“North by Northwest” - Alfred Hitchcock (1959)

Of all the entertainment supplied by Alfred Hitchcock’s films over the years, perhaps the most entertaining of them all was North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock’s only production for MGM, it followed his usual strategy of engaging recognizable, big-time screen personalities, on this occasion starring Cary Grant (his fourth film for Hitchcock), Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason. In addition, the British-born Hitchcock managed to include such iconic American sites as the United Nations building, the Twentieth Century Limited rail train, and Mount Rushmore. But what made the film most memorable was the action-filled narrative, coupled with Hitchcock’s dynamic cinema styling.

In recent years some reviewers have made some nitpicking criticisms concerning the film plot’s plausibility and the degree of realism associated with some of the special effects in the studio-shot action sequences. What these critics are overlooking is the fact that this film was not really intended to be realistic, but was an action-packed Expressionist dream. It captures the realism of a nightmare more than the photographic reality of everyday life. North by Northwest was the second in a sequence of four Expressionistic thrillers that Hitchcock made during this period: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), and they represent the highwater mark of his career. Note that the Expressionistic effects in these films were not only realized by Hitchcock’s Technicolor-enriched visuals but also by Bernard Herrmann’s hypnotically pulsating film scores.

The story follows the perilous circumstances of Roger Thornhhill, a Madison Avenue executive whose life is threatened when he is mistakenly taken to be a US government intelligence agent by an international spy ring. This represented another instance of Hitchcock’s characteristic scenario technique of depicting an ordinary man going about his business, whose life is suddenly turned upside down when he is accidentally drawn into a murky underground world of murder and intrigue. The idea of an ordinary person suddenly overwhelmed by circumstances out of his control gave Hitchcock’s films their Existentialist sense of dread that underlies all existence: that whatever sense of security we have built up over the course of our lives could be entirely cancelled in a few moments. Almost every scene in the film is seen from this struggling protagonist’s point of view. In this case the condition of paranoia is aggravated by the continual issue of mistaken identities which pervades the film. Almost everyone, it seems, is not who they appear to be.

