North By Northwest and the Two Kinds of Mystery

I finally got around to watching North By Northwest after picking up a Hitchcock boxed set. As everyone says, every aspect of the film shone through as a towering example of the craft of filmmaking. There is, however, one storytelling element that got me thinking about how a good thriller is put together.

It seems that every thriller has two different varieties of mystery: mystery behind the nature of a character or occurrence, and mystery behind how a certain situation will play out. For instance, the identity of a shadowy figure would be an example of the former, as the audience is unaware of who they are. A scene in which a protagonist is trying to rescue someone would have the latter form of mystery, as the audience is unaware of whether they’ll manage to pull it off and, if so, how they’ll do it. North By Northwest excels at providing seemingly limitless volumes of the first kind of mystery. As soon as we discover why Thornhill was kidnapped, we’re invited to consider Kendall’s motives and position in the story. Every “nature” mystery is replaced with a new one until the story finally culminates at Rushmore, when all of these mysteries are finally resolved together. Repeatedly refreshing this kind of mystery ensures that there’s always something for viewers to figure out, that we’re not just caught up in how events will play out.

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