Film Studies

North by Northwest Film Analysis

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North by Northwest is a suspenseful film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1959.  The film stars Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who finds himself mistaken as a United States spy and must outmaneuver both the police and criminals in attempt to uncover the hidden truth.  Overall, North by Northwest offers suspense in nearly every scene as we follow Roger Thornhill in his adventure.  Director Alfred Hitchcock captures the suspense perfectly, utilizing continuity editing techniques including establishing shots, reverse shots, and match editing, as well as discontinuity techniques.

Alfred Hitchcock includes a variety of continuity editing techniques in North by Northwest to create both smoothness and suspense.  The first of these concepts is the establishing shot.  Whenever a new scene occurs, Hitchcock utilizes an establishing shot to provide overview to a scene.  After Mr. Vandamm’s associates kidnap Roger Thornhill, there are numerous establishing shots providing an overview of the location Roger is being taken to, Townsend Mansion.  When the movie progresses and locations change, Hitchcock utilizes establishing shots at the United Nation’s complex, the Chicago bus stop, and Mount Rushmore.  These establishing shots allow audience members to understand what is going on and where the succeeding scene is occurring.  In a film where the location of key characters change frequently, it is important to incorporate establishing shots to ensure audience members know what is going on.  The second continuity editing technique used in North by Northwest is the reverse shot pattern.  When Roger Thornhill first encounters Phillip Vandamm, Alfred Hitchcock uses the reverse shot pattern throughout the conversation.  The reverse shot pattern allows the viewer to see the reaction of the character’s faces more closely, which adds suspense to the film.  If a master shot was used, the viewer would feel more distant from the story and the suspense would be lacking.  Lastly, the use of match editing creates a smoothness effect and can frequently be seen in North by Northwest.  This smoothness effect lets the scene cuts seem more natural which keeps the viewer engaged to the story.

Although numerous examples of continuity editing techniques are in North by Northwest, there are also a variety of discontinuity techniques.  Using discontinuity techniques can help depict a character as either the protagonist or the antagonist.  When Roger Thornhill first meets Eve Kendall, she is wearing a white dress with plenty of skin showing, depicting her as a “good” person who is helping Roger Thornhill escape from police.  While Eve Kendall is off-screen, the viewer learns that she is an agent for the evil Mr. Vandamm.  The next scene, we find Ms. Kendall wearing a thick, black coat, depicting her as a “bad” person.  Using this discontinuity technique emphasizes Eve’s transition from a helpful person to a secret agent, which helps the viewer follow the story and adds suspense.

Even though Hitchcock incorporates discontinuity techniques in North by Northwest, he has a certain way of incorporating smoothness to the discontinuity.  Rather than cutting from one scene to another, Hitchcock incorporates the fade-in and fade-out techniques often.  Even though one scene takes place in a New York City Hotel and the next occurs at the United Nations, the fade-in and fade-out technique creates a smoothness effect, which allows the story to unfold without interruption.

Overall, it seems North by Northwest received fairly high marks in numerous reviews.  The New York Times review calls North by Northwest a “colorful and exciting route for spies, counterspies and lovers.”  Part of this “colorful and exciting route” can be explained through the cross-cutting technique.  In nearly all of the suspenseful scenes, including the drunken car chase, the police chase in the train station, and the climatic Rushmore scene, the rapid scene change from Mr. Thornhill to those in pursuit creates a heightened level of suspense.  I also found the rapid pace of North by Northwest to be extremely engaging.  Nearly every scene, the viewer is learning more about the truth behind Roger Thornhill.  Each scene provides a small piece of evidence and the pace of the movie made me eager to learn about the next clue.  The New York Times agreed with this insight by writing “complications are introduced with about the same rapidity as the ever-changing scenery.”

North by Northwest is an engaging film that combines a wide range of genres ranging from suspense to humor.  The continuity techniques of establishing shots, reverse shots, and match editing allows the viewers to experience a suspenseful, yet smooth story.  The importance of each scene keeps the viewer engaged in all of the details.  The constant feeling of suspense, as well as using both continuity and discontinuity techniques made North by Northwest an extremely suspenseful and worthwhile experience.


Written by matthewpickle

January 27, 2011 at 3:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Matt, this was a wonderful post! I really liked that you picked out particular editing techniques and then gave a lot of concrete examples of each. The examples kept what you were writing about very clear. I also thought it was great that you gave clear reasons why those particular editing techniques were used. Your reasons show great insight into this film. Overall, this was a very clear, interesting and knowledgeable blog. Good Job!


    January 30, 2011 at 11:45 pm

  2. Nice thoughts. Clean writing. I hadn’t thought of the color change of Kendall’s clothing. I noticed it but I guess I thought of it in a different way. And though we watch and take in the fading scene changes, I guess I hadn’t thought about the segway between locations. I agree with and think the scenes you mentioned do exemplify the terms we have been studying.


    January 31, 2011 at 12:37 am

  3. The color change with Eve Kendall was a nice observation that I missed. Very nicely written, obscenely well organized. I liked the establishing paragraph about establishing shots, very poetic.


    January 31, 2011 at 7:02 pm

  4. Matt, I found your article to be very well written. I particulary enjoied your discussion on not just what editing techniques were used in this film, but also their effect on the perception of the film by the audience.


    January 31, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  5. Hitchkock has a certain way of making a film elegant and suspenseful. The coolness of his leading Kelly and Saint is just such an example. And of course, having an elegant start, who no mmatter what he has been through always is well-groomed adds to the elegance of the film.

    Fredu K. Seidel

    August 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  6. I really liked the article, it helped me in different ways and I now understand editing process of this film completely

    Halieo Motanyane

    April 10, 2014 at 10:02 pm

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