Thrillerology Page #:
6. The Final Secret of Alfred Hitchcock
Here at last is the big reveal:
It happens that my all-time favorite suspense film is Alfred
Hitchcock's 1959 North By Northwest. Guess what? Around 1959, Hitch was
turning sixty years old and having a midlife crisis. So he turns to a leading Hollywood screenwriter named Ernest Lehman, and says (we can surmise from the known facts)
"Hey, Ernie—I want to be young again and make a thriller like I used to
make as a struggling youth. Can you help me out?"
"Sure," Ernie says, "glad to oblige. Any ideas?"
"Oh, I dunno," says Hitch, "why don't you
begin by sifting through my old screenplays and see what you can find?"
So Ernest Lehman goes off and does just that. The resulting
screenplay and world-class thriller movie in 1959 was North By Northwest.
But wait, I'll prove it. Look at the ten-part structure.
As the movie opens, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is framed
for a crime he didn't commit, and goes on the run for his life from both the
authorities and the criminals. That’s exactly how Richard Hannay’s story
unfolds in John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The McGuffin in Hitch’s movie is a stolen microfilm
containing U.S. government secrets, which the Soviet agents want to smuggle out
of the country. In Buchan’s story, it’s a mystery about someone, something, or
somewhere involving thirty-nine steps; and of course a Berlin plot to undermine
London’s empire on home turf.
Thornhill takes a train, on which is his love interest Eve
Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who also happens to be a spy. Or is she? Actually,
she is a double agent working for the good guys.
After several chapters or parts in North by Northwest
(think chapters two through five in Buchan's novel), the sixth segment or
chapter is one of the most famous scenes in movie history. This is the
aeroplane (1915) and Hitchcock's gyrocopter (1935, The 39 Steps) equivalent. In the 1959 scene,
Thornhill is chased through a Kansas cornfield by a crop duster airplane. The
airplane (i.e., aeroplane; gyroplane) trope, and the frame-up in the first
part, are two dead giveaways that Lehman borrowed the structure from the 1935
screenplay (based on the 1915 novel) to write a new plot for the 1959 film. The
Still on the run, Thornhill is so desperate that he tries to
get himself arrested by acting goofy at an art auction attended by the bad
guys. When he is arrested, the next incident is a reprise of the mysterious
professor in the cabin (Buchan's chapter seven). Joseph Campbell (The Hero's Journey, etc) would call this the appearance of the Wise Elder who offers guidance and changes the hero's path on the journey.
In section seven, there is
once again a total turn-around or flip. I nicknamed it my Cosmo Topper Reveal
while I was developing Valley of Seven Castles, because in the 1959
film, the professor turns out to be Professor (Unnamed, literally), an FBI or
CIA chief. Leo G. Carroll, who played the Professor in North By Northwest,
later played Cosmo Topper in a famous TV comedy series called Topper,
involving two ghosts (George and Marian).
So—in this Cosmo Topper segment in North By Northwest,
Thornhill like Hannay flips from outsider to insider. Once again, we have a
clear congruency with Buchan's 1915 novel and Hitchcock's 1935 film.
By 1959, however, the lead character has a real love
interest. Cary Grant plays the lover in his inimitable style that is at once
endearing, goofy, engaging, and smart. The penultimate scene on Mount Rushmore is another of film history's most dramatic and famous. The ultimate scene,in which the train rushes into a tunnel, is the kind of erotic innuendo
inserted during an age of extreme censorship, signifying that Thornhill and
Kendall chugged their way to HEA-ven with whistles screeching and steam flying
by. Train inserted into the tunnel… phallic… into…? We get it.
So there you have it. I don't know that anyone has ever
really picked these three works apart and seen their congruencies. I based the
structure of Valley of Seven Castles closely and deliberately on this
episodic structure, but with a strong love story between equally strong male
and female leads (Richard Buchan and Hannah Smith).
