way to turn the audience into the protagonist, you create an emotional scene.
Cops At Townsend’s: Roger manages to crash into a police car, which forces the Two Assassins to back off. But now Roger is in trouble with the law. When they ask him how much he’s had to drink, he raises his hands as if measuring a fish and says “This much”. By the way, the arresting officer is Corporal Emil Klinger - that’s where the M.A.S.H. character came from. He’s given a phone call, and calls his mother... “Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill” - as if she may have forgotten her son’s name. As an in joke only for my own amusement, when I call my mom I always say, “This is your son, Bill.” The next morning Roger tells the judge his story... and the judge sends a pair of Detectives with Roger and his Mother to the Townsend house... where Mrs. Townsend says Roger is “a little pink-eyed, but aren’t we all?” (a phrase I’ve taken up using the day after a party.) Then tells the Detectives that Roger was too drunk to drive... and the more Roger tries to prove he’s innocent, the more he just looks crazy. The sofa where they forced him to drink and spilled some booze on the cushions? Completely clean. The cabinet where Roger claims they got the bourbon - filled with books, not liquor bottles.
It’s important in a thriller script to remove the police and the authorities from the equation - so that the protagonist is alone against the world - and this scene does that. At *best* Roger looks like a drunk trying to get out of a police charge. At the end of the search of Townsend’s the Detectives apologize to Mrs. Townsend, and take Roger back to the police station. Roger’s mother tells him to just, “Pay the two dollars” - another phrase I often use to mean, quit arguing, you’ve lost and you’re looking silly.
The only way Roger can prevent himself from getting slightly murdered is to find the real George Kaplan... that is Roger's quest in the story.
Elevator with Killers: Roger manages to drag his Mother to the hotel where Kaplan is staying... and bribes her to get the room key. She won’t do it for $10 or $20, but $50 gets her cooperation. They search Kaplan’s room and discover they have Roger confused with a much shorter man... who has dandruff. But the strangest thing is that the Maid, the Valet and everyone else at the hotel has never actually *seen* Kaplan - they all think Roger is Kaplan. Then the phone rings - Van Damm’s Two Assassins! If Roger isn’t Kaplan, what is he doing in Kaplan’s room? And of course, the call came from the lobby phone - the Assassins are on the way up! Roger and his Mother race out of the hotel to the elevators... where the Assassins get off the up elevator and join Roger and his Mother going down.
Being trapped is one of the basic scenes in a thriller script - but Roger isn’t trapped *alone* with a pair of killers, his mom and a bunch of other people are on the elevator. Roger points out the Assassins to his Mother, who asks them: “You aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” The question is so absurd, that people in the elevator start laughing... and soon *everyone* is laughing (including the Assassins) *except Roger*. He is the man alone - no one will believe him. The boy who cried wolf.
United Nations: Roger goes to the United Nations to find Townsend, has him paged... and this distinguished looking man introduces himself as Mr. Townsend, and Roger replies: “No you’re not.” And now Townsend must convince Roger he is who he is... more identity confusion! Roger still isn’t sure he believes him, and pulls out a picture of the guy who claimed to be Townsend (Van Damm) and shows it to Townsend - who gasps! Eyes open wide at the picture! Then he seems to faint! Roger grabs him to prevent him from falling, sees a big throwing knife in Townsend’s back and pulls it out... and that’s when everyone at the United Nations notices him - and people start snapping pictures. Roger sees one of the Assassins slip out of the room... leaving Roger, bloody knife in hand, trapped in the room! Roger escapes - and we get a great high overhead shot of Roger fleeing to a taxi - he’s like a chess piece or maybe an ant. Small, insignificant.
Seven Parking Tickets: Roger ends up at Grand Central Station - with just about everyone in the world looking for him. He tries to buy a ticket *North* and the ticket salesman pesters him with questions - it’s like everyone is against Roger. The ticket salesman gets Roger to wait for a moment... as he calls the police. Roger escapes, police chasing, and sneaks onto the train.
