Saturday, September 22, 2007
  Hitchcock #2: Traveling <--NxNW--> toward Saul Bass
©2007 Jean Fogle

Jean Fogle designed this "Vintage Hitchcock" poster (13" x 18") for a month-long Alfred Hitchcock film series at the Orson Welles Cinema (Cambridge, Massachusetts) in May-June 1973.

The title of Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown (1997), with Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan, is a tipoff re Mostow's approach to filming a suspense thriller, since it immediately recalls "Breakdown," directed in 1955 by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) as the seventh episode of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Mostow's movie could have been pitched as "Alfred Hitchcock goes south by southwest," a notion that brings to mind the various anecdotes, legends, lore and inside references associated with Hitchcock's North by Northwest. One poster for the 1959 movie proclaimed, "Only Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock ever gave you so much suspense in so many directions."

The basic mistaken-identity premise of North by Northwest, a non-existent person believed to be a secret agent, came from New York journalist Otis L. Guernsey Jr. (1918-2001). Serving as the New York Herald Tribune's drama critic from 1941 to 1960, Guernsey co-scripted William Castle's 13 Frightened Girls (1963) and edited 36 volumes of the Best Plays annuals. Guernsey's idea came from a real-life WWII incident when secretaries at a British embassy in the Middle East devised a mythical agent for fun and then tricked Germans into searching for him. Guernsey used that as a springboard to write a 60-page treatment about an American traveling salesman who is in the Middle East when he is mistaken for a fictitious agent. Hitchcock bought Guernsey's treatment for $10,000 and reworked it with scripter Ernest Lehman.

Hitchcock once described North by Northwest as "one big joke," and such humor may even have extended to the casting: Jessie Royce Landis and Cary Grant play mother and son in the film -- yet Grant (born 18 January 1904) was ten months older than Landis (born 25 November 1904). The story gets underway when sinister spies kidnap suave advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Grant), believing he is U.S. undercover agent George Kaplan. In truth, Kaplan is an agency "decoy" who doesn't exist. A real-life George Kaplan who does exist is the actor-writer George Kaplan, apparently an adult film pseudonym. Kaplan is the screenwriter of the 1997 spy spoof, South by Southeast, aka George Kaplan's South by Southeast and A Little to the Left.

After the spies attempt to kill Thornhill in a drunk-driving accident, he winds up in a police station where he refuses to pay a fine. When his mother, Clara Thornhill (Landis), tells her son to "Pay the two dollars," this is a reference, as Lehman has noted, to the vaudeville sketch made famous by Willie Howard (1886-1949). Screenwriter William K. Wells (1884-1956) wrote Howard's comedy routine about an escalating situation that gets worse and worse. The sketch has certain parallels to Lehman's plotline for North by Northwest. After Willie spits in the subway, his inept lawyer insists on fighting a two-dollar fine, and they wind up in court where Willie keeps demanding, "Pay the two dollars!" as the lawyer gets him into more and more trouble. Eventually, Willie gets a death sentence. Victor Moore and Edward Arnold revived the sketch for the film Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

There are even musical references hidden in Bernard Herrmann's score for North by Northwest. When Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) hangs from the cliff and Leonard (Martin Landau) falls, Herrmann uses his Vertigo (1958) music, quoting from the scene when Jimmy Stewart looks down the stairs. Herrmann's kidnap motif quotes from earlier Herrmann scores for films with kidnapping scenes -- Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Inside jokes abound amid Lehman's witty dialogue exchanges. In one scripted line, Eve says, "We're just strangers on a train." When Eve asks Thornhill what his inital "O" stands for and he answers, "Nothing," it's a hidden reference to David O. Selznick, who added a middle initial to his name to avoid confusion with an uncle also named David Selznick. Kendall and Thornhill spend the night on the train in room 3901, an allusion to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). When Thornhill asks Eve about the statue with microfilm, he says, "Did you get the pumpkin?" This is a reference to the so-called 1948 "Pumpkin Papers" of writer-editor Whittaker Chambers (1901-1961), who had translated Bambi into English in 1927. After accusing attorney Alger Hiss (1904-1996) of communism, Chambers led House Un-American Activities Committee investigators to a pumpkin patch on his Maryland farm. Several microfilm rolls were found there, hidden inside a pumpkin, an incident used by Richard Nixon to advance his political career -- and obviously the type of intrigue certain to fascinate Hitchcock.

