1. Even at the level of the dialogue, this film is playing with the idea that two Hollywood stars are flirting with each other (e.g. the line, "I look vaguely familiar.") How does our pre-existing knowledge of these stars function to create meaning in this scene.
EVEN THOUGH CARY GRANT is playing a role--"Roger O. Thornhill"--in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitchcock--and Grant--are not letting anyone forget that he is still Cary Grant. Right off the bat, he's wearing "movie star" sunglasses, ostensibly because his character is on the run from thugs who have mistaken him for someone else and from police who think he stabbed a man to death inside the United Nations building.
But the sunglasses also give Hitchcock a chance to remind the audience, "This is Cary Grant, folks!"
Grant's line--"I look vaguely familiar"--is another wink at the audience who already feel they know him from his previous starring roles: GUNGA DIN (1939); HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940); THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940); Hitchcock's SUSPICION (1941); ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944); Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946); Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF (1955); AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957)--to name only a few.
Eva Marie Saint ("Eve Kendall") five years earlier had won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her powerful screen debut, Elia Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT (1954); and she was a well-known face from many dramatic roles on 1950s live television. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, her fans were getting to see her as a big-time, glamorous and quite sexy movie star.
Here, in big-screen VistaVision, Hitchcock is playing off the audience's familiarity with these two stars whose on-screen chemistry sizzles like bacon in a skillet.
2. There is minimal action in this scene, so any deviation from the overall pattern of focusing on the faces of the two leads will have increased significance. In that sense, discuss how Hitchcock uses the R.O.T. matchbook as an important piece of acting business (or as a prop) in this scene.
MOVIES ARE MOVIES, in part, because, well, because they move. It's not for nothing that the very word a director says to begin filming a scene is "Action!"
However, there are times when no "action" is necessary. This scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of those times. The repartee between Roger and Eve is so intimate, so risqué, so sexy--certainly for 1959--that we hang on to every word. The only "action" is the blurred landscape we see through their dining car window as the train moves across the country.
The only time the two actors are not on screen--either in reaction shots or 2-shots with the scenery whizzing by--is when Grant pulls out his matches and Hitchcock takes a tight-shot cutaway on the matchbook.
That matchbook provides two functions. First, its monogram--"R O T" for "Roger O. Thornhill"-- provides comic relief when Grant gives us one of his patented Cary Grant line-readings--"That's my trademark...ROT!" as only Cary Grant could. It's another wink at the audience as Grant seems to imply, "I've been around in movies so long, I'm going to rot!"
Or--and I am merely speculating here--could the "O" in "Roger's" monogram be yet another dig at David O. Selznick? Despite their collaboration on the Oscar-winning REBECCA, etc., their professional collaboration had ended after sparks had flown between them due to their wholly different approaches to filmmaking.
Selznick had reportedly added the "O" to distinguish himself from an uncle of the same name. We've already seen how, five years earlier in REAR WINDOW, Hitchcock cast Raymond Burr as the villain "Thorwald" because he could so easily be made to look like Selznick. So, while in REAR WINDOW he made Selznick the villain, in NORTH BY NORTHWEST he perhaps took another swipe by having Cary Grant say that the "O" stands for..."nothing."
The matchbook as prop also gives our two stars their only chance to actually touch in this scene. The matchbook business occurs right after Roger suavely accepts Eve's proposition that they spend the night together. Grant tears off a match, strikes it and holds it to the tip of her cigarette. She gently cups his hand. Once the cigarette is lit and he starts to take his hand away, she seductively pulls it back and gently, seductively, blows out the match. As he takes his hand away, she gives him a smoldering look that speaks volumes.
As we've seen in many of Hitchcock's earlier films, it's obvious he loved train travel, setting many scenes aboard trains. And it is true: there's nothing more romantic than train travel.
3. How is Hitchcock using sound design in this scene? Consider music and other background sounds in your answer.
FOR MOST OF THE CLIP, the music we hear underneath is the music piped in to the dining car--unobtrusive, easy listening dinner music underpinning the intimate conversation of two people who have just met and are getting to know each other. The other sound, of course, is the train's clickety-clacking on the tracks. This sound coupled with the dinner music creates a cozy atmosphere just right for intimate conversation.
Once the sexual proposition has been made--and accepted--when Roger pulls out the matchbook, the piped-in dinner music switches to Bernard Herrmann's wistfully romantic love theme.
While their conversation is undoubtedly sexy and revealing, in one way their dialog is not even necessary. One can watch this scene with the sound off and the looks Grant and Saint swap "say" everything, transmitting to the viewer the overwhelming attraction Roger and Eve have for each other. In fact, with or without sound, the viewer can almost get the sensation of having watched two people actually have sex.
Pardon the cliché, but they really don't make movies like this any more.