In the passageway, he runs into a pretty girl - Eve Kendall - flirts with her a bit... then the police enter the car. While Roger hides, Eve tells the policemen that she thinks he got off the train. After the police leave, Roger tells her he has seven parking tickets. After the train is in motion, Roger has no ticket so he has to keep moving... and goes to the dining car... where he’s seated at a table with Eve. He lies to her about who he is and where he’s from... but she stops him - she knows he’s Roger Thornhill and that he’s wanted for murder on the front page of *every* newspaper in the nation. The man who lies easily to women, can’t seem to lie to this woman. He has to be *honest* with her! Yikes! She flirts with him, says she has a bedroom car with plenty of room. Wow! Then she says he’d better hurry up. Roger thinks she's hot to trot... but the train just made an unexpected stop and a bunch of police just got on!
Eve’s Compartment: The police are doing a compartment-by-compartment search for Roger - and they enter Eve’s bedroom and ask if she’s seen him. Roger is hiding in a upper bed... and must be completely quiet and still while the police are in the bedroom. This is another one of those basic scenes in thrillers. Because Eve had dinner with Roger, they *really* question her. Take their time. She says they just shared a table, but don’t know each other. Eventually the police leave... and Roger can breathe again.
Now we come to the love scene - a kiss that manages to take them from wall to wall all the way around the car. Sure: “they kiss”, but how is *this* kiss different than any other kiss in any other movie? Here we have this romantic never-ending kiss where they use every surface of the room. A sexy, romantic idea for a kiss.
The next morning, when the conductor knocks on the door, Roger hides in the bathroom... and we get one of the big twists in the story. Afterwards the conductor walks down the passageway to a door, knocks on it, says the woman in compartment whatever (Eve) sent this message. A hand takes it, closes the door. The note says that she has Roger, what should she do with him. Reading the note? Van Damm and Leonard. Eve is a bad girl!
Redcap Spin: When the train pulls into the station, the police are waiting... so Roger disguises himself as a redcap, and we have another basic suspense scene, and we see an ocean of redcaps - dozens of them - one is Roger. A redcap in his underwear tells the police he was mugged for his uniform, so police start grabbing redcaps and spinning them around to look at their face. One-by-one the redcaps are spun around, and we know that any minute they will get Roger - and he’ll be caught. Suspense builds as there are fewer and fewer redcaps - because we know the next one will probably be Roger! It’s like a ticking clock - with redcaps instead of minutes passing.
When they spin the last redcap, it’s not Roger, because he is already in the train station men’s room changing and shaving... with Eve’s little woman’s razor. The big macho guy shaving at the sink next to him uses a straight razor - and gives Roger a look.
Crop Duster Scene: Eve tells Roger she’s gotten a message from Kaplan to meet him at Prairie Stop - take the bus, not a car. Roger gets off the bus in the middle of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Nothing but fields. Suspense is the *anticipation* of action - which means suspense can literally be nothing happening. This scene starts with Roger just standing in a deserted road, waiting for Kaplan to show up. Except we know there is no Kaplan, and that Eve (who sent him there) is a bad girl. That means this is a trap, but Roger doesn’t know it. That’s called “audience superiority” - the audience has information that the protagonist doesn’t have. We know Roger is in big trouble, he doesn’t. So while he stands there and an occasional cars zips by, nothing is happening... except we know any minute something *will* happen. And that creates suspense. In order to keep the suspense perking, Roger sees an old pick up truck driving toward him. Hey, that could be Kaplan! (Except we know it’s more likely someone who is going to kill Roger). The pick up truck stops, lets out a man in a suit, takes off. Now Roger is on the opposite side of the road from this man. And Roger waits for the best moment to cross the highway. Then asks if he’s Kaplan. The man answers “Can’t say that I am, ‘cause I’m not.” This guy talks stranger than Yoda! Then the guy sees a crop duster, starts a conversation about crop duster pilots... and how dangerous the job is, Many get killed. Wait... is that a threat? Just as the man’s bus is pulling up, the man notes that the crop duster is dusting where there ain’t no crops. Okay - the man was a potential threat, and the moment he is taken away, another threat is introduced... and the type of suspense changes.