After Thornhill and Eve Kendall leave Manhattan on the 20th Century Limited, the train moves alongside the Hudson River where landscapes and buildings are seen through the window of the dining car. In a short New York Times (January 20, 1996) piece, "Editorial Notebook: Bannerman's Folly: A Hudson Island, Haunted by Goblins," journalist Susanna Rodell opened with this lead paragraph: "For a few seconds in the movie North by Northwest, at the beginning of the epic train journey, a strange scene flashes past outside the window: an island with a brooding, vaguely Scottish-looking castle on it. Riders bound north on Amtrak or Metro-North's Hudson Line today can see the same sight if they venture north of Cold Spring. A thousand feet out into the Hudson sits Bannerman's Island, with its strange ruins, looking like something out of a 19th-century engraving."

Certainly Hitchcock would have been fascinated by this Scottish castle in the middle of the Hudson River, yet one of the curiosities of the film is whether or not Bannerman's Island is actually seen in North by Northwest, as Rodell claims. Some viewers of the film say they have seen it, while others fail to spot it. Although one can Google thousands of pages with trivia related to Hitchcock, there is no mention anywhere on the Internet of the scene described by Rodell. Photographer Thomas Rinaldi, who visited Bannerman's Island to take photos for his book Hudson Valley Ruins, told me that there is no image of the island in North by Northwest. I asked the illustrator Richard Bassford, who lives near Bannerman's Island, to see if he could see the castle in the film, but he never spotted it. I watched the landscape through the windows of the entire train trip twice and never saw it. The island was featured on a 1954 New York Central train brochure, and currently one can see Shaun O'Boyle's magnificent, haunting photos of Bannerman's.
©2007 Shaun O'Boyle
For many years, Hitchcock buffs talked about how even the title North by Northwest was a Hitchcock jape, since it refers to a direction that does not exist. However, when I asked some of them to explain just what that meant, they had no answer. Hitchcock himself, they stated defensively, had once said it, so it must be true. A few feebly offered up a quote from Hamlet: "I am but mad -- north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." In the book Retakes, John Eastman seemed baffled when he wrote: "Its title, based on a line from Hamlet, remained obscure..." Meanwhile, someone online asked, "NNW is a well known abbreviation. What does it mean if not north by northwest?" Responses were vague or evasive whenever questions about this arose. Soon I became curious and wanted some solid explanations.

When I began researching the facts behind the North by Northwest title, I quickly discovered that most writing on Hitchcock does not even mention the title's source. However, a Jeopardy staffer informed me that this same question had once been researched for Jeopardy. She said that after extensive fact-checking the Jeopardy staff had concluded that "north by northwest" is not a legitimate direction.

I found a fairly elaborate probe into the matter by film historian Tim Dirks at the beginning of his lengthy North by Northwest analysis: "The title of the film is an anomaly and a clue to the absurd, confused plot in which no one is what he/she appears to be -- there is no sharply delineated N by NW on a compass -- it is an improbable direction. Apparently, it refers in part to the directionless, surrealistic search of the befuddled hero/common man around the country for a fictional character... The archetypal hero only finds a resolution to his disorientation and troubles by traveling from New York to Chicago by train and then flying north by Northwest (Airlines) to South Dakota and Mount Rushmore, a northwesterly trajectory. The allusion to traveling 'North' by Northwest (Airlines) seems to be the most probable explanation for the film's title."

