North By Northwest Scene
One of the final scenes in the film “North By Northwest,” most easily recognized as the matchbook warning scene, conveys a significant amount of meaning in a small window of time. What makes the matchbook scene an excellent scene to evaluate is the large number of various film techniques that are used to portray its meaning and message. The scene, located towards the end of the film, creates a rising action to climatic level of suspense in the overall storyline of the film. Thorough the use of filming techniques, the story and the director’s message unfold through the eyes of the characters and the angle of the camera.
Hitchcock’s desired message and the scene’s overall meaning can be revealed by breaking down the various techniques used in its creation. Mise-en-scene is a term that is used to describe the general effect by encompassing everything from content and lighting, to camera angle and frame.
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It is everything the camera sees and communicates to the audience (Kolker 35). The use and definition of mise-en-scene is not completely agreed upon, but what cannot be disputed is what Hitchcock places in his scenes.
His scenes are made through the compilation of techniques he uses and the effects they create as a result. Potentially the most used technique in the creation of the matchbook warning scene is the medium shot. The medium shot incorporates most of the potential visual media, leaving out some closer detail and distant effect (Class Notes 1/16/13). Not using the full space as often and keeping a closer medium shot with the characters achieves a greater sense of intimacy and closeness, while still keeping the action and actors on the screen.
Although used far less than the medium shot, in an effort to place importance on key parts of a scene, a zoomed in shot that shows the detail of something specific will be used in what is called a close-up shot (Kolker 60). In the scene being evaluated a close-up shot is used early on when Thornhill is writing his note to Eve Kendall on the inside cover of a matchbook. The close-up shot shows the audience a more detailed version of what Thornhill is seeing and places an emphasis on its importance by making it virtually the only thing visible.
In drawing this special attention toward the note, and the warning of danger that the note represents, the close-up shot draws the audience in more and establishes the thrill of suspense With the use of non-diegetic sound, sound that operates outside of the knowledge of the characters on the screen, an effective sense of suspense and rising action can be more thoroughly enjoyed (Class Notes 1/23/13). In this particular scene the well placed soundtrack, at the opening and ending of the scene, is what makes the creation of suspense so successful.
At the beginning of the scene when Roger is outside of the house climbing to the second story, the music maintains a constant building feeling. At the end of the scene where Eve is slowly being walked down the runway the music begins again creating the same feeling of rising suspense and making the viewer question what is to come of her and Rogers desperate situation. Shortly after the soundtrack cuts out in the scene and the audience is left in silence, the visuals become the only and most important form of message portrayal.
The end of the audio is also not the end of created suspense in this scene. Roger Thornhill throws his inscribed matchbook down in hopes to reach Eve, but instead misses and lands it on the floor in front of her. This scene is where the use of shot-reverse shot becomes so essential. Shot-reverse shot is where a visual connection is made between a character and what they are viewing by cutting back and forth between shots of those two aspects (Kolker 47).
This important method creates a heightened sense of suspense as the camera intercuts between Thornhill’s reactions and looks of concern, to his matchbook as it is found, picked up, and then placed into an ashtray by Vandammes assistant. The cutting back and forth allows he viewer to see almost simultaneously the reactions and actions of different characters in different locations. In the portion of the scene where Eve and Vandamme have begun drinking their champagne, just after roger has Roger has begun to view them from the second floor, they are shown at a more unusual angle.
This unusual perspective is portrayed through use of a high-angle shot. A high-angle shot is simply a camera angle that is above where the eye would normally see (Class Notes 1/18/13). The reasoning behind using a high angle shot in this part of the scene is to show Thornhill’s perspective as he peers down from the second floor of the house. A camera placed on the first floor would better show Vandamme and Eve, but it would not create the illusion of viewing them through Thornhills eyes on the second floor.
Through use of techniques like the high-angle shot, close-up shot, etc. Hitchcock is not just telling the story he wishes to tell, but rather showing it to the audience through the characters eyes. When up close and personal with the scenes, the action seems more real, and only further increases when aspects such as non-diegetic sound and shot-reverse shot are used specifically to exaggerate and accent the suspense he wishes to portray on the screen.