We go from nothing happening, to the crop duster attacking Roger. Now our suspense is based on the anticipation of the crop duster killing Roger. Hitchcock alternates shots of the crop duster plane zooming at us, and shots of Roger running. This puts us in the protagonist’s shoes, just like the Bourbon and Sportscar scene. The cool thing here is that the shots of both the crop duster and Roger become shorter as the scene goes on, building up the pace and the anticipation/suspense. The shots of Roger also become closer - as if the plane is getting closer. When Roger hides in a cornfield, the crop duster sprays the corn - forcing Roger out into the open again. Eventually the plane sprays machinegun fire - and Roger is running for his life.
There’s a great little bit of simple visual storytelling at the end of this scene. Roger steals a farmer’s pick up truck with a refrigerator in the back... and we cut to the city at night where a policeman is writing a ticket on a completely out of place pick up truck with a refrigerator in back. This not only tells us Roger is in the city... but it’s a funny way to give us this information.
Eve’s Hotel Room: Roger realizes Eve sent him to his death, and goes to confront her. I use a clip from this scene in my 2 day class to illustrate how you can show complex emotions through the actions of the characters. When Eve goes to hug Roger, his hands tun to fists and he does not touch her. Everything Roger *says* in this scene has a double meaning: “Surprised to see me?” “There’s just no getting rid of me.” But it is all said in a friendly manner - so we need the actions to show Roger’s anger.
While Roger is in the shower, Eve leaves... but Roger wasn’t really in the shower. To link this scene to the next, they use a device: Roger rubs a pencil over the pad of paper next to the phone in the hotel room... exposing an address. Then we see the address on the outside of the auction house.
Auction: This is the first scene with Roger and Van Damm and Eve - our little romantic triangle. And that is how the scene is played - as a romantic triangle where the losing party gets killed. Because this is a scene where the characters are in public and can’t kill each other with guns or knives, they try to off each other with words. Roger and Van Damm (and sometimes Leonard) dig into each other with the most painful words they can find - and this becomes a battle of the wits. What’s cool is the other person in the room - the studio censor - who forces them to find clever ways to hit below the belt. When Eve says Roger followed her from the Hotel, Van Damm asks if he was in her room, and Roger replies that *everyone* has been in her room. Later Roger tells Van Damm that Eve does great work - she puts her whole body into it.
As they verbally spar, with Eve in the middle, Leonard is bidding on a piece of art. They outbid everyone else - they *must* have this little statue. Once they get it, Van Damm and Eve leave... And the two Assassins and Leonard block all of the exits. No way out. Here’s the kind of thing that separates good scenes from average ones - finding the completely different way to resolve the problem. The one we have never seen. As screenwriters we always want to find the unusual solution to the problem. Here we have Roger trapped - assassins at every door. How does he get out of it? He bids on the piece of art being offered... but bids weird. Now he has called attention to himself, and the assassins can’t really do anything to him. He’s in public. But Roger keeps bidding, and eventually ruins the auction to the point that the auction house calls the police. When the police arrive, Roger *punches* one of them. That guarantees that instead of ticketing him or warning him, they will have to take Roger to the police station and put him in a cell... which will make it close to impossible for the assassins to get him. Finding the usual solution makes the scene different and interesting and exciting... oh, and *funny*, since Roger gets to act like a crazy guy in the middle of a very dignified setting.
What Is A MacGuffin? The little pre-Columbian statue that Van Damm was so insistent to buy at the auction is one of the film’s two MacGuffins (the other is George Kaplan). When asked what a MacGuffin was, Hitchcock said it was a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland... but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands... hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin is the physical device that drives the story - the thing that everyone is after. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE everyone wants to get their hands on the Russian Lecter coding machine. Of course, the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin. Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must own. In THE LADY VANISHES the MacGuffin is a *tune* that is really a code that Mrs. Froy has memorized - turning her brain into the MacGuffin.
The MacGuffin drives the story - where would THE MALTESE FALCON be without The Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story... but Hitchcock noted that it may be the thing that drives the story, but what it is doesn’t matter very much. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we have this pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the USA - and delivering it to the Soviets... and the CIA must stop this from happening and recover that microfilm... and Roger ends up being the guy in the middle. So the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue and the microfilm that is inside it by the end of the movie. This film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has secretly been up to since the very first frame. It's why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan... the only man who can get Roger off the hook. So the microfilm is *really* why they are trying to kill Roger... and Roger’s only hope of survival after the auction scene is to get that microfilm!
