The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest is not only one of the most memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work (second only to the shower sequence in Psycho); it is arguably one of the most iconic sequences in all of American film. Even people who have not seen the film recognize the image of Cary Grant sprinting across a dusty field with the plane closing in from behind.What is it that makes this scene so memorable? It is edited in a fairly typical way, with many short, quick cuts. But more about that in a minute. First, lets let Hitchcock himself set the scene, explaining why he chose this particular setting to shoot the scene:
Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger. Somebody is going to come along and bump him off. Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable. Now I decide to do something quite different…therefore, I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.
This sequence is 9 minutes and 45 seconds long, and contains 133 editorial cuts, which means the average shot length is only 4.4 seconds. Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini often employed long takes, but that was not appropriate for this sequence as we shall see. (It is worth noting that Tomasini edited nine films for Alfred Hitchcock, including the classics Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. Tomasini edited 23 feature films in total, inexplicably never winning an Academy Award, before his life was cut short prematurely at the age of 55 by a massive heart attack. His only Oscar nomination was for this movie, North by Northwest.)
This sequence opens with a dissolve, from a close-up of Eva Marie Saint’s concerned face, to an overhead shot of a desolate, empty field, flat to the horizon. A bus approaches and discharges one person, then continues on its way.
This opening establishing shot lasts about 56 seconds. Here is Hitchcock again:
“Now we get him off the bus and we stand him, a little tiny figure, showing, establishing very clearly the complete wasteland everywhere…the mind of the audience says ‘Well. This is a strange place to put a man.’ Now we go down and we go close on him, and this is where the design comes in.”
Now Hitchcock begins a series of shots that establish a POV style of shooting and editing. First, we see Cary Grant looking at something, as in the above shot.
Next, we see what Cary Grant sees, from his point of view. The next shot returns to Cary Grant.
This pattern of cutting from Cary Grant looking, to a point-of-view shot, back to him reacting to what he sees, continues for the first 34 shots, which take just over two and a half minutes. This puts the viewer in Cary Grants place. We have seen what he sees. And the bright, flat expanse fills us with dread. Every passing car could be a potential killer. Hitchcock continues to ratchet up the tension. He explains:
“Motion picture mood is often thought of as almost exclusively a matter of lighting, dark lighting. It isn’t. Mood is apprehension. That’s what you’ve got in that crop duster scene...he looks around him and cars go by. So now we start a train of thought in the audience. ‘Ah, he’s going to be shot at from a car.’ And even deliberately, with tongue in cheek, I let a black limousine go by…Now, the car. We’ve dispensed with the menace of possible cars or automobiles.”
“Now a jalopy comes from another direction, stops across the roadway, deposits a man, the jalopy turns and goes back. Now he’