Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hitchcock: Master of Comedy

We think of Alfred Hitchcock as the master of suspense, but he also was very funny – a very dry BritWit – both on and off the screen.

Hitchcock loved working with the leading men of the day, smudging ever-so-slightly their polished images, just for fun. And always subtly. His humor fit well his directorial preference to show rather than tell what a character was feeling or thinking. 

In his 1959 thriller North By Northwest, Cary Grant’s sophisticated, totally in control Madison Avenue power advertising executive and ladie's man, Roger O. Thornhill, is quickly pounced upon by fate and locked up in one of Hitchcock’s favorite plot devices—the mistaken identity.

Thornhill is listing badly, having been abducted by men who think he’s someone else, forced-drunk, smacked around and set off to be killed behind the wheel of a car. Catching his breath and balance for a moment on a train, he is discovered, then seduced, by the cool, gorgeous and oh-so available Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall.

In the morning, Eve helps Roger give the slip to his predators by dressing him as a train porter.

Hitchcock now has Thornhill abducted and roughed up by men (always a loss of dignity for a man), bedded by Eve (a sexual role reversal for Thorhill), on the run disguised as train porter (a reversal of class roles), and still hunted by unknown predators (a reversal of control). 

How does a director convey a character's state of mind, of which even the character might be unaware. In this case, that Thornhill is not in control of his life and, to him, his masculinity and perhaps sanity?

Here’s how.  

Hitchcock stages a one-minute throw-away scene in which Thornhill decides to wash up and shave before leaving the station in his own clothes. So, we cut to Thornhill in the public Men's Room, lathering up at the sink in front of a big mirror. No dialogue; no score. He stands beside a big bear of a man, who is shaving with a hefty, impressive straight razor. Grant has been lathering up with a tiny, tiny travel shaving brush and begins to shave with a tiny, tiny razor that takes but a slender swipe out of his creamy cheek. The man looks at Thornhill’s … tool … first with surprise and then disdain. Grant, as only Grant could, first catches the man’s glance then reacts to the reality of his own diminutive razor, then does a double-take back at the man, who he sees is questioning Thornhill's very manhood. Thornhill looks back at his own reflected image--which is somewhat comical--and silently, and perhaps not as resolutely, continues his shave.

It's a scene straight out of Chaplin, inserted by the master of suspense to both ease the tension he's created by the chase and convey mood and thought without a musical cue or a word ever being exchanged.






No comments:

Post a Comment