But here’s the question: what’s on the microfilm? Guess what? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is *about*), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Roger what it’s all about? Takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines) and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off. We never find out what is on the microfim.
And George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Roger is chasing, doesn't exist... but more on that in a moment.
Now, I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm - but we live in a post CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that danged microfilm. And the cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high concept substitute. If the *MacGuffin* is some high concept device, then you can have a standard non-high con thriller (or action or whatever) movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a non-high con story... but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that *lightning* shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin *something* rather than just a device - because it adds production value. I have a half finished novel from decades ago about good guy spies and bad guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the “freon bomb” that flash freezes anything in a 5 mile radius. Opening chapter had a test on a tropical island... that froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when you touched them. To me, that raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting. Better than “just microfilm”.
But the whole story is about that MacGuffin. You can’t abandon it midway, or just decide it’s not important. All of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is about getting that Ark, all of THE MALTESE FALCON is about getting the black bird, and by the time we find out what has been driving NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s all about the microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue and George Kaplan.
Mt. Rushmore Restaurant: After the Professor (I’m sure some relation to the Video Professor) tells Roger that the fate of the free world rests on that microfilm of, well, whatever’s on it, and that George Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy to cover the tracks of the *real* CIA Agent... he also reveals another mistaken identity and twist - Eve isn’t bad girl at all, *she’s* the deep cover CIA agent... and Roger has given Van Damm reason to mistrust her. No one in this film is who they seem to be! So they hop a plane to Rapid City where Van Damm has a house near Mount Rushmore to try and set things straight.
Roger meets with Van Damm and Leonard... and Eve at the restaurant overlooking Mount Rushmore. This scene could have taken place anywhere - so why not this really cool location? NORTH BY NORTHWEST isn’t just a story that moves in that direction, it’s also a travelogue movie, where every interesting location anywhere near that route is a story stop. We are seeing America in this film. Mount Rushmore in a great background to a scene.
In the restaurant, Roger makes a deal - he will allow Van Damm to take the statue (and microfilm) to the Soviets in exchange for... Eve. She betrayed him, and he’s going to make her suffer. Van Damm sees that Eve is *not* working with Roger and the CIA, and they are no longer suspicious of her. Everything is back on track, right? Except Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger - again and again! Roger foes down, dead. Leonard and Van Damm leave the restaurant and escape in their car. Eve gets in her own car and races away. Leaving Roger dead on the floor. This is our protagonist. Played by a huge star, Cary Grant. And they kill him about three quarters of the way through the film! His body is put in the back of an ambulance and taken away...
Woods Goodbye: The ambulance is driven into the woods, where it stops. Trees everywhere. Beautiful. Then Eve’s car pulls up and stops. And Roger hops out of the back of the ambulance. Eve’s gun was filled with blanks.
The Professor tells Roger he only has a minute... and Roger and Eve slowly walk toward each other - meeting in the middle of the woods. This is the first time Roger has meet with the real Eve - neither is playing a role. And it’s a great love scene - because both are completely without defenses. They have their first real kiss, a small conversation... then she says she has to get back. Roger thinks this whole fake murder has been to pull her out of danger... but it has really been to make her a fugitive from justice so that Van Damm will have to take her out of the country with him when he delivers the MacGuffin... so that she can meet and infiltrate the Soviet side of the operation. Roger doesn’t want her to go - he loves her. When he tries to stop her, he gets KOed by a Park Ranger and Eve drives off to Van Damm’s house.
Van Damm’s House: Now we get that scene where Roger escapes the hospital... and goes to Van Damm’s house. Again - an amazing house instead of just some house. This place is on stilts and really cool looking. Roger climbs the stilts, ending up just under the living room window... where he overhears Leonard and Van Damm talking about the plane that will land soon to take them away... and Leonard tells Van Damm that there’s a problem with Eve.
And Leonard aims a gun at Van Damm.
And Van Damm isn’t hit.
It’s Eve’s gun - filled with blanks.
