The Climax of North by Northwest
Precariously traversing the Mt. Rushmore National Monument with two henchmen in close pursuit is an exciting enough climax on its own. Add to that a frantic and feverish score composed by Bernard Herrmann and you have one of the most enthralling cinematic nail biters ever filmed. In the final minutes of his 1959 adventure story North by Northwest, director Alfred Hitchcock manages to masterfully utilise a number of visual and aural techniques to bring the audience right to the edge of their seats.
Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, glances to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again. He’s looking scared, tense and worn down, and Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint) is clinging desperately to his arm. Each turn of his head is accompanied by a cut to what his eyes are looking at, allowing the audience to feel his desperation and to explore his lack of options. Visually it is asking the audience a question, the same question that is running through Roger Thornhill’s head, how do I get out of here? Looking petrified he darts to the left, female in tow, but is quickly deterred as a long shot reveals a distant yet approaching henchman. In the sky the sun has nearly set and is casting long shadows across the faces of the national monument, giving the rocky exterior a cold and unforgiving feel. The camera tracks with Thornhill and Kendall as they crawl cautiously across a narrow ledge; Mt. Rushmore is clearly recognisable in the background, reinforcing the unique location. Hitchcock cross-cuts once more, now to a medium shot of the nearby henchman as he inches closer still to our hero and heroine. This shot leaves the audience without an accurate sense of the distance between the characters. By distorting space in this way an element of mystery is conjured, forcing the audience to wonder just how far behind the henchman really is. As the tension continues to build an increasing number of long shots are brought into play, each one is effectively isolating the characters against the vast bleakness of Mt. Rushmore. This visual isolation becomes a direct reflection on the present situation and is used to convey to the audience that there is little hope of escape for the romantic couple. The pursuing henchman seems almost incognito in the distance as his grey suit blends in perfectly against the exterior surface. His dull and unenergetic clothes are a strong contrast to the bright white and orange coloured clothes of the main characters. This costuming choice seems to suggest that both Thornhill and Kendall are desperately out of place, while the henchman is working with a home ground advantage. The mise en scène, the cinematography, the music and the narrative are all creating a situation in which the odds are stacked heavily against our heroes.
A sequence of such grandiose nature as the climax of North by Northwest wouldn’t be complete without dynamic use of genre conventions. There are many instances of this throughout the film that help to enhance the thriller and adventure aspects of the story. The most prominent genre convention in this sequence comes just as Rodger Thornhill appears to be reaching safer ground. The music slows and becomes deeper; unmistakably foreshadowing a looming disaster. As the camera pulls back in time with the music it reveals the imminent danger waiting above. Thornhill is unknowingly walking right below a perched henchman that is waiting for him, ready to strike. This revealing shot is an effective way to clue the audience in on information that isn’t presently available to the characters. In this instance it creates a heightened level of suspense for a short moment of time by making the audience feel both anxious for Thornhill and frightened of having to witness the attack. At the same time it leaves the viewer totally powerless to help him. This creates a direct audience involvement in the plight of the characters. Alternatively Hitchcock could have used a simpler scare tactic, where the henchman would have just jumped from off screen to attack Thornhill, aiming to shock the audience with surprise. By choosing to use a revealing shot instead it makes the payoff much more significant, as the build up has been more involved and drawn out. As the music reaches its quietest point, Eve Kendall breaks out with a terrifying scream the instant she spots the henchman, who is already jumping down to tackle Thornhill. The two men tumble perilously across Mt. Rushmore, Herrmann’s score resounding heavily, resembling a slow, strong heartbeat. A drum rolls in the score as Thornhill fights against the henchman, barely managing to resist his knife and eject him off the side of the monument. We see the henchman becoming smaller and smaller as he falls to a distant death below. Off screen the sound of a woman screaming is heard, immediately the connection is made that Kendall is in danger.
Hitchcock is now ready to take his finishing sequence and lift it to the next level of suspense and thrill. He does this through the use of a high angle shot that would nearly paralyse anyone with a phobia of heights. Eve Kendall plays the damsel in distress as she is nearly thrown right off the cliff and is left clinging for dear life to only a few jagged rocks. As the audience looks down from above on Kendall as she cries for help the woods that lurk far below become frighteningly prominent. This extreme high angle shot distorts the vertical dimension, creating emphasis and exaggerating the distance to the ground. Visually this is representing how Eve Kendall feels, inside her head a fear of falling is running rampant. A long shot shows us a side on view of the emergency as Rodger Thornhill reaches strenuously towards Kendall’s wavering hands. In this shot the dark night sky meets with the rough exterior of Mt. Rushmore, diminishing the characters and leaving them at the mercy of the immense force of nature. Cut now to a close up of two hands desperately trying to make contact, then another cut to Thornhill’s other hand straining to hold his weight. The implications are clear that she is just out of his reach and that time is running out. For just a second a third close up hits the screen, this time of it’s Kendall’s feet as her footing falls from below her. This split second editing is dramatic enough to cause the audience to skip a heart beat just before Thornhill is able to swoop down to grab her. Now the stakes are higher with both their lives relying on just the one hand to keep them from falling. Thornhill desperately begins to call for help, but the only person nearby is the henchman. A long shot shows the henchman as he debates with himself what to do. As he steps forward towards our heroes the camera pushes in towards his feet. Steadily the music starts to build as the henchman’s foot comes down onto Thornhill’s hand, threatening to break his grip. The close up on this action is emphasising its importance and manipulates the audience into respecting the gravity of this life or death situation.
Suddenly a gunshot is heard from off screen. It’s unexpected and unexplained as the audience isn’t aware of any other characters nearby. The close up still rests on the henchman’s foot but now it appears to be going limp; he begins to topple over and quickly plummets to his fate, Herrmann’s score whistling as he falls. Hitchcock reveals the gunman through a cut to a police officer standing atop Mt. Rushmore, accompanied by the villain who has already been arrested. It’s not over yet though, there’s still time for one last dramatic moment. For this last hurrah an assortment of both visual and aural techniques are used to convey meaning and transport the narrative smoothly and effectively. It starts simply with a series of cross-cuts between Thornhill and Kendall, each one is accompanied by a line of dialogue. The close ups of their faces show them both straining to get out of their dilemma, and each cut is pushing the camera closer and closer, creating the illusion that Eve Kendall is gradually being lifted to safety. Hitchcock now employs the use of a match-cut to alleviate his characters from danger and at the same time avoid the need to explain the finer details of their rescue. This is important because it allows the conclusion to flow much smoother and not be bogged down on particulars that would dampen the romantic mood of Thornhill saving his damsel in distress. The match-cut itself is done on the image of Kendall being lifted up; however the setting radically changes between cuts. Originally they were outside, clinging to the Mt. Rushmore monument for dear life, this is a strong contrast to the security and comfort of the train bedroom suite they find themselves in after the cut. To alleviate the disconcerting nature of distorting time in this fashion, a sound bridge is used to push the audience forward in time. Just as the cut is taking place, Thornhill refers to Kendall as ‘Mrs. Thornhill’; this is an obvious indication that at some point between these two moments in time the characters have been married. Using expository dialogue in this fashion is a quick way to progress the narrative without the need for a montage or a much longer scene. Economically, it is a neat and clever way to wrap up the story and assure the audience that the characters have been delivered safely from danger. However, there is one last shot left, a subtle and cheeky Hitchcock signature. It is an exterior shot showing the Thornhill’s train steaming ahead into a tunnel. By way of innuendo this is implying that the newly weds will soon be making love. The original 1959 audience may have had to think twice about the symbolism involved in this final shot.