In addition North by Northwest employs Hitchcock’s ingenious sequential scenario approach of stringing together a series of loosely connected mininarratives, each of which has its own sense of threat, conflict, and resolution. Stunning examples of this style were already on display in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Saboteur (1942), and The 39 Steps (1935), and it is optimally realized here and worthy of careful study concerning the art of storytelling. In the case of this film, there are seven of these ministories, each of which places Thornhill in great peril and concludes with a desperate escape:
  1. Manhattan, the Plaza Hotel (~30 minutes). Roger Thornhill, successful advertising executive, has a business lunch at the Plaza, but is mistakenly identified by two mysterious hitmen to be someone else by the name of George Kaplan. They force him into their car and take him to the suburban mansion of Lester Townsend. Townsend wants some sort of cooperation from Kaplan, and when Thornhill angrily refuses, he orders his two hitmen to forcibly inebriate Thornhill and stage a fatal car accident. There is then a spectacular, harrowing drive on a mountain cliff road, with the drunken Thornhill barely able to maintain control of his car. He is fortunately apprehended by the police for drunken driving, thereby thwarting the attempted killing. The next day Thornhill and the police visit Townsend’s mansion, where his wife denies everything and informs them that Townsend is currently at the United Nations. Thornhill now knows he will get no assistance from the police, but that he is still potentially targeted by the hitmen. He will have to go it alone. Wanting to know who this George Kaplan is, Thornhill finds his hotel room at the Plaza and sneaks into it while Kaplan is apparently out, but discovers little other than that he is next headed for Chicago. Then he escapes just ahead of the hitmen. Outcome: Thornhill escapes, needs to resolve the misidentification with Kaplan.
  2. The United Nations (~8 minutes). Thornhill rushes to the United Nations building, followed in a trailing taxi by one of the hitmen. When he finds Townsend, he discovers that it is not the man who had interrogated him at his mansion and that the woman posing as Townsend’s wife there was an imposter. Before Thornhill can get additional information, the lurking hitman kills Townsend, and Thornhill is mistakenly assumed to be the killer. Thornhill rushes outside and escapes. The next day, a US government intelligence agency meeting, chaired by the “Professor”, reveals information crucial to the viewer. “George Kaplan” never existed and is a fiction created by the agency to fool foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (who was the man impersonating Lester Townsend at the mansion two days earlier). The agency knows that Thornhill is innocent, but cannot help him without endangering their own imperiled operative working on the inside of Vandamm’s organisation. We now know that the police mistake Thornhill for a drunk and a killer, Vandamm was mistaken for Townsend, and George Kaplan never existed in the first place. Outcome: Thornhill escapes, needs to resolve (a) Kaplan mystery, (b) Townsend (Vandamm) mystery.
  3. The Twentieth Century Limited (~23 minutes). Thornhill makes it to Penn Station and sneaks on board the New York Central railroad’s legendary Twentieth Century Limited train. On the train, he meets and befriends a beautiful woman, Eve Kendall, who helps him evade the police and hides him in her cabin room. They quickly become lovers, but Eve turns out be another person who is not what she seems. She sends a secret note to Phillip Vandamm, who is also on this train in another compartment. Outcome: Thornhill escapes, needs to resolve Kaplan/Vandamm mystery, and now romantically involved with Eve.
  4. Indiana (~10 minutes). Having arrived in Chicago and with Thornhill undercover, Eve contacts the supposed Kaplan at his hotel and arranges for Thornhill to meet Kaplan at a rural Indiana bus stop. Thornhill goes there, but is attacked from the air by a machine-gun-equipped crop duster in one of the most famous of movie action scenes – a classic of separation, anticipation, and strike. The crop duster crashes, and Thornhill steals a truck to get back to Chicago. Outcome: Thornhill escapes, and knowing that Eve clearly set him up, now needs to resolve the Kaplan/Vandamm/Eve mystery.
  5. Back in Chicago (~23 minutes). Thornhill makes it to Kaplan’s hotel and learns that he had already checked out, but he sees Eve in the lobby. After a guardedly cordial meeting, Thornhill surreptitiously manages to find out that Eve is going to an art auction that evening, and he goes there, himself. At the gallery he meets Vandamm again and discovers that Eve is his woman. Jealous, Thornhill informs Vandamm that Eve is a tramp. It is quickly evident that Vandamm’s hitmen are about to polish off Thornhill again, so he causes a ruckus in the auction room and gets himself arrested by the police. But the police take him straight to the airport, where the Professor shows up and reveals to him that Kaplan never existed, Vandamm is a spy dealing in stolen secrets, and Eve is an undercover government agent spying on Vandamm. Outcome: Thornhill escapes and the Kaplan/Vandamm/Eve mystery has been resolved, but he now needs to save Eve, whose supposed amorous fidelity to Vandamm is now perhaps questioned by Vadamm and who is therefore in danger of being exposed and killed.
  6. Rapid City (~13 minutes). Thornhill and the Professor fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Vandamm has taken Eve to his private house in preparation for leaving the country. To Vandamm, Thornhill is still the actually-nonexistent Kaplan, and Thornhill agrees to continue playing that role in order to help Eve. Thornhill, posing as Kaplan, meets Vandamm at a restaurant, and they talk, but Eve, also present, takes out a gun and “kills” Thornhill, whose body is taken away by the police. It turns out that Eve’s gun had blanks in it, and Thornhill and Eve are reunited in a forest outside town. They embrace, but Thornhill is shocked to learn that Eve is to depart with Vandamm. When he tries to interfere, he is knocked out by a government security guard and taken to a locked hotel room. He manages to escape through a window and heads out for Vandamm’s house. Outcome: Thornhill escapes and is on his own again with the mission of saving Eve.
  7. Vandamm’s house (~21 minutes). Thornhill gets to the house at night and, spying through a window, learns that Vandamm has become wise to Eve’s trickery and plans to do away with her. He manages to communicate with Eve, and they try to escape together in car, but a locked gate blocks their passage. So they set out on foot in the woods and quickly find themselves overlooking the top of Mount Rushmore, with Vandamm and his gang hot on their tails. The famous pursuit scene over the faces of Mount Rushmore is unmatched, even for Hitchcock, in terms of tension and excitement. Outcome: Everything resolved, and Thornhill and Eve escape and live happily ever after.
At over two hours and ten minutes, this is one of the longest Hitchcock films, but it is action-packed all the way, from the opening scenes to the finale moments. The film opens with images of busy New York crowds rushing to make bus, train, and taxi connections, even as Saul Bass’s famous kinetic titling sequence is overlaying the opening credits and Bernard Herrmann’s driving music is ringing in the background. Herrmann’s pounding music is so intoxicating in this film that one wonders to what extent it was an inspiration for the music of Phillip Glass. In any case this opening sequence, which shows various people missing getting nosed out of their hoped-for taxi and bus connections, including director Alfred Hitchcock in his signature cameo, offers a visual clue to another underlying subtheme (beside mistaken identity) of the film: opportunistic travel connections. Throughout the film, Thornhill is seen jumping into other peoples’ taxis, sneaking onto trains, and stealing pickup trucks and cars in order to make his way. In addition, he is several times opportunistically escorted by the police under false pretenses to the next step of his narrative journey. It is a continuation of the identity issue, the “who am I, really?” issue, because in each case Thornhill is taking a mode of conveyance that was not intended for him (at least according to the normal course of human society). The actual capture of Vandamm and his microfilm containing stolen government secrets is of secondary import to the human story of Roger Thornhill trying to get out of one perilous situation after another. Each of the ministories has its own resolution, but on each occasion, there is new information available to Thornhill in order to propel the ensuing events.