Now, there could have just been a scene where Leonard tells Van Damm that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. But that is the least exciting way to get that information across. Here we get the *most exciting* method to reveal that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. The most dramatic. The most inciting - because Van Damm *punches* Leonard in the face afterwards. Always look for the best way to reveal information - if there is a dull way, or even a traditional way - look for some other method. Find the most exciting way - the most unusual and different way.
Van Damm tells Leonard the best way to deal with Eve is from a great height - over water. They are going to throw her out of the plane! Roger overhears this, climbs to a section under Eve’s window and throws rocks at her window. What happens next? When she *finally* looks out the window, Roger is forced to hide from Van Damm and Leonard... and she doesn’t see him! Instead of things going according to plan - the opposite happens. No easy scenes, here. Roger climbs up to her room... just as she’s left her room and gone downstairs! Again - nothing happens the easy way.
So Roger is upstairs, hiding on the balcony, and Eve is downstairs sitting on the sofa in the same room as Van Damm and Leonard. How does he stop her from going with them? How does he tell her they know she’s a CIA agent?
We get a great bit of visual storytelling. On the train, she sees his monogrammed handkerchief and asks what the O stands for, and he explains “nothing”. He is ROT. Roger is looking for something to signal her with, pulls out his handkerchief, sees ROT - she knows him by those initials - and pulls out a monogrammed matchbook, jots a note inside, and throws it from the balcony to the ashtray on the table directly in front of Eve while Leonard and Van Damm are looking out the window as the plane lands. The matchbook misses the ash tray. It misses the table. It hits the floor halfway to Leonard’s feet. Nothing easy here... and it gets worse. The matchbook is a “focus object” - an object that creates suspense. Leonard turns and walks toward Eve, sees the matchbook, picks it up! Suspense - because we know if he opens the matchbook and reads the message, Eve is dead. We are focused on that matchbook... will he open it? Examine it? Realize that ROT stands for Roger O Thornhill? But here’s the thing - he thinks Roger is George Kaplan... so ROT means nothing to him. So he places the matchbook in the ashtray in front of Eve. But Eve knows ROT - and now must *not* look at the matchbook while Leonard is talking to her. When he turns away, she grabs the matchbook, reads the message... but the plane has landed, and Van Damm and Leonard hustle her out of the house so that they can leave... and they can throw her out of the plane later.
When they leave the house, Roger runs downstairs to rescue her... but a burley maid aims a gun at him and tells him to freeze. Guess which gun it is? The one filled with blanks! The gun-filled-with-blanks gets used three times in this story - and not once is it contrived or illogical.
Hanging From Lincoln’s Nose: Which brings us to Roger and Eve and the MacGuffin trying to escape by climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore while Leonard and the Two Assassins give chase. Whenever you can *combine* threats, you increase the excitement. Mount Rushmore is not only the coolest place for a chase scene, it’s easy to fall from - making it a chase at a very dangerous location (two ways to die!). In here somewhere Roger refers to the pre-Columbian statue as “the pumpkin” - which is a reference to the Pumpkin Papers from the 1948 HUAC investigation into communist spies in the USA - run by some guy named Richard Nixon who would eventually become President. They found microfilm in a hollowed out pumpkin in a farm in the midwest. America’s heartland - overrun by commies!
The big flaw in NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Roger doesn’t resolve the conflict! The Professor shows up with a sharp shooter and arrests Van Damm and shoots Leonard seconds before he would have killed Roger and Eve. William Goldman uses this scene as an example of wrapping up the plot and all of the subplots in about 30 seconds. Though it would be better if Roger had resolved the conflict, I cut the film some slack because of the very last shot: Roger and Eve take the train on their honeymoon, and after they get into bed together... the train goes into a tunnel.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a fun film - comedy, thrills, suspense, romance... but still some real emotions. If there was ever a film that opened the door for the biog summer blockbusters we have today, this is it.
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"SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING is the best book on the practical nuts-and-bolts mechanics of writing a screenplay I've ever read." - Ted Elliott, co-writer of MASK OF ZORRO, SHREK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and the sequels (with Terry Rossio).(ie; 4 of the top 20 Box Office Hits Of ALL TIME.)
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