In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, techniques such as camera distance, camera movement and editing all contribute to the visual structure, suspense and narrative of the film.
The camera distance and movement present the viewer with a sense of compositional space while the editing emphasizes dramatic focus, establishes a certain tempo and allows the viewer to follow the story in a logical manner.
In one particular scene early in the film, the camera views Roger Thornhill, the protagonist, entering the building through an extreme long shot. Although Thornhill cannot be clearly identified, the viewer assumes that Thornhill has entered the building.
However, in the next long shot, the viewer can now clearly make out Thornhill with his blue suit as he enters the lobby room.
After Thornhill enters the lobby, the camera follows him to the front desk. Hitchcock’s use of the long shot gives the viewer a sense of the environment around the subject or focal point of the shot. The viewer identifies the location of the scene as well as the other background action occurring at the moment.
As he reaches the front desk, Hitchcock cuts to a medium shot to center the action between Thornhill and the secretary. A medium shot here allows the viewer to focus on the conversation between Thornhill and the secretary. Thornhill asks the secretary if he could see Mr. Townsend as the camera slowly pans back toward the front of the lobby to show the presence of the villain waiting to take part in the action.
While the viewers to begin to recognize the villain, the camera tracks in to give the audience a closer look. Hitchcock’s camera movement allows the viewer to clearly locate the two significant characters-Thornhill and the villain-as well as their locations.
Throughout the middle of the scene, the camera uses little variation in its distance and movement.
The entire conversation between Thornhill and Mr. Townsend consists of medium shots with no camera movement. Hitchcock used the medium shot and medium close-up as an appropriate conversational distance; the viewer can focus on the conversation between Thornhill and Mr. Townsend without becoming distracted with other background or side action.
Toward the end of the scene, camera distance and movement are once again used to define the space and action of the shot. When the villain hits Mr. Townsend in the back with the knife, the camera tracks back and cranes down from a medium close-up to a long shot.
Hitchcock’s camera movement gives the audience a sense of space as the people waiting in the lobby begin to surround the tragedy in the center of the room. When the spectators in the lobby accuse Thornhill of the crime, he frantically runs out of the lobby. Hitchcock uses panning to follow Thornhill out of the room.
In the final shot, Hitchcock uses an extreme long shot with an extreme high angle (bird’s eye view) to give the audience a sense of location as he shows Thornhill running out of the building.
Hitchcock varies his use of editing throughout the scene to clarify the narrative and to represent the character relationships. I
n the first few shots, Hitchcock uses the basic cut to focus the action. In the third shot, as Thornhill reaches the secretary’s desk, the shot cuts to the action at the desk in order to focus the audience’s attention on the conversation between Thornhill and the secretary.
In shots five and six, Hitchcock uses cross-cutting to go back and forth between the action at the desk and the villain in the doorway. Cross-cutting communicates to the viewer that both actions are occurring simultaneously; while Thornhill asks the secretary to speak with Mr. Townsend, the villain hides patiently preparing to execute his crime.
During the discussion between Thornhill and Mr. Townsend in shots 7-11, Hitchcock uses shot-reverse shot as a style of editing for conversational shots. The camera shoots over the shoulder of one subject, focusing clearly on the other subject.
In the ninth shot, Hitchcock quickly switches the camera in the middle of Mr. Townsend’s sentence from Thornhill’s reaction back to Mr. Townsend’s question. Hitchcock shows the facial expressions and reactions of both characters by quickly switching back and forth between each character.
The shot-reverse shot sequence ends when Mr. Townsend asks Thornhill, “Now, Mr. Kaplan, suppose you tell me who you are and what you want.”
The director cuts back to both men in the picture. When Thornhill takes out a picture and asks Mr. Townsend, “Do you know this man?” the villain strikes Mr. Townsend in the back with a knife.
As the traumatic music beings to play, Hitchcock uses a montage sequence to emphasize the dramatic focus of the event. In shots 15 and 16, the camera quickly cuts first to show the reactions of a group of people sitting at a table and then cuts to the reactions of the three secretaries as they stand up to bear witness to the ghastly event.
Hitchcock uses this montage sequence to emphasize the drama of the murder and show the facial expressions of the horrified witnesses.
Alfred Hitchcock’s camerawork and editing techniques provide the viewer with a clear visual and narrative structure as well as a sense of the mood of the scene while creating drama and suspense of the action.