* * * *
As in the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity, where Matt
Damon’s and Franka Potente’s characters work together, so also in Valley of
Seven Castles, I have two leads operating separately at first, who come
together in the second chapter. WARNING: Spoilers.
Remember that my novel is set in a frightening near future. Female
hero Hannah is a BAN, a contractual slave owned by a Chinese billionaire. She
has been raped and abused, and ultimately betrayed. She signed up as a BAN
(Butlers And Nannies, a marketing term for what amounts to sexual and inhumane
battery in the horrible new corporate medieval world of our global near future)...
…In Shanghai, Hannah meets Mélusine (Mélu) Poncelet, who
rescues her from some gang members. Mélu tells her about a secret technology
(IFS) that Wan has stolen while murdering Pierre Sander in London. Not long
after, in Paris, Hannah sees the opportunity to escape from Wan—and takes the
IFS (McGuffin) with her. Now she is on the run, wanted by Wan's gangsters, and
by the authorities on trumped up charges. I had no intention of making the
Chinese into tomorrow’s bad guys; far from it; so I inserted a good-guy Chinese
agent named Shen who works with Professor Hilaire Sander and his PAX resistance
against global oligarchs like Wan.
The male hero of my novel, Rick Buchan, is on the run as
well. He is a young U.S. Army sergeant, accused of a crime he did not commit
while in a combat zone in the Middle East. He is severely shell-shocked (PTSD
we call it today), and needs rescuing—which the courageous Hannah will do. They
will rescue each other from their terrible pasts, and emerge stronger both as
individuals and as a couple.
Rick and Hannah meet in a Bagnolet, Paris bar called The
39th Step (okay, obvious, but fun). From there, they flee across France and into Luxembourg on a mission to get the IFS package (the McGuffin in this story) into the
hands of Pierre Sander's father, Professor Hilaire Sander.
As in the three previously mentioned thrillers, Rick and
Hannah undergo a series of episodic adventures leading up to (of course) their
separation at the Wolf Gorge in Luxembourg—so now Rick is not only dealing with
this military problem back in Germany, but with the IFS package that must not
fall into the wrong hands, plus he is searching for his lost Hannah.
Notes: (a) I added a chapter (Shanghai Ramble) at the beginning,
so the sixth chapter became the seventh—but the structure remains true to
Buchan's model; (b) to avoid misunderstanding: I didn't just numbly trudge
along with his model; I followed it vigorously, with relish and joy, because it
was there to be emulated, ars gratia artis.
In Chapter Seven (#6 in Buchan), he is assailed on a
northern Luxembourg meadow by several ultra-modern stealth drones (whose eerie,
spooky attacks remind me as much of the hooded alien spaceships in Tom Cruise's
2005 War of the Worlds movie as anything else). That's my version of the
aeroplane-gyrocopter-crop duster; now we add the killer drones.
In Chapter Eight (#7 in Buchan), Rick does the Cosmo Topper
flip and becomes an insider. He is still desperately searching for Hannah, the
love of his life. From there we cruise on to a climax in the Valley of Seven
Castles, with a secondary climax in the Petrusse Valley in downtown Luxembourg that is actually a war of drones…and HEA. What more could we ask?
So that is the secret of the Valley of Seven Castles:
a plot structure from The Thirty-Nine Steps—hatched 101 years earlier by
an English writer on the eve of World War I, developed into the film The 39
Steps by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, revisited later in life by a still
vigorous Hitchcock in his 1959 North By Northwest, and discovered by me
to form the plot skeleton of my 2016 Valley of Seven Castles, a Luxembourg
Thriller that kicks off the Progressive Thriller Series.
By total coincidence, in 1959 London-based Rank Organization
produced a color remake of 1935 Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, loosely
borrowing John Buchan’s 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, in no way
connected with Los Angeles-based MGM’s North By Northwest.
TOP | MAIN
Copyright © 2017 by Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.