Friday, February 15th, 2013

The One Edit That Would Make 'North By Northwest' Perfect

North By Northwest is fantastic. Can we agree on this? I hope so. If you disagree, you're probably a perfectly nice person, but I'm afraid you are factually incorrect on this point, and I'm not going to deign to argue with you. Sorry. "Propulsive" is a word that has been beaten to death by movie critics, but really, the plot gets underway immediately—Cary Grant is kidnapped less than four minutes after the opening credit sequence ends—and does not really let up for the next two wonderful hours.

As the Oscars draw near,
the first in a series about our strong movie opinions, past and present.

Because North By Northwest is so fantastic, I have seen it many times. I try to see it whenever a revival is showing at a nearby movie theater, and if I stumble upon it while channel surfing (something that happens more often than you'd think to a guy who doesn't have cable) I invariably watch it to the end. Which means I've thought about the movie a lot. Now, this next sentence should not be read as me backing off one iota from my earlier assertion that the movie is fantastic and you are wrong if you disagree, but I've wondered: could it be made even better, by someone moderately more skilled with video editing software than I am? Over my twenty years or so of not infrequent North By Northwest watching, I have developed a theory that it could. Beware: If you somehow have gotten to 2013 and haven't seen this movie but still want its surprises fresh for you when you finally get around to seeing it, spoilers follow from here. Ironically, I need to talk about the spoilers to talk about my theory, which involves removing spoilers from the movie itself.

The plot is based on one of Hitchcock's favorite gimmicks: the ordinary man thrust into dangerous and exciting circumstances due to a case of mistaken identity. In this case, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant, exasperated wit) is kidnapped by and almost killed by the henchmen of Philip Vandamm (James Mason, languorous creep). Vandamm's crew all insist that Thornhill is actually someone named George Kaplan. For the first forty minutes or so of the movie, while Thornhill isn't busy trying to keep from getting killed, he's trying to figure out who the real George Kaplan is. One of the great joys of the movie is watching Roger Thornhill, in his attempt to prove he isn't George Kaplan, pretend to be George Kaplan. There's a sequence where Thornhill and his mother bluff their way into the absent Kaplan's hotel room, checking out his bathroom (dandruff shampoo) and trying on his suit (too small). The film's opening act ends with Thornhill fleeing after a dead body lands in his arms in the middle of the U.N. building.

Immediately afterwards comes what is undoubtedly the worst, most awful scene in a great movie. After forty minutes of non-stop action, everything suddenly grinds to a halt so that we can be treated to some exposition down at CIA headquarters, delivered in the worst possible format: a bunch of people, none of whom we've seen before, sitting around a conference table telling each other things they already know. The scene's only three minutes long, but it seems to last forever.

Anyway, as we learn, the deal with George Kaplan is that he doesn't exist. The spymasters are renting hotel rooms in his name and leaving prop belongings in them in all the cities where Vandamm is going, because they want him to believe that he's being tailed by a spy named George Kaplan. Focused on this elusive secret agent, Vandamm won't suspect the "actual agent" who's "working under Vandamm's very nose." The dialogue withholds this spy's identity as artificially as it reveals everything else, but it does at least leave one mystery for us.

After this blah-blah ends, we cut back to Thornhill, who's managed to escape from the U.N. to Grand Central Terminal. He gets on the 20th Century Limited, and in short order, is hidden away from the cops by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), has sex with Eve Kendall, and is sent off to be killed by Eve Kendall, who turns out to be Vandamm's girlfriend. Surviving the attempt, he doubles back, finds the plotters, berates them at an art auction, then gets himself arrested because he's finally decided he'll be safest with the cops; the cops then hustle him to the airport and hand him over to the Professor (Leo Carroll), one of the spooks from the earlier terrible exposition scene.

This all takes another 55 minutes or so, and it's 55 minutes that loses some of the immediacy of the first act, because, while we're watching Thornhill pursue Kaplan, we know that Kaplan doesn't exist. We're treated to a different and, of course, perfectly respectable sort of dramatic tension—not so much "What will happen?" as "When will he learn what is happening?"—but it causes a bit of a downshift in intensity nonetheless. The Professor finally reveals what's been happening to Thornhill as they cross the tarmac to get on a plane headed for South Dakota; most of the information that would be a straight-up repeat of exposition from the earlier scene is drowned out by the plane's propellers, a touch I have always assumed to be intentionally hilarious. (We also lean that Eve Kendall is the real American secret agent; the rest of the movie involves rescuing her from Vandamm's clutches.)

