Hitchcock: not a librarian, then.

Consider these two superficially similar chat-up scenes from Hitchcock films. In both, the man eats while the woman doesn’t. In both, the woman’s character name is “Eve”. In both, the man thinks he’s in charge in the situation and that the woman is someone he just casually met. And in both, the meeting was in fact engineered without his knowledge: the woman is playing an ulterior game.

In Stage Fright (1950) by Alma Reville and Whitfield Cook, the remarkable Jane Wyman is trying to find out what policeman Michael Wilding knows about a murder so that she can clear her boyfriend suspect (and from this scene we know who she’ll really end up with). In North By Northwest (1959) by Ernest Lehman, Eva Marie Saint is the FBI’s agent inside an espionage gang, and appears to be helping Cary Grant (a suspect in a murder) escape the police so that she can hand him over to the gang and clear herself (and from this scene we know who she’ll really end up with).

Stage By Northfright on Youtube.

Now, most critics would say North is by far the greater movie, although Stage has a lot going for it too (Alastair Sim in a Hitchcock, for chrissake). Either way, it’s undeniable that the first meeting between the lovers is better in Stage than in North. Lehman is a fine writer, but in this scene he was out-penned, and I thought it’d be instructive to see why. For starters, the script here in North is clunky, and has dated, and relies on the actors’ reaction shots more than what they’re saying – for example (at 8:44):

Saint: It’s going to be a long night.

Grant: True.

Saint: And I don’t particularly like the book that I’ve started.

Grant: Ah.

Saint: You know what I mean?

Grant: Ah, let me think. (Long pause – then, as the romantic music cuts in:) Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

The two leads in North are playing the parts of sophisticates – they’ve been around the block, and they know the rules of singles conversations. You get the feeling that it’s a game both have played many times, and, frankly, both are a little bored with. At one point (7:45), Saint says she never makes love on an empty stomach, half a second before the meal arrives; that’s dubbed to “I never discuss love”, putatively to please the censors, but perhaps because the original was so cringeworthy. In Stage, the two leads are more innocent. They have no idea where the conversation is leading – it’s not exactly that they’re unaware of the romantic and sexual undercurrent, it’s just that the fun is in the conversation, not the possible outcome. Grant and Saint know exactly where their conversation is leading, and they can’t wait to get these boring formalities over with so that they can get into bed. All this makes the chemistry stronger and more interesting in Stage. Grant and Saint in North are fine actors, but really nobody could make leaden lines like theirs sparkle. Stage is also the more meta film – an actor playing an actor playing a non-actor – which is all done naturally, not in a so-clever way.

But I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter. The real difference between the two scenes is structural. In both films, the woman has already played a significant part in the story. Wyman, of course, is the lead in hers, and Saint is the undercover FBI agent in James Mason’s spy ring. Because we’ve been following Wyman, and we know she plans to introduce herself to the detective to find out what he knows, we understand her problem at the start when she arrives at the pub door: how to meet him without arousing his suspicions. Then (at 0:22 in my clip), we see she appears to feel faint. We’re momentarily confused, and then we have an insight into her mind: we realise she is going to playact faint in order to introduce herself to Wilding. Wyman does this brilliantly, of course, but the real genius is in the writing, not her acting – her character’s determination, courage, and interest in deceiving people by pretending to be someone she isn’t (aka “acting”) had all been set up beforehand. In North, many of these things apply to Saint as well – but the difference is that the audience don’t know that. She is playing all the same tricks on Grant that Wyman is playing on Wilding, but we just see them as padding, a love interest because all films of the time had to have that. Lehman isn’t at fault here; or rather he is, for deciding on the overall structure of the film; but, having decided that, there probably just isn’t any way he could make that scene work. I don’t want to get this out of proportion: there are plenty of other scenes in North that do work brilliantly because of the structure, and scenes in Stage that don’t work because of its structure. My point is simply that you can’t ignore big structure when thinking about little scenes.

By the way – I love that little self-satisfied wiggle of her shoulders that Wyman gives when she lands Wilding and he goes off to bring his lunch to her table (at 2:39). According to recollections of people who have worked with him, Hitch is not an actors’ director, so things like this might well be Wyman’s own invention. Yet again, it gives the viewer a tiny window into her character’s mind. This is a writer’s blog, but actors too can learn much by studying quality like this.

By the way 2 – what is an industrial designer (8:15)? Is there such a job? Wyman’s job (actress) is essential to her character and the plot; Saint’s job seems to be there just to show us she’s not an airhead. Lehman really let us down with that scene.


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