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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 parallels continue.

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.


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