Cary Grant, as Roger Thornhill, was Hitchcock’s favorite actor, and he is just right in the role of Roger Thornhill, although some critics suggested that, at 54, he looked too old for the part. The problem wasn’t Grant, though, but Jessie Royce Landis, who played Thornhill’s mother, Clara. Landis was 62 years old, but she looked much younger than that (and claimed to be younger, too). James Mason, in the role of Vandamm, is also excellent as a sophisticated and diabolical nemesis. And Eva Marie Saint was the kind of cool, sophisticated and demure blonde that reigned in the 1950s. Mention should also be made of Leo G. Carroll’s performance as the spymaster. Carroll, in his sixth film role for Hitchcock and well-known to American TV audiences from his “Topper” series, was perfect, as usual, in the role of the scholarly and hyper-rational “Professor”.

All in all, this was Hitchcock at his best and is closely comparable in many ways to his masterpiece, The 39 Steps.

Alfred Hitchcock

Films: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Mountain Eagle (1926), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Ring (1927), Downhill (1927), The Farmer's Wife (1928), Easy Virtue (1928), Champagne (1928), The Manxman (1929), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), Murder! (1930), The Skin Game (1931), Mary (1931), Rich and Strange (1931), Number Seventeen (1932), Waltzes from Vienna (1934), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Rope (1948), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972), Family Plot (1976)

The “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), might better be referred to simply, as “The Master”, without further qualification. For Alfred Hitchcock so extended and refined his skills in cinematic storytelling throughout his career that he became a comprehensive master of the moviemaking art. This is not to say that every one of his films was a gem. As a prolific director in the area of commercial cinema, where mass-market tastes dictate success or failure, Hitchcock sometimes produced rather pedestrian or hastily-concocted productions. Nevertheless his complete oeuvre displays an astonishing range of technical mastery that invariably lured the viewer into compulsive involvement with his narratives.

A key to Hitchcock’s work is his adroit use of Expressionistic techniques that extended past the static visual to include the temporal and audial dimensions. In this respect he represents an advancement beyond the pure light-and-shadow work of the German Expressionists who were operating in the black-and-white, silent-film era. Hitchcock was a daring and inventive stylist who still managed to produce a stream of popular films in the mainstream movie business.

Early on Hitchcock displayed a highly visual aptitude, and he began working in the British film industry as a title designer in 1920. In 1924 he visited Germany, where he worked as an art-director on the set of F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, (Det Letze Mann, 1924), and his exposure to the vibrant German Expressionistic film culture of that period was undoubtedly influential – Hitchcock has remarked that he was particularly impressed with the work of Murnau and Fritz Lang. In 1926 Hitchcock directed his first feature, The Lodger, and his first foray into the use of sound was Blackmail in 1929. With each succeeding film, he experimented with new, bold effects, and so his style continued to progress throughout his career. In 1933 Hitchcock moved to work for the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, where he was given even greater latitude. His first film for that company, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) displayed many of his later-celebrated stylistic flourishes and narrative techniques that encompassed both Expressionism and Existentialism. One of his enduring Existentialist themes, which is well presented in The Man Who Knew Too Much and runs through many Hitchcock’s subsequent films, is the plight characterized by a mild-mannered man who is suddenly sucked into a whirlpool of danger that comes from only partially revealed antagonists. Loneliness and fear are key ingredients to this narrative line, and the protagonist can only rely on his own resources to save himself. This theme of the menaced ordinary man, the Everyman, evokes a sense of dread that underlies our ordinary existence and is something that resonates with every viewer in some fashion or other.

The Man Who Knew Too Much also featured Hitchcock’s famous segmented episodic plot structure that was to be the hallmark of some his greatest films, notably The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North by Northwest. This narrative technique comprised about six separate episodes in the film, each of which presented a crisis that was resolved by the protagonist’s escape, usually with an additional piece of the puzzle acquired. Each of these episodes was an encapsulated mini-story, with its own dramatic tension and closure, that captured the immediate attention of the audience concerning how it might play out. And yet each one of these little stories followed causally and logically from the narrative consequences of the previous episode – and each led appropriately to the succeeding episode in the story. As a result, the film never lags, and the audience is captive to the immediate activities depicted, while mindful of the overarching theme.