These two sections of exposition break the film into three acts, and the levels of knowledge held by the audience and protagonist are structured differently in each. To start, we and Thornhill are equally in the dark; then in the middle, we know the crucial data that he doesn't; and finally, everyone knows everything and we're ready to confront the bad guy together. While this is interesting formally, I (along with Eve Kendall) believe that being the dark with Roger Thornhill as long as possible is more fun.

And, tantalizingly, such a version of the film is within our reach. The first, and most obvious step, is to cut out that early terrible scene at Boring Spy HQ entirely. Just cut it! There are plenty of fascinating and hilarious minor characters in the movie who only get one or two lines, but none of them are in that scene. The only one we ever see again is the Professor, and he has to re-introduce himself to Thornhill when they meet anyway. A bit before his reappearance, the Professor pops up in the crowd at the art auction scene. The camera lingers on him now and again, to remind you that you know who he is, but if you didn't, it wouldn't make the scene weird, and it would create a moment of recognition when you meet him a few minutes later.

But we do need some of the information in that first exposition scene, right? Yes, but less than you might think. Much of the dialogue there rehashes the plot up to that point, and much of what we do need to know is repeated in the audible parts of the airport scene. The rest could be packed into a couple of sentences, like:

"We created George Kaplan, established elaborate behavior patterns for him, moved his prop belongings in and out of hotel rooms, labored successfully to convinced Vandamm that this was our own agent hot on his trail. If we make the slightest move to suggest that there is no such agent as George Kaplan—give any hint to Vandamm that he's persuing a decoy instead of our own agent, then our agent, working right under Vandamm's very nose will immediately face suspicions."

Fortunately for us, the Professor says those very words (though not quite in that order) in the first exposition scene, and someone with more video editing skills than me could perhaps just drop them into propeller-fuzzed section of the airport scene And then, ta-da! A great movie gets even greater.

Hitchcock famously popularized the term "MacGuffin" to refer to an object that motivates the characters but that the audience doesn't really care about. In North By Northwest, the MacGuffin is a tiny pre-Columbian statue with microfilm in its gut that Vandamm is going to take with him to Russia. It's such an advanced version of its type that the viewer barely even thinks about it.

If there's a mystery we care about, it's George Kaplan. There are moments when he seems within our grasp—when Thornhill tries on his suit, when Kendall says she's talked to him on the phone. Perversely, finding out that he was never there is delightfully satisfying. I just think it'd be even more delightful if we had to wait another hour or so to find out.

Hitchock-related: How To Get Your Lion Back When It Runs Away: Life Lessons From Tippi Hedren

Josh Fruhlinger thinks the trout is a little trouty. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

18 Comments / Post A Comment

I grew up with this movie, but most of the reason is because that lady in the boring scene is my great aunt. Don't cut her! Maybe pretend you know her too and then that scene will be less boring? (To be fair, she does not actually say/do anything interesting and I realize it is not a good scene.)

Lcanon (#240,865)

More Leo G. Carroll. That's my motto.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Not very sporting, using real bullets.

Mr. B (#10,093)


Then I realized, of course, that in between my innumerable viewings of North by Northwest — I mean every time — I have blocked that offending scene out of my memory and oh my god are you ever correct. On the other hand, I can sort of understand Hitchcock's point of view, which is probably that mass audiences in 1959 — this movie was meant to be a mass entertainment, after all — needed a bone thrown to them in order to keep them from storming out of the theater in confusion, à la Rock Hudson at the première of 2001.

I must admit your title drew me in. That said, I couldn't disagree with you more. Hitchcock conceived of and shot this perfect film. We do not need to touch one thing simply because someone may it becomes too slow for the Internet-aged audience who needs everything to be faster, more violent and sexier. There is a reason Hitchcock spun a yarn the way he did. Who can argue with his genius, and who would want to try? Perhaps I am old school, but I think it best to let the master storyteller tell his tale HIS way, and not touch one frame of film. It is part of our film history, and need not be changed for the next generation.

I absolutely agree with this post, and I think the same type of exposition scene could be cut from some other Hitchcock movies. Psycho and Vertigo both have scenes that just kill the momentum and, in Vertigo's case, ruin the movie's twist way too soon. It's not a matter of needing things to be faster/more violent/sexier, as Cathy says; it's a matter of wanting Hitchcock to trust his audience to go along with a mystery and be patient enough to not need a 3-minute scene of exposition dropped gracelessly in the middle.

AH (#246,558)

@Feedittomygoldfish@twitter I tend to agree with you on Vertigo, but I think it's worth noting that Hitchcock did produce a cut of the film with the early spoiler removed, but I believe the studio then pressured him to put it back in.

