North by Northwest: Camera Techniques

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18th May 2020 Film Studies Reference this

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North by Northwest by director Alfred Hitchcock is a 1959 thriller film starring Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill). One of the most noticeable aspects in North by Northwest was the camera work and techniques. The film utilizes a very specific range of camera techniques throughout the film to create a feeling of suspense and danger. The establishing shots, medium shots and close-ups, and shot-reverse-shots all play an important part in conveying the suspense to the audience while also creating continuity and adding a believable element (UFilm Analysis Blog, 2019).

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Perhaps the most noticeable camera techniques being used are the establishing shots. These long shots encompass the entire environment – such as the establishing shot that is used in the Grand Central Station scene which allows the audience to have a broader view of the environmental composition where the scene is taking place and showing where and how the main characters are interacting within that environment.

The power of mise-en-scene helps achieve realism in North by Northwest by filming in Grand Central Station. The action starts in a crowded Grand Central Station filled with rushing people which adds a sense of urgency that is associated with Roger Thornhill. The set design alters as he borders the train. This implies that he has step back into the refinement that he enjoyed before the journey of escape.


Fade into Grand Central Station

An establishing Shot of the American Flag which hangs prominently in Grand Central Station during rush hour.

New York City at its glamourous best, men and women in shades of grey suits, and a woman carrying a red handbag stands out among the dark colors – this is controlled palette.

This establishing shot also creates continuity as we view Thornhill outsmarting the police.


Two New York City police officers emerged from the left side of the camera. They are in the center of the shot speaking to each other. A passerby asks for directions, they point out the correct way. They go back into the crowd.


Hitchcock makes the decision to slow pan to the telephone booths on the right side of the camera. It adds to suspense as the audience wonders where Thornhill is hiding.


The bird’s eye views contribute to the suspense when the vastness of a location is seen in perspective with the Thornhill’s point of view shot. Roger enters a phone booth to call his Mother (Jessie Royce Landis). The one-sided conversation with his mother keeps the suspense going without slowing down the story without unnecessary explanation. He lets her know that he is on the run and headed to Chicago. He explains why he’s taking the train. Thornhill is running for cover and in the process of leaving his old life. He calls his mother to say, in a sense, goodbye to the old Roger. This is the last time she is mentioned in the film. As he looks both ways as he enters the train, he acknowledges his passage is happening as he has been wrongfully accused of the murder of a U.N. diplomat and needs to find his real identity.


Thornhill is highly suspicious of everyone around him as he leaves phone booth. The camera angle is in front of Thornhill capturing his point of view, when he exits the phone booth the camera is die-on, Hitchcock uses a static medium close-up as Thornhill comes into contact with a gentleman trying to get in the phone booth, and he needs to navigation around him. This shot is most effective as the audience suspense builds for Thornhill capture. Thornhill tries to disappear into the crowd and spots a man holding the New York Post whose headline reads – Manhunt on for U.N. Killer. Thornhill acknowledges he needs a disguise and reaches for his beige, dark lenses sunglasses.


Police are standing in front of the information booth and diligently scanning the crowd. Hitchcock pans right to spot Thornhill walking to the Ticket Booths. These establishing shots intensify the chase by showing just how close he came to being captured.


Thornhill attempts to purchase a ticket for the 20the Century Limited to Chicago at Window 15. Ticket agent asks a lot of question and glances down to the photo of Thornhill pulling the knife out of the back of the U.N. diplomat. Ticket agent quietly places a phone call to police to come to get him. When the ticket agent turns back to the crowd, Thornhill is gone and the ticket window frames the crowd of Grand Central station. The first angle shows a close up of Thornhill that appears to be conversing with another character off camera. The view then flips to the ticket agent who is on the phone another character off camera.  This method can also be used to show the tension between two characters which can lead to a distinct feeling of suspense.


As the crowd rushes in all directions, Thornhill emerges to walk through the tunnel to get to the train platform. The tunnel emphasize that he is passing from one stage to another


Thornhill asks for directions from train personnel.

With the NYC Police racing in his direction, he seems to hurry for the first time as he makes his way to the track entrances.


An establishing shot of the train. Passengers are seen seated through the windows as Thornhill passes them on his way to the train door.


After looking both ways, Thornhill enters the train, leaving behind the man he was to become the hero.


An establishing shot of Thornhill running into the train corridor.


Thornhill runs back down the corridor. He bumps into a beautiful blonde, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who is looking down demurely. He finds himself once again navigating around a person.


Thornhill bends down and peeks outside the train window and see the feet of the police officers; this framing of the shot adds suspense to the film.


They see the police enter the train, she knows they are look for him.

In order to hide, Thornhill goes backward into a sleeper compartment.

Eve points the police in the opposite direction. This will be the first of three times that she saves him.

There is a point-of-view long shot of Eve as she walks away from Thornhill as he appraises her body. Thornhill is in the prime position and directs the action with his gaze.

45. 25 The train pulls away, framing shot of the sun setting. Another reference to his old life ending and the morning breaks a new life would have started.


  Hitchcock made everybody in the film dress in a classic style as he didn’t want the picture to date because of the clothes. Roger Thornhill’s elegant fourteen-gauge mid-grey worsted-wool Kilgour suit is considered one of the best suits in the history of cinema (Classiq, 2019). The illusion of a lean line is also created in the film by the choice of matching grey socks and by eschewing a belt. The chocolate brown Derby shoes are the only contrasting accessory. Thornhill goes through every possible ordeal in North by Northwest, but he remains perfectly dressed and unruffled; Hitchcock is showing the audience the hero shot. Roger’s sunglasses are an important part of his concealment as he runs for cover in Grand Central Station. When the audience first sees Eve, she is dressed in all-black, foreshadowing the doom that lies ahead.


The blocking of the Thornhill as he makes his way thru Grand Central Station makes for a scene that operates on multiple levels at once as it is priming us for the next scene. There is as much meaning in the blocking of the scene as there is in the dialogue. The audience feels he is in a public place so the audience assumes he is safe. But as Thornhill is filmed sitting, walking and hurrying it foreshadows the danger he is in.

Set dressing

Hitchcock made these choices to tell this part of the story with medium shots which show the character’s immediate environment and those around him and with close-ups to show his reactions to what is happening. This camera technique is very effective when a scene involves many different emotions and complexities when it comes to character-environment interaction in particular. Since he is the only character our focus is on in this scene, his reactions and interactions with Grand Central Station need to supply the suspense and a sense of danger.


  There is the diegetic sound of “everyday” noise in Grand Central Station. The dialogue in the scene between Thornhill and his Mother s leads to a sense of urgency as we can only hear his side of the conversation.


Bernard Herrmann’s score is composed of three types of music for North by Northwest, chase music, suspense music and love music which are all tonally based.

 Hitchcock relies on action reminisces of silent movies to move this scene along. Thornhill lack of expertise in this situation has him stumbling along. As the director he wants to portray that the mother-dominated womanizing man, Thornhill, is leaving behind that world and is entering his hero’s journey.


An underlying motif of this film is the fact that nearly every character is playacting and that nobody is really who they seem to be. To fully understand North by Northwest you need to have an understanding of the Cold War conflict. During this time, everyone seems to be a spy; where even the woman’s red handbag seemed to symbolism communist foes. As the audience sees the New York Post headlines, they acknowledge that this is on every front page in America and this journey is going to the audience on a road trip.  The prominent American flag that starts the scene glorifies the United States and North by Northwest is a one-side take on the Cold War era (Shmoop).

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