To interconnect these episodes and maintain contact with the overriding narrative context, Hitchcock often used some visual or acoustic motif, many times manifested by a small artifact. This is sometimes referred to as a MacGuffin, which Hitchcock once explained as
“the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."
He also once described the term to Francois Truffaut as follows [1]:
"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."
In The 39 Steps, for example, the MacGuffin could either refer to the mysterious 39 steps, themselves, or it could refer to the missing tip of the villain’s little finger. In fact as colourful as the term might be suggested to be, it has been so overused and variously misapplied by subsequent commentators that it is now more a source of confusion and is best avoided as an explanatory phrase.

Another concern in the critical literature relates to the psychological underpinnings of Hitchcock’s films, an issue that was enlarged by his apparent fascination with and explicit inclusion of topics related to psychoanalysis in the 1940s and 1950s. The problem for the critical community in this case is that there has never been much available flamboyant or revealing material associated with Hitchcock’s private life. So it seems that some critics [2] have simply resorted to psychoanalysing Hitchcock’s films, themselves, and have then imputed certain psychological obsessions back onto Hitchcock, himself – which are then, in turn, assumed to influence his subsequent films. For example:
  • Hitchcock’s supposed fixation on blondes. Most of the leading female characters in his films have blonde hair.
  • In many of his films, one or more characters is presumably gay or at least has effeminate behavioural characteristics. This leads the critics to suggest that Hitchcock had tendencies in this direction and that there is a gay subtext to many of his films.
  • The principal male character in his films is often subservient to a semi-dominating mother.
In my view such critical speculations about Hitchcock’s psyche are circular, and they are as unscientific as the field of psychoanalysis, itself. It is best for the rest of us to stick with the material at hand, the films. These have not been examinations of psychological neuroses, but have dealt with universal human themes, as is evidenced by their widespread appeal across cultures, age-categories, and sociological boundaries. His greatest films, The 39 Steps, Notorious, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds (the last four of these coming in succession and immeasurably enhanced by the music of Bernard Herrmann), reach into the depths of the human soul to evoke feelings of anxiety, desperation, escape, and passion. That is why they stand so high even today.
  1. Gottlieb, Sidney (2002). Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-8143-3061-4.
  2. Mogg, Ken, "Alfred Hitchcock", (2005) in Senses of Cinema, http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/05/hitchcock.html.

Alfred Hitchcock

About Alfred Hitchcock:
Films of Alfred Hitchcock:

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” - Alfred Hitchcock (1934)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), was his first film for Gaumont British studios, which gave him more freedom to try out his ideas. Although his directorial resume had started in the silent era and already included twenty films, it was with this effort that he began to display the extraordinary narrative vitality that was to make him famous. It also introduced two significant Continental European actors to English-speaking audiences: Peter Lorre (who had recently appeared in Fritz Lang’s M and who would soon appear in von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment) and Pierre Fresnay (who would later appear in Jean Renoir’s 1937 film Le Grande Illusion).