Hitchcock's statement that north by northwest was not a true direction was made during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich. When Bogdanovich commented that North by Northwest was the "final word on the chase film." Hitchcock responded, "It is. It's the American The 39 Steps -- I'd thought about it for a long time. It's a fantasy. The whole thing is epitomized in the title; there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass." Opening a dictionary, I found no entry for "north by northwest," even though dictionaries usually list the following:

north by eastnortheast
northeast by eastnortheast by north
northwestnorthwest by north
northwest by westnorthwesterly

As one travels clockwise on a compass, the points past "west" are "north by west," "north-northwest," and "northwest by north" -- confirming the Hitchcock quote. The abbreviation "NNW" stands for "north-northwest," not "north by northwest." A search at Britannica.com brought results for "north," "northwest" and "north-northwest," but "north by northwest" phrases appeared only in the Encyclopedia's articles on Hitchcock.

So what was the history of this title? It all began when Hitchcock and Lehman teamed for plot sessions. For Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock) Lehman recalled, "We moved over to his Paramount office, where he was getting ready to make Vertigo, and we talked every day, and I made notes. And we talked and talked, and all I seemed to come up with was that the film was going to start in New York City, and there'd be something happening at the United Nations, and then the film would move in a northwesterly direction to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and then maybe keep going on to Alaska."

That premise led them to call their project In a Northwesterly Direction. The Mount Rushmore sequence prompted another working title, The Man in Lincoln's Nose, sometimes given as The Man on Lincoln's Nose. Those titles were discarded after songwriter Sammy Cahn walked into Lehman's office one day and began singing "The Man in Lincoln's Nose," which Cahn had written as a love song. Forty years later, Pat Hitchcock co-produced a film titled The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000) about art director/designer Robert Boyle, who was responsible for the brilliant production design of North by Northwest.

Another working title was Breathless, which was used a year later as the American title of Jean-Luc Godard's A bout de souffle (1960). The studio script department proposed the title It's Good to Be Alive, inspired by a sentence from Thornhill's dialogue: "I never felt more alive." Finally, MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna (1899-1962) offered a suggestion, indicating how the awkward In a Northwesterly Direction could be reworked and shortened into a title with more impact -- North by Northwest. There was a plan to eventually replace MacKenna's title, but it stayed as the project moved into pre-production. In Hitch, John Russell Taylor dismisses the Hamlet reference with the flat statement that "any allusion to Hamlet's madness was entirely accidental" in the final decisions on the movie's title.

The film has other northwesterly references: In Chicago, Thornhill travels north on Michigan Avenue and then west to the airport, and as Dirks notes, he also travels north by Northwest Airlines. A similar pattern happens in the Manhattan scenes when Thornhill heads north on Madison Avenue and then turns west on 60th Street. Right after the UN sequence, a newspaper is shown full screen, and one of the smaller stories on the front page is headed, "4 Flee Blaze in Northwest."

Even the elegant opening titles by designer Saul Bass (1920-1996) seem to be in on the joke, as a pattern of lines first appear to be latitude/longitude positions, hinting at some elaborate geographical enigma. Credit names appear as if emerging from banks of elevators, while vertical and diagonal animated lines snake across the screen to form a grid and then transform into the perspective lines of a Manhattan skyscraper (on Madison Avenue, according to Lehman), reflecting traffic below. The Bass logo for the title has two arrows attached to the words North by Northwest; one arrow points north and the other points west. Another version of the logo has a single arrow attached to reverse italics so that it is aimed in a northwesterly direction. In 2006 Turner Classic Movies used Bass' angled grid as the design of the TCM forthcoming programming interstitials.

London-based John Cayley described it like this: "In Bass’ masterpiece of titling, for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the titles are dynamically displayed on a rectangular surface perspectivally presented at an oblique angle to the camera. This resolves to the surface of a glass-fronted building, where the credits are still successively ranged, but now inscribed on a surface that is photo-naturalized and, illusionistically, a part of the filmic real world. The letters and words do also exhibit some Concrete-style behavior (they rise and fall like elevators seen through the building’s glass), but this is less important and less striking than the interaction they establish between language and natural-world surface-in-space."

North by Northwest was released at a time that Saul Bass had revolutionized both posters and opening film titles during the late 1950s by introducing storytelling elements. As Bass put it, "My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film's story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it."