Sorry, but I think Hitchcock has done very well over the years with his films. Audiences never demanded any changes. At times they wanted different endings (EX: instead of killing off Joan Fontaine's character in Suspicion they shot it over with Grant as the loving hubby and not a murderer) Vertigo is one Hitch film I could have done without altogether. That said, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. That's okay because I love talking about old movies.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Vertigo is one Hitch film I could have done without altogether.

You just disqualified yourself from claiming to be a Hitchcock fan.

Stipulating that the "sitting round the FBI table" scene is extremely static and talky and therefore something of a blot in an otherwise sleek film, I do think you have to give Hitchcock credit for making the movie he intended to make instead of attempting and failing to make the movie you would prefer to see.

It's clear that the director wanted the audience to be in the position of having more information than than the protagonist for the middle section of the film, just as he decided to leave in the scene of Judy's letter in Vertigo that clarifies the scheme she's involved in. (I will admit that Judy's letter is somewhat more elegant a solution than the meeting of the Friends of Leo G. Carroll.)

What Hitchcock is attempting here is a sort of reverse mystery, and the entertainment is achieved in a somewhat more sophisticated way than in the usual thriller: not so much raw surprises, but a series of double-takes: first the surprise, then the quick second jolt when we realize what the surprise means in the context of our privileged knowledge. There's also a pleasurable kind of tension derived from the impossible desire to warn Thornhill, to give him that one piece of information that will make his quest if not easier at least more linear.

Personally, I think the "spoiler" is not only an interesting formal device but essential to keeping up the interest in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward thriller. I also think that the final reveal of Eve's character comes as a much bigger surprise because the airport "bringing Thornhill up to speed" scene implies that all the secrets are now out in the open. We let down our guard after that, so the more straightforward melodrama in the last half hour or so (the rescue of Eve from the mountain house) feels unexpected.

The real complaint here is that the exposition scene is so stagy and clumsy, involving as it does a whole roomful of people we have never seen before and (with the one exception) never see again. But it seems that Hitchcock was only interested in a data dump here.

Mr. B stole my thunder in defending the original edit as a "bone to the audience." I think you are right on target, though. That and Thornhill should have an rpg to shoot down the crop duster, a la Die Hard. ;)

With a copy of the DVD, the iPhone Voice Memos app, and a working mute button, one could do a decent job at home without video editing software. Okay, a half decent job. I intend to try this myself.

Now if we can only address the issue of Roger's absurdly long shirttail in the hospital room.

Esoth (#241,759)

Thanks for the interesting post about a perfect movie, "offending scene" and all. The Master at his peak, manipulating every expectation, sometimes playfully, sometimes wickedly. It is Hitchcock, after all and by the time LGC makes his banal yet droll appearance, anything might have been going on, the film might have branched off into some other perverse direction. Instead, this world of Long Island spies, Madison Avenue murderers, sophisticated Twentieth Century Limited Sex, bizarre mother-son relations, bizarre spy-henchmen relations, is brought to an almost standstill by a static, almost somnambulistic meeting of CIA drones. Do you think this scene was set by accident? This was just an added layer of perversity from Hitchcock, his way of messing with his audience, almost threatening them with some trite, manufactured letdown, before resuming the thrill-ride. It is impossible for me to attribute oversight or misstep to the same director who exhibited such efficiency, intelligence, humor and pacing in setting the essential plot device in motion. And that drab meeting scene also plays wonderfully and comically with LGC's later appearances.

I love every frame of this movie in a way that I don't subject to analysis. Even the soundstage Dakota forest fills me with pleasure. Do we want to carp or suggest that John Frankenheimer or James Cameron might have better staged that biplane-into-tanker-truck shot, or just revel in that glorious scene?

shanemaxx619 (#241,775)


AH (#246,558)

It's possible to shorten the offending scene and thus remove (a) the spoiler about Kaplan's non-existence, (b) the hint about Eve's real identity, and (c) a lot of tedious exposition, while still retaining (a) the clear shot of the newspaper front page showing Thornhill clutching the knife, and (b) the establishing shots of the character of the Professor, so that his next appearance, in the auction scene, doesn't seem to come out of the blue.

I'm no good at video editing, but here's my attempt at the shortened CIA meeting-room scene nonetheless:

AH (#246,558)

@AnthonyHope@twitter I deleted the video because of a bogus copyright claim by the supposed rights holder. I disputed it. My dispute was rejected. All of this even though the video was only 80 seconds long. Copyright lawyers. Gotta love 'em.

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