The story concerns a British couple who become inadvertently entangled in an international political assassination plot. This story plot inaugurated a theme that was become common to many subsequent Hitchcock films, wherein an ordinary polite and unassuming middle-class man is caught up in a threatening situation from which he must somehow manage to extricate himself without assistance. The plot has six somewhat implausibly strung-together sequences:
  1. St. Moritz. In the first section, the urbane British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, are vacationing with their teenage daughter, Betty, at the St. Moritz ski resort. Jill is evidently a crack markswoman and competes for a skeet-shooting trophy against another marksman, Ramon, but a distracting noise causes her to miss the last shot and lose the match. The couple engage in witty social banter with other upper-class vacationers, including a smooth-talking foreigner, Mr. Abbott (played by Peter Lorre), and a competitive French skier, Louis Bernard (played by Pierre Fresnay). That evening at the hotel while Jill is dancing with Louis and trying to make her husband a bit jealous, a shot rings out and Louis slowly falls to the floor. The genteel, upper-class comedy that has so far been on display has suddenly turned into a murder/adventure story. In the few seconds before he dies, Louise slips Jill his hotel room key and urges her to get a secret document from his hotel room and give it to the British Foreign Office. Bob then goes to the room and finds the document, which is a cryptic message with the words “Wapping G Barbor Make Contact A. Hall March 21st”, rolled up in Louis’s shaving brush. Others apparently want that piece of paper, too, though, including Ramon, and almost immediately Bob and Jill are informed that their daughter has been kidnapped and will be killed if they reveal the contents of the secret message. Outcome: Bob and Jill have the secret paper, but Betty has been kidnapped.
  2. Back in London. Bob and Jill are questioned by the police and the Foreign Office, who inform them that Louis was a spy working for the British government and trying to prevent a politically-motivated assassination of an important foreign official. Fearful of the threats to their daughter’s safety, however, Bob and Jill refuse to reveal what they know. Bob then sets out with the cryptic message to the Wapping area to see if he can use it to find his daughter. At this point, 26 minutes into the 75-minute film, the key conflict has been established. Outcome: Bob and Jill know about the Foreign assassination plot, but they decide to go it alone (without confiding with the Foreign Office).
  3. The Dentist’s Office. Bob and family friend, Clive, discover a dentist’s office with the name of “George Barbor” in the Wapping area, and they pretend to seek dental treatment in order to investigate. This is a compact and tense scene, during which Bob manages to resist an attack on his life, escape detection, and learn that two people he had seen in St. Moritz, Ramon and Mr. Abbott, are involved in some intrigue with Mr. Barbor. Outcome: Bob knows that Abbott and Ramon are involved and has escaped detection.
  4. The Religious Cult. Nearby the dentist’s office, Bob and Clive find a tabernacle identifying a sun-worshipers’ cult that has the same building markings as on Louis Bernard’s secret paper. The vaguely sinister-appearing cult members inside are soon suspicious of the two interlopers and refuse to let them leave. Abbott and Ramon then show up, and it is soon clear that Abbott is the gang ringleader and that Betty is being held prisoner there. Ramon, the marksman and presumed killer of Louis, is now dispatched to the Royal Albert Hall to carry out the planned assassination at a concert that night. But Bob causes enough chaos to enable Clive to escape and inform Jill to rush to the Albert Hall. Outcome: Jill now knows to go the Albert Hall, but Bob is now a prisoner with Betty.
  5. The Albert Hall. The celebrated six-minute scene at the Albert Hall is the most gripping and satisfying sequence in the film. It’s all about pace and built-up tension, as Jill, sitting in the audience, grapples with indecision concerning what she should do. Ramon has already approached her in the lobby and given her a brooch that belongs to her daughter, thereby reminding her that her daughter’s life hangs in the balance if she makes any move. During the concert with Jill sitting in the audience and the orchestral music building up to a deafening crescendo, the pressure becomes unbearable, and Jill screams, which startles Ramon’s intended target and prevents Ramon’s shot from being lethal. After the fired shot, Ramon rushes from the building, with the police and Jill in hot pursuit. Outcome: the assassination attempt has been thwarted by Jill’s scream.
  6. The Siege at the Tabernacle. The final sequence is an extended police siege and shootout at the tabernacle, with the gang firing shots from upstairs windows. The entire scene was inspired by the famous Sidney Street Siege of 1911 in London, which Alfred Hitchcock undoubtedly heard about when he was growing up. During the commotion of the shootout in which many policemen and gang members are killed, Bob helps Betty to get up on the roof of the building. But Ramon follows her up there, too, and aims his gun at her. The police marksman can’t get a bead on Ramon – he’s too close to Betty and he can’t get a good aim – but Jill grabs his gun and this time wins the decisive battle against Ramon: she shoots him dead. The police then storm the building and discover that the rest of the gang have been killed. Outcome: Bob and Betty have been saved and the gang has been annihilated.
Despite all the action and excitement, The Man Who Knew Too Much is not without its flaws. The affable Bob Lawrence, played by Leslie Banks, seems far too casual in some of the life-threatening circumstances in which he finds himself. And some of the plot turns are quite implausible. Why would Bob, with only seconds to search Louis’s hotel room, think of unscrewing a shaving brush head in order to find the secret document? And his chair-throwing brawl in the tabernacle, which enables Clive to escape, is just too farfetched to accept.

But Hitchcock’s style of cinematic narrative is compelling. Each of the six episodes has a certain closure, a story-within-story aspect, that brings satisfaction as each one is brought to fruition. Yet all these episodes are linked together by the overall narrative thread, which frequently features an artifact that supplies a visual motif for forward and back referencing. (This is sometimes referred to as a “MacGuffin”, which is based on a remark that Hitchcock once made, but this term has been so overused and perhaps misapplied to such varied cinematic circumstances that is now only a source of confusion.) In this film, the key narrative thread for the Lawrences is to rescue Betty, and secondarily to halt a murder plot. But there are small artifacts that reappear at various points in the film. The secret piece of paper extracted from the shaving brush, of course, is one such artifact; but there are others: the brooch that Jill gives to Betty early on, as well as Abbott’s tune-playing pocket watch also serve as iconic artifacts to facilitate the episode linkages. Also, the early, seemingly incidental, gun-shooting event, when a noise distracts Betty from hitting her clay pidgeon target in the skeet-shooting competition, is recalled later at the Albert Hall when Betty’s scream interferes with Ramon’s assassination attempt. And there is the fascinating and satisfying plot resolution twist that, despite the male gender referenced in the title and the considerable screen time given to Bob’s activities, it is the woman, Jill, who makes the decisive actions and saves the day.

