Fragment #10: David Campany on Acting and Posing in North by Northwest

How does the dialectic of stillness and movement impact upon the representation of the human body? Let us consider ‘posing’ and ‘acting’ as two distinct modes of bodily performance. We might associate acting with unfolding or ‘time-based’ media like cinema or theatre. Posing may suggest the stillness of photography or painting. Of course, plenty of examples complicate this. Think of scenes of arrest such as the tableau vivant in theatre, cinema’s close-ups of faces in stilled contemplation, blurred gestures caught but escaping a long exposure, or narrative scenes acted out for the still photograph. Such things are too common to be exceptions.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s entire performance is a series of balletic swoops and pirouettes strung between archly frozen poses. He is on screen almost the whole time and his inter- mittent halts provide the suspense in the hurtling story of mistaken identity. Early in the film he stoops to aid a man who has been knifed in the back. Stunned, Grant puts his hand on the weapon and becomes easy prey for the incriminating flash of a press photographer. We see the resulting image on the cover of a newspaper: his indecision has framed him decisively. He flees in panic, setting the plot in motion.
Grant’s performance is a slick and knowing commentary on the very nature of screen presence. Each pose is a wink to the audience that he is toying with his own identity and celebrity. Fans knew Grant began life as plain Archibald Leach, a circus tumbler from Bristol. In the film he plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for the non-existent spy George Caplan. Grant holds his poses for longer than is strictly necessary, long enough for the story to fall away momentarily and allow the audience to stare at a man with four names. At one point Grant breaks in through a hospital window. A woman in bed yells ‘Stop!’, first in shock, then with a comic swoon. What if your movie heart-throb really did spring to life from a frame on your bedroom wall? Grant’s technique, much like Hitchcock’s, is extravagant but it differs from convention only by degree. Hollywood performances, especially in thrillers and dramas, criss-cross between filmic character and the excesses of star persona, between acting and posing.
From David Campany, Photography and Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2008)

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