Martin Scorsese concurred, "His titles are not simply imaginative identification tags. When his work comes on the screen, the movie itself truly begins." Born in the Bronx, Bass won a scholarship to the Art Students' League in 1936, beginning work in 1938 as an assistant in the art department of Warner Brothers' New York office. He moved to the Blaine Thompson ad agency in 1944. At Brooklyn College his studies with famed Hungarian graphic designer Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) gave Bass a direction and were a major influence on his later design concepts for Hollywood. Moving to LA in 1946, Bass was an art director at the Buchanan and Co. ad agency before opening his own studio in 1952. When Bass did the poster for Carmen Jones (1954), Otto Preminger (1906-1986) was impressed and asked him to also design the film's titles. Bass was hooked, and the newly named Saul Bass & Associates did titles for five 1955 releases – The Racers, The Seven Year Itch, The Shrike and The Big Knife. Eventually, Bass did over a dozen posters and title sequences for Preminger but only three for Hitchcock.

His memorable titles for Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm attracted much attention in the mid-1950s, and decades later, the New York Times described Bass as "the minimalist auteur who put a jagged arm in motion in 1955 and created an entire film genre... and elevated it into an art." The design of the animated sequence that opened The Man with the Golden Arm was repeated on posters and the entire ad campaign, including the album art for the Elmer Bernstein soundtrack LP. That LP later became a collector's item when Frank Sinatra demanded that his name be removed from the record jacket because he was not heard singing on the record.

Joining Bass as an assistant in 1956 was Elaine Makatura (who later married her boss in 1962). The Bass studio did titles in 1956 for Trapeze, Storm Center, Johnny Concho, Attack and Around the World in 80 Days, followed by four in 1957 -- Edge of the City, The Young Stranger, The Pride and the Passion and Preminger's Saint Joan. In 1958, while working with architects Buff, Straub and Hensman on the design of his Altadena house, he designed titles for Cowboy, The Big Country and Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. Also that year his association with Hitchcock began with Vertigo. After North by Northwest and Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder in 1959 were titles for five 1960 films -- Ocean's Eleven, Spartacus, The Facts of Life, Preminger's Exodus and Hitchcock's Psycho.

What is the best Bass? More than a few feel it is the predatory cat prowling alleyways to the accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein in Walk on the Wild Side (1962). Bernstein recalled, "Walk on the Wild Side was a second in a series of jazz scores that I wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. The setting for the film was the Southern underworld, which had a particular effect on the kind of music I wrote. Because one thinks of the South as the home of the blues I decided to base the main theme of the score on a kind of rolling blues theme. Probably the most interesting story about the creation of that theme involves the main title of the film. One day the producer of the film invited the artist Saul Bass and me to come to, what seemed to us, a rather grand home in Beverly Hills. He then started to spin us a story for the images he wanted at the beginning of the film. He started to tell us a story of the good cat and the bad cat and a fight that they get into, and the good cat recovers and walks off. Saul Bass and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes and thought 'a typical silly producer idea.' In any case, Saul went home and started to shoot film with his own cats. He showed it to me, and I then wrote the theme to which the main title was eventually shot."

For Psycho, Bass had an additional credit as "Pictorial Consultant," indicating his close association and involvement on that film, his last for Hitchcock. The credit is for his storyboards, but is it also for more than that? Years later, a story circulated that Bass had directed the film's shower sequence. That rumor eventually expanded and became a matter of debate among film buffs, as indicated by a quote from Leslie Halliwell (The Filmgoer's Companion): "It is widely believed that Bass directed the shower sequence in Psycho, although this has never been confirmed."

Film critic Raymond Durgnat (1932-2002) is the author of The Strange Life of Alfred Hitchcock, or The Plain Man's Hitchcock (MIT, 1974) and A Long Hard Look at Psycho (BFI Film Classics, 2002), published posthumously. In A Long Hard Look at Psycho, Durgnat wrote, "Nonetheless, in experienced opinion, the shower scene was Hitchcock's directorial creation; and after all it was he, not the 'illustrative sketches', who controlled the timing and the rhythm, the dramatic modulations, the quality of light and all the other 'indefinables' that transform a 'grammar' into a 'poetic'."

