Friday, 18 September 2015

The first meeting between Cary Grant's high-flying ad-man turned accidental fugitive and Eva Marie Saint's alluring, mysterious stranger in Hitchcock's North By Northwest takes place on a train. Running from cops chasing him on a murder charge, his face on the cover of every newspaper in town, Grant's panicked Roger Thornhill inexplicably makes it through Grand Central and onto a train bound for Chicago. Once aboard, he walks along an empty grey-white corridor surrounded on one side by cabin doors, barred windows on the other; four artificial lights on the ceiling barely illuminate the passageway, perhaps the only slice of good luck he's been afforded thus far. Still, his expensive tailored grey suit, with brown shoes and cufflinks, render him far from inconspicuous, and his insistence on wearing sunglasses in the daytime serves the dual purpose of partially obscuring his face while drawing attention to his presence. Hitchcock's camera statically observes from one end of the corridor as Thornhill hurries towards it, looking in the cabins as he searches for somewhere to lie low for a while. He stops to look out of the window, and Hitchcock cuts to his point-of-view as two cops run onto the train just beyond him; Thornhill rushes back on himself, too scared to look for a place to hide, blindly running to buy time and distance, until he bumps into Eva Marie Saint's as-yet-unnamed character in the tight space linking the corridor to the carriage doors.

This space provides a platform for an awkward, fumbling attempt for the two to pass by each other, constantly copying the other's movements as if faced with Groucho Marx's mirror. And perhaps, like Groucho Marx, it's a situation intentionally drawn out by Saint. She doesn't seem surprised to walk straight into an alarmed Thornhill, and her eyes barely leave his face as they try to manoeuvre past each other - the only time she does avert her gaze, in fact, is to look back along the corridor at the two cops, stuck behind an elderly couple and the porter carrying their luggage. As the camera cuts to her vantage point, the set-up is the reverse to that of Thornhill entering the train seconds before, with the only changes being the end of the corridor the camera is placed and the perceived shift from objectivity to subjectivity - I say "perceived", because the parallels between the two shots suggest that somebody (perceptibly linked and even opposed to this mysterious woman) has been watching him the whole time. As he ducks into the nearest cabin, she lies to the oblivious onrushing cops: "he went that way, I think he got off," and she watches as they leave the train; the conductor's call of "all aboard" suggests they'll be departing soon. At least for now, he's in the clear, but who is this woman? He sheepishly emerges from the cabin, thanks her, and fakes an explanation ("seven parking tickets"). She responds with a brief but elongated "oh," and sashays along the corridor to find her cabin, abruptly ending their interaction and leaving him wanting more. Thornhill's eyes follow her, his gaze dropping and holding on her legs as the same point-of-view shot repeats itself, this time from his perspective. He's enthralled by her, but was she by him? Is that why she helped him so readily? Hitchcock gives no answers here, but he does lay the groundwork for something to happen between them later on. After all, she found him once, and now she's in his head it can only be a matter of time before she finds him again. And from there, who knows what could happen.

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