Saturday, September 5, 2009

When Design Was Thrilling

The other night, I introduced to my son North by Northwest, a 1959 Hitchcock’s classic with a “design theme”, and soon we were both entranced.

In mid-century cinema, modern design either served as a symbol of human alienation (Antonioni), or was ridiculed for its awkwardness and sterility (Jacques Tati). In contrast, Hitchcock acknowledged modern design for its spectacular, thrilling potential, not without a certain sinister edge.  A series of dramatic shots of the UN Building in New York City (newly constructed at the time of filming) end up in a murder. A hyper-modern house of the film’s evil protagonist also becomes a scene of deadly confrontation. In this context, it makes sense that the leading lady, a secret service agent, gives her occupation as “an industrial designer”.

Far from offering any commentary on these modernist backgrounds, Hitchcock was simply affected by their fresh visual impact. In this, he prefigured the age of glossy fashion magazines, where contemporary architecture is often used to the same superficial effect – which by now lost any possibility to thrill.