Friday, 17 October 2014

How Spectacle Conveys Narrative

There has always been a delicate relationship between narrative and spectacle on film. Many Hollywood movies struggle to balance a compelling story with special effects to create a spectacle. Some of the earliest films, such as those of Méliès, were made as almost pure spectacle. Later films would prefer to focus on telling a story. Sometimes, as is shown with the famous “biplane scene” in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, the spectacle is used as a driving force for the narrative.

While this scene is clearly meant to be a visual spectacle, it is created in such a way as to stand out in the mind of the viewer because it is an extremely pivotal moment in the story. The scene marks the beginning of several drastic changes, including the general tone of the narrative and in the character of Roger himself. This is set up through the scene’s deviation from the film’s previously established patterns.

This famous scene happens roughly at the mid-point in the film. The build up is simple enough: Roger is led to an isolated crossroads in the middle of open mid-western farmland. He has been told at this location he will be able to meet the man he has been confused with, George Kaplan, whom the audience already knows does not exist.

Instead of finding the agent, he is attacked by an unseen pilot in a biplane. A chase ensues in which Roger desperately tries to evade his attackers. The plane attempts to shoot him, run him down, and pour crop-dust all over him. Finally, Thornhill sees a passing gas truck, stands in front, and falls under it as soon as it stops. The plane crashes into the back of the truck and explodes, creating a spectacle of destruction.

This scene is a very famous cinematic moment that no doubt served as an influence on later action films such as Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet. Even the helicopter chase scene in From Russia With Love clearly took a few cues from this iconic sequence. Why is it such a great scene? Why did Alfred Hitchcock make the choices he did when putting this sequence of events together? That's what we will be discussing in this article.

As far as narrative goes, there is only one obvious function filled by this scene—giving Roger a reason to suspect he cannot trust Eve, the woman who sent him to this location. This end could have been accomplished by a much shorter scene. For instance, instead of a plane, Roger could have encountered a man he thinks is Kaplan who ties to kill him. A simple chase scene would have sufficed The scene as it was presented could have ended with Roger simply evading the plane instead of causing it to explode.

Simpler alternatives would have served the same narrative function and advanced the story but not have had the same impact on Roger’s character. Up until this point, Roger has been doing little more than attempting to run away from the villains, hoping to eventually find the man he is being confused for. After this scene, Roger starts to gain control over his situation, pursuing the antagonists himself and setting in motion the events that ultimately allow him to become Kaplan.

As a result, Roger becomes much more daring in the second half of the film. While in the first half, he simply runs away from the villains, the biplane scene marks the point where he realizes he must take more drastic measures to survive such as standing on a road in front of a moving truck and falling under it. The fact that the plane explodes shows how much of a risk he was taking. He could have easily been injured or even killed by the blast.

This scene is just the first of many creative and unusual methods Roger uses to get out of dangerous situations; he no longer simply runs away. The biplane scene marks the point in which Roger decides he is no longer going to tolerate the antagonists pursuing him and instead of simply trying to evade them instead decides to stand up for himself. As the film progresses, Roger goes on to do even more dangerous stunts, culminating in the climactic scene of him and Eve climbing down Mt. Rushmore’s face.

If the biplane scene had ended with him simply evading his attackers instead of outwitting them, Roger’s personality would not have changed from the first half of the film. His later actions would confuse the viewer. If Hitchcock had ended the biplane scene with Roger simply hitching a ride with a passing motorist and getting away from the airplane, he would simply be running away again, instead of taking a stand as is set up by this sequence. This change in character is vital to concluding the narrative. Without this particular scene the shift from an urban mystery to an espionage thriller would have been completely unexplained.

There is a very good reason Hitchcock would have wanted his scene to be a spectacle. Most of the film is extremely chaotic. Even before Thornhill is abducted, people are running around, pushing and shoving each other. One of the few calm moments of the film happens when Roger sneaks onto a train and meets Eve. Because this scene is so calm, it puts the viewer into a false sense of security. It seems as though Roger is safe from any danger. Him being attacked in such an unusual manner compared to earlier in the film is Hitchcock’s way of reminding the viewer that he is in fact still in trouble.

In addition, this scene also marks a very drastic change in tone to the overall narrative. The biplane scene marks a specific change in the tone of the story. The first half sees Roger trying to run from the antagonists, while the middle transitions the viewer into the events set off by this scene. The scene with the biplane marks the beginning of the second half, in which the narrative changes from being a chase film to more closely resembling an espionage thriller. This scene begins the transition and in turn leads directly into the final episode where Roger actually becomes a spy.

Another aspect that is worth noting is the jarring change of environment. The exotic locations used in older Hollywood films have often been used as a source of spectacle, but in this case Hitchcock opts for exactly the opposite. Instead of utilizing an impressive landscape, he chooses mid-western monotonous, flat, open fields . The spectacle is instead in the chase between Roger and the plane itself. The reason Hitchcock does not opt to include a more attractive environment is because he wants the viewers to focus purely on the central action.

Up until this point, the action has been set in populated urban environments. Roger has been pursued on foot through city streets, but here he is alone in the middle of open farmland. There are fewer places to hide, and almost no other people beyond the occasional passing motorist. The choice to use a biplane adds a layer of tension. The confrontation is obviously an unfair fight, thus alerting the viewer that Roger could be killed and creating a great sense of relief when he escapes.

Like the rest of the film, Hitchcock avoids crosscutting between Roger and the pilot chasing him, allowing the sudden arrival of the plane to startle the viewer. However, this remains the only scene in the movie where the antagonists are kept anonymous as they are never clearly visible inside the plane. This scene also marks the only point in the movie where Roger is directly responsible for anyone dying (you could argue that Mr. Townsend might not have had a knife in his back had Roger not tried to talk to him, but even that wasn't entirely his fault). By not allowing him or the audience to see the pilots, it eliminates the emotional repercussions that would otherwise come from him killing one, possibly two people.

North by Northwest has many memorable scenes, but Hitchcock has specifically crafted this particular moment so that it burns itself into the mind of the viewer. This scene is a pivotal moment in the film that marks a drastic shift in narrative tone and the main character’s role in the overall story. By creating this particular scene as a visual spectacle, Hitchcock forces the viewer to recognize these changes as they happen.


  1. Much applause to you, sir. That is an excellent breakdown of an iconic scene. Well done!

    1. Thanks. It was a difficult essay to produce. We had a few scenes to choose from but I thought I came up with some pretty good points about this one.

  2. This was really well -written and you give an excellent assessment of this scene and how the character changes. You are right too!