Dissolving the Crime

North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock, MGM, USA, 1959

This sequence actually features one dissolve on top of another. It begins with a remarkable overhead shot from the top of the United Nations building in New York. Far below, the tiny figure of the hero, who’s been framed for the murder of a diplomat, escapes across the plaza. The image dissolves to the nameplate of an unspecified American “Intelligence Agency” (Shot 1), where the hero’s predicament will be discussed—and where, in fact, it has inadvertently been set in motion. As the second image supplants the first (Shot 2), the mirror effect of the nameplate reflects the U.S. Capitol building (suggesting the imposition of the agency’s covert operations on the functions of a democratic government). The second dissolve begins in Shot 3, in which there appears a newspaper headline reconfirming the unintended consequences of the events at the U.N. We now know that, in addition to the metaphorical implications of the images in Shots 1 and 2 (from U.N. to “Intelligence Agency” to Capitol), a precise period of time has elapsed—namely, between the episode in New York and its coverage in the Washington (DC) Evening Star. As the headline becomes clearer (Shot 4), a voiceover begins the conversation that will explain a half hour’s worth of increasingly complex events that we’ve witnessed so far but which, as yet, we haven’t enough information to fully understand.

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