In addition to the artful stringing-together of the episodes into a coherent fabric, Hitchcock’s structurings of action within the episodes show strikingly dramatic changes of pace. Throughout three of the first four episodes, there are sudden, disarming moments of humor that intermingle with the desperate activities of the principal characters. In a similar alteration of tempo, after many of the principal characters are killed with an explosive gunshot, there is a sudden, near cessation of action, as the victim very slowly crumples to the floor. The same dramatic swing in the tempo occurs when Jill learns of her daughter’s kidnapping and freezes for a few moments before feinting. All these back-and-forth alterations in the pace of dramatic movement keep the viewer off balance, like a roller coaster. Those slowed-down moments have the shadow of previous dramatic action cast over them, and this both sustains the anticipation for upcoming events and enables one to overlook some of the implausibilities of the plot.

Much has been made of Hitchcock’s dismissal of actors and his famous remark that actors are like cattle. But this is  probably not so much an expression of contempt for acting as it was a reflection of his disinterest in overly-theatrical acting that was prevalent on the stage (particularly the British stage). He generally did make effective use of many actors who had a compelling screen personae and who could fit within the tight cinematic framework that he had devised. Here, in The Man Who Knew Too Much, is a perfect example. The Abbott character is played by Peter Lorre, in his first screen role before English-speaking audiences. Lorre’s knowledge of English was minimal at this time, and he had to memorize his lines verbatim. But he still offers a powerful and seductive screen presence in this film, and that adds an element of fascination to the assassination gang side of the story.

Hitchcock remade the same story of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, and that later film had the advantageous luxuries of a much larger budget and being shot in Technicolor, plus exotic locations (Morocco), big-name international stars (Doris Day and James Stewart), an Academy-Award-winning song (Que Sera Sera), and an extra half-hour of running time. One would have expected that later film to be the superior version, but it wasn’t. Hitchcock, himself, may have been conscious of the low-budget rough edges that appear in this earlier version when he dismissed it as the product of a talented amateur and said the 1956-version was the work of a professional. Yet it was Hitchcock’s bold cinematic and narrative gestures of this 1934 version of the story that emphatically made it the superior viewing experience. With the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock was just now coming into his own and establishing mastery over the full range of his techniques. His next outing, The 39 Steps (1935), would be his great masterpiece.

“The Sweet Hereafter” - Atom Egoyan (1997)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997) was generally hailed by critics upon its release as a multilayered examination of grief, anger, and blame in the face of tragic circumstances. Yes, it is that, but I would hold that this outstanding film has implications that penetrate further and deeper into how we account for and organize our lives. In fact this film raises issues about the very nature of narrative, itself, and the way it underpins our understanding of the world. The Armenian Canadian director and scriptwriter Atom Egoyan is known for his highly original and challenging productions, and this film is generally regarded as his finest achievement to date. The acting performances are all superb, particularly that of Ian Holm in the role of the visiting lawyer.

The story is based on the 1991 novel by Russell Banks about a tragic school bus accident in a small, rural town in upstate New York that resulted in the deaths of roughly twenty schoolchildren. That novel, in turn, was based on a real event, a 1989 bus crash in Texas that killed twenty children and led to massive litigation, out of which the participating lawyers earned roughly $50 million in fees. Egoyan’s rendering of the story, which was made with the cooperation of Banks, involved some changes in the narrative that Banks conceded actually improved upon the novel.

In the film, presumably now set in Canada, much of the plot concerns the activities of a big-city lawyer, Mitchell Stephens, who has come to the town in the aftermath of the tragedy in order to represent the parents who have lost their children. The accident involved a school bus going off a mountain road and tumbling down a ravine before falling into a lake or quarry. Some of the parents are so overcome with grief that they are unwilling to pursue legal remedies. The bus driver, Doloros, was a local woman, after all, and they accept that it was an accident. But from Stephens’s perspective, there are no accidents – there is always a cause behind every event. He reminds the parents that Doloros had driven that road hundreds of times and never had an accident before. This time there must have been something different: something wrong with the road, or the guardrail, or the bus. It is incumbent on everyone, Stephens tells them, to help identify that cause behind this tragedy and make those responsible pay the consequences. From his point of view, it’s always a case of some heartless person who has “cost-accounted the difference between a ten-cent bolt and a million-dollar out-of-court settlement and has decided to sacrifice a few lives for the difference.” Stephens also has his own personal reasons for identifying with the parents who have lost their children. He has lost his own grownup daughter to drug addiction, and he is wrestling with his own personal demons concerning what he should have done to avert that disaster.

The story circumstances sound basically straightforward, but this film narrative is complex. It is told in a highly nonlinear fashion – multiple threads told in multiple flashbacks and out of sequence that challenge the viewer to make sense of each of the scenes. As Stephens is trying to find out what happened and identify the fatal cause, the viewer is simultaneously trying to piece together the individual, fragmented scenes and figure out where they belong in the temporal sequence and what they mean to the overall story.

