“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible”—Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s movies offer some of the most watchable moments in film history. Hitchcock seduces the viewer with beautifully crafted scenes, sharply constructed dialogue and dynamic camera work. His plots are always elegant, suspenseful and intelligent.
What is often noted in his work is the use of the MacGuffin. In film, the MacGuffin is an object or reference presented to the audience at the beginning of a movie, usually in thrillers, to drive the plot and pique the curiosity of the viewer (it’s also, interestingly, an encryption algorithm). As a plot device, the MacGuffin can be meaningful or meaningless. To me the overlooked MacGuffin in Hitch’s movies is his use of color as a tool for narration.
Color is the Bomb
A great description of Hitchcockian suspense is the Bomb Theory. If a filmmaker has a scene filled with people milling around talking its pretty boring right? If that filmmaker takes the same scene and cuts to a ticking bomb in the same room you have a boring scene transformed into a suspenseful one. Color is the bomb in North by Northwest.
North by Northwest’s production designer Robert Boyle created a palette grounded in tone-on-tone shades of cool gray or beige which dominate in moments of calm and punches of primary color used in clothing, props and sets to indicate danger or safety.
Lets take a look at a few instances.
The color base for the film’s interiors are either gray on gray or beige on brown.
Photos from upper left to right: A great example of the beige tone on tone set design in the would-be Roger Thornhill’s hotel room; Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the train shows a combination of gray and beige; the gray tone is repeated in the cornfield scene; and, the Chicago hotel room is the most beautifully subtle of the gray on gray color themes.
Red is the color that tells the viewer that something dangerous is about to happen.
Photos from upper left to right: Red appears in the cab as Roger Thornhill heads to a meeting where he is kidnapped; note the splash of red in the bookbinding behind Cary Grant’s head just before he is to be murdered; Roger Thornhill is pursued leaving the train and is disguised in a red baggage man’s hat; a woman in a red sweater appears in the cafeteria at Mt. Rushmore where Roger Thornhill is to be shot.
In North by Northwest, green is the color that represents escape or safety.
Photos from upper left to right: Hitchcock, in his cameo, is seen getting on a green bus during the screen credits; Roger Thornhill and his mother leave the jail where Roger has just been released in a green cab; the truck that ends up being Roger Thornhill’s escape from the crop duster is green; the prop ambulance that carries Roger Thornhill away is also green.
Interestingly, Cary Grant’s costume remains the same throughout the movie until the end when he changes his clothes in the hospital. Eva-Marie Saint’s character Eve Kendall has an ever-changing color palette to signify which role she is playing as a double agent.
Photos from upper left to right: When Eve Kendall is helping Roger Thornhill, she wears white; when Eve is playing both sides of her double agent duties, she wears tone-on-tone gray; when Eve is in the most danger she wears not red, but dark orange; in the final scene of the movie, as Roger’s wife, Eve wears white once again.