Durgnat's critical study followed other several other books analyzing the film -- Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (December,1990) and Richard Anobile's Psycho: The Film Classics Library (Avon/Flare/Darien House, 1974), designed by Alex Soma to feature 1300 frame blow-ups. In 1992, the Innovative Corporation (Wheeling, West Virginia) published a three-issue graphic novel adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the Comic Book, by Felipe Echevarria, Matt Thompson and Vickie Williams.
Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh.
In semi-retirement during the 1980s, Janet Leigh did occasional TV roles and turned to writing, beginning with her autobiography, There Really Was a Hollywood (Doubleday, 1984). In addition to her two novels, House of Destiny (Mira, 1995) and The Dream Factory (Mira, 2002), she also collaborated with Christopher Nickens on Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (Harmony, 1995), writing that she was on the set all seven days while Hitchcock directed the shower sequence. She stated that all rumors about Saul Bass directing the scene were incorrect, and she supported her memory of the event with quotes from crewmembers who were present.

There's no dispute that Saul Bass storyboarded the different camera angles employed in that scene or that Hitchcock directed the scene beginning 18 December 1959. Leigh commented, "The planning of the shower sequence was left up to Saul Bass, and Hitchcock followed his storyboard precisely." However, what generally goes unmentioned is the fact that Bass, eight days earlier, took a newsreel camera and shot a shower scene to plan the shots in more detail. Obviously, he had Hitchcock's go-ahead to do this, since he used Janet Leigh's stand-in. Also, he did this after hours... which means that many associated with the production were unaware that shower footage was filmed and edited prior to 12/18/59.

In quotes given by Rebello, one can see Bass mentioned his newsreel camera footage several times. People quoted re the Bass "authorship" controversy state what Bass did not do, but not a single one ever mentions the scene Bass did direct. This strongly suggests they didn't know about it.

There are more than a few apocryphal Tinseltown tales, as noted by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper in his book Hollywood Urban Legends (New Page, 2001). In this case, one wonders about the origin of the fishy tale about Bass, which began to snowball some 15 years after Psycho was released. Shortly after Bass directed Phase Four (1974), he was in London to promote that film and did an interview with a London Sunday Times journalist who used the phrase "and wound up directing that too." It's possible the journalist did not hear Bass correctly or did not grasp what he was being told. Years later, Bass said that the London Sunday Times article was "totally inaccurate."

Some wisely never mention work credited to others, since reactions are predictable. Orson Welles, for instance, once was a ghostwriter for a mystery or pulp writer, but even when pressured, Welles would not reveal the name, never going further than hinting that it was an author for Black Mask. Welles knew that to do so would ultimately be misinterpreted and somehow be turned against him with accusations that he was attempting to claim authorship of someone else's stories.

The Bass controversy appears to be a peculiar misunderstanding, gaining strength over time. Bass spoke in a clipped, elliptical manner, and a journalist talking to Bass could easily have been confused. Rebello's book could have provided a final clarification of the matter, but the rumor persisted to become one of the great urban legends of the cinema.
© 2007 Bhob Stewart

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Whew! An excellent article.

Something else worth pointing out: the MGM logo in the opening of North by Northwest is in green, a color signaling danger for Hitchcock.
I agree, an excellent article!
I just recently re-watched my NBNW video - I am going to watch it again.
Great piece, Bhob.

I always thought that Roger O. Thornhill's initials provided a clue: one of the definitions for "rot" is "nonsense."

Thanks. Articles like this -- broad-ranging explorations, really -- are making your blog one of the best sites on the web. Go, Bhob!
As far as the reference to Hamlet goes, Stanley Cavell has looked at the connection quite extensively in an essay in which he connects NBNW to the Ur-text of Hamlet. He draws a very interesting comparison between both works and the nature of acting--playacting if you will.
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