There are six principle character groups that one has to follow, and many of them have personal issues of their own that they have to deal with:
  • Mitchell Stephens, the lawyer. His distressed daughter, Zoe, occasionally makes collect telephone calls to him from remote urban locations (people in the background are driving cars with steering wheels on the right-hand side) during the film.
  • Doloros Driscoll, the bus driver. Her wheelchair-bound husband has suffered from a stroke and his incoherent speech is comprehensible only to her.
  • Billy Ansel owns a local automotive garage. His wife has recently died of cancer, and his two young twins die in the accident.
  • Nichole Burnell is a high-school girl who is left paralyzed from the waist down from the accident. She was having an incestuous relationship with her father, Sam, prior to the tragedy. She is the babysitter for Billy Ansel’s twins.
  • Risa and Wendell Walker own the Bide-a-While Motel in the town. Their son Sean dies in the accident. Risa is having an affair with Billy Ansel.
  • Hartley and Wanda Otto (who is played by Egoyan’s wife, Arsinée Khanjian) are crafts people, and their adopted son, Bear, is killed in the accident.
Everything in the film is depicted from the contrasting points of view of three of these characters: Mitchell Stephens, Billy Ansel, and Nichole Burnell. Collecting information from these three perspectives, the viewer struggles to build an understanding of the six family groupings and just exactly what happened on that fateful day of the accident. The key time periods of the story are essentially:

(1) The Day and Night Before the Accident. In these events
(1a) Billy Ansel, driving behind the school bus in his SUV towards school in the morning, uses his cell phone to arrange to have a tryst with Risa Walker that night.
(1b) Nichole sings country songs with a band at the local fairground, while her father, Sam, watches. The two of them then observe Doloros drive the school bus up and deliver schoolchildren to the fairground.
(1c) Billy and Risa meet that evening in a spare motel room and make love.
(1d) During the time that evening when Billy is with Risa, Nichole babysits Billy’s twins and reads to them fairy tale, Robert Browning’s poem, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin".
(1e) After Billy comes home, he gives some of his late wife’s old clothes to Nichole before she is picked up by her father.
(1f) Nichole then has her own incestuous tryst in a barn with her father.
(2) The Day of the Accident. Billy Ansel is again following the school bus in his SUV up a hilly incline. He watches in horror, as the bus slides off the icy road and ultimately sinks into the water.

(3) The Immediately Following Days. Mitchell Stephens arrives in town and interviews the involved families, seeking to represent them in the litigation. The Walkers, the Ottos, and the Burnells apparently agree to have Stephens represent them, but Billy Ansel angrily refuses and expresses concerns about what the lawsuit will do to the fabric of the community. Mitchell Stephens learns from a telephone conversation with his daughter that she is now HIV-positive.

(4) The Depositions at the Community Center Some Days Later. Doloros testifies before opposing lawyers at the local community center as to what she recollects happened on the day of the accident. After Billy Ansel’s unsuccessful attempts to dissuade the Burnells, Nichole also testifies at the community center. After Nichole’s testimony, the case is dropped.

