Cinematic Storytelling: North By Northwest

I finished my first presentation on cinematic storytelling for advanced screenwriting last thursday. One of our assignments for class is to choose eight films we feel present a strong sense of cinematic storytelling, on top of our feature film assignment where we write a beat sheet, present a film pitch and a 30 page spec script! Lots of work.

The first film I chose is Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” which is my favorite Hitchcock film of all time. This was the film my father rented after I told him I wanted to pursue my dreams as a filmmaker back in the sixth grade for career day. The first thing he told me was “well, you gotta brush up on your Hitchcock then.” So this film really introduced me into a whole new level of cinema, and every time I pop on the DVD, I’m still enthralled.

The classic scene, and one of my favorite actors, Cary Grant. Grant plays ad exec Roger Thornhill who gets mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan. A simple story indeed. The simplicity of the story really proves Spielberg’s theory that films can only tell “simple stories well.”

Jennifer, our professor, kept reminding us basic truths about cinema. Movies are fables. They’re not novels. Movies can’t be looked at literally. They’re metaphoric.  It’s difficult to digest at first, but I see where cinephiles are coming from now. Filmmakers make the rules that will play out what we see onscreen.

Filmmakers need to ask the why. Jennifer said that all the other things young filmmakers focus on, like who made it, what awards did it win, who was in it, etc, isn’t important. It’s the use of technique and tools itself that filmmakers should always look out for. For example, Orson Welles non-stop opening sequence track shot in “A Touch of Evil” is cool and looks cool and is consider to be one of the best openings of a movie ever. But why did he use that shot? (In my opinion it is obviously to juxtapose the following sequences, with it’s quick cuts, handhelds, etc. If you’ve seen the film, I think you know what I mean.)The best filmmakers use the tools that best advances the story. Here’s my handout that I showed the class last week.


Here’s an example of Hitchcock using the tools (in this case, camera angles and direction) to advance the story. Thornhill arrives at the U.N. building (1, 2) and the camera is at the same level as Thornhill. A big booming man, he exits the taxi, confident, ready to set things straight. (Shot 2 was a guerrilla shot by the way because Hitchcock didn’t get approval to shoot at the U.N., so he shot it across the street). He meets with the U.N. official and shows him a piece of information that might prove his true identity (3). The moment he opens the paper for the U.N. official to see, the official gasps (4) much to Thornhill’s surprise. As the camera pulls back, it’s revealed that the U.N. official has been stabbed (5) and onlookers are now concluding that Thornhill is the killer. The camera continues to pull back as crowds hover “over” Thornhill. By the time Thornhill exits the building (6) he has been reduced to the size of an ant, no longer a man with his powerful identity. Now just a nameless little human being.

There are so many other great sequences in this film. This particular sequence is so strong because the direction is so clear. Each shot advances the story. And it’s clear “why” Hitchcock chose those shots and blocked his actors the way he did. He has to constantly reduce Thornhill’s identity.

Anyway. If you haven’t seen this film, go see it! It’s definitely the film that “The Fugitive”, “Paycheck”and the “Bourne” films stem from.

This is definitely one of my favorite films of all time.

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