(5) A Plane Trip Two Years Later.
(5a) Mitchell Stephens meets and converses with a childhood friend of his daughter, Zoe, on the plane.
(5b) During their conversation he recounts a harrowing experience he had when trying to save his daughter’s life roughly twenty-five years earlier. This story-within-a-story is effectively another, earlier time period.
(5c) After landing, Stephens is surprised to see Doloros Driscoll (they make brief, ambiguous eye contact) and to observe that she is now happily operating an airport shuttle service.
Pieces from these six time sequences are presented in the film completely out of chronological order. David Herman has analyzed in detail this narrative sequence in his book, Story Logic [1], but it is at least worth considering here just how fragmented this syuzhet (the depicted plot) is. Here, derived from Herman’s account, is a sequence of scenes, identified only from the five time periods listed above as they appear in the film:
(5b) - (1b) - (3) - (1b) - (3) - (5a) - (2) - (3) - (1a) - (3) - (1a) - (5a) - (3) - (5a) - (1d) - (1c) - (1d) - (1c) - (1e) - (1d) - (1f) - (2) - (3) - (2) - (3) - (2) - (2) - (5b) - (5a) - (5b) - (5a) - (3) - (2) - (3) - (3) - (3) - (5a) - (3) - (5b) - (3) - (4) - (4) - (4) - (5c) - (4) - (4) - (1d)
Throughout the many time shifts, the viewer sees the drastically contrasting moods and attitudes of the principal characters before and after the accident. Consequently, as this temporally disordered sequence of scenes appears on the screen, the viewer needs to continually adjust his or her frame of reference with respect to those characters, and at the same time build up a mental model of who they are and what caused the tragic accident. The principal characters from whose viewpoints the scenes are presented, have their own specific perspectives that are colored by their own experiences and contextual backgrounds. For example
  • The lawyer, Mitchell Stephens, is an objectivist who wants to believe that the world is rationally understandable in terms of mechanical causes. For him everything has a cause, and if the causes of bad consequences can be avoided, the future is controllable. On the plane two years after the accident, he recounts to Zoe’s friend the time that he had to rush his baby daughter to the hospital after she had been bitten by a black widow spider. He was faced at that moment with the likelihood of having to perform an emergency tracheotomy, a medical procedure he knew nothing about, by cutting into his daughter’s neck with a penknife. This was the most traumatic moment of his life, because in the mechanical universe that founded his understanding, the causal responsibility for her fate came down to him – and he didn’t know if he possibly could do it. Similarly, his sense of personal responsibility led him to blame himself for his daughter’s later failures and his inability to rescue her from her self-destructive lifestyle. Nevertheless, he remains committed to his beliefs, and so with the bus-accident parents, he is convinced that he can identify the guilty parties and rescue the world, in a certain sense, from future tragedies of this kind.
  • Risa Walker condemns her lover, Billy Ansel, for giving away his late wife’s old clothes to Nichole, implicitly suggesting that by disrespecting his wife’s memory, he had somehow challenged fate. There is an underlying implication there that their illicit affair, itself, was somehow a cause for celestial punishment. For his part, Billy Ansel does not want the litigation to proceed, publicly citing the potential damage it may have on the tight-knit community of the small town. But he has his own practical reasons for opposing the lawsuit, since he knows that an acrimonious legal case could lead to invasive investigations that could reveal his illicit love affair with Risa.
  • Nichole Burnell is the most fatalistic of the characters and represents a counterpoint to the Stephens’s ultimately optimistic belief in human autonomy. She is also perhaps the ultimate extradiegetic narrative voice of the entire story. She sees herself trapped in narrative threads from which there is no escape, like the children of the Pied Piper.
  1. First of all, she has been seduced by her father into having an incestuous affair with him.
  2. Second, she had found herself sitting in the front seat of the bus on that fateful day helplessly watching the event transpire. So again it appeared that she had been seduced into a relentless narrative that had tragic consequences.
  3. And finally, Mitchell Stephens had seduced the parents into another narrative, this time a potentially lengthy legal nightmare. The third Pied Piper was upon them.
Now a paraplegic and more helpless than ever, Nichole finally carries out an act of defiance at the deposition hearings and essentially kills the lawsuit by blaming the accident on Doloros for speeding on the icy road. Was she lying? Stephens and her father are certain she is, but they have vested interests in not wanting to believe that version of this story.
Interestingly, the Pied Piper metaphor was not in the novel and was inserted by Atom Egoyan. This is a wonderful addition that greatly enhances the storytelling and elevates the tale to the philosophical plane.

What really did happen at the time of the accident? Did a dog, which may have appeared in front of the bus, have something to do with it? Was Doloros actually speeding? Nichole, who always appears to be innocent, could be giving a straightforward account, or she could be lying. And if she was lying, was it to take revenge, save the town from further disruption, or was some other more esoteric form of gameplay at work?

In the final analysis, The Sweet Hereafter calls into question our ability to live in objective narratives. It suggests that the narratives which explain our own worlds and to which we are captive are inevitably dependent on our local interactions and histories. When Mitchell Stephens tells to Zoe’s friend his experience twenty-five years earlier, trying to save his daughter’s life, he is once again reliving that narrative. He ends his story where it ends for him: that critical moment of fear and helplessness. But Zoe’s friend is vicariously living in a different, more conventional narrative: she wants to know what happened to Zoe. Stephens, responds absently, nothing – they had made it to the hospital without the need of the tracheotomy and Zoe had survived. For Zoe’s friend the story was about Zoe and what happened to her. But for Stephens, the story was as much about himself and his crisis of fear.

We all live inside our local, perhaps communal, narratives, and they may not mesh with how others see the world. Nichole steps outside of her diegetic role at the end of the film and addresses Mitchell Stephens directly in voiceover as he eyes Doloros two years after the tragic events:
"As you see her, two years later, I wonder if you realize something, I wonder if you understand that all of us, Doloros, me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t, that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules, special laws, a town of people living in the sweet hereafter."
The final shot of the film returns to Nichole after she has finished reading the Pied Piper poem to Billy Ansel’s twins the night before the accident. She is seen from behind, walking down a hallway and standing before a dark window, behind which a bright light suddenly, mysteriously flashes up. That unexpected flash of light signals something ominous, but what? The light flash and Nichole’s resignation in the face of it leave us, as it would leave Mitchell Stephens, unsettled. And we reflect upon it long afterwards.

  1. Herman, David, Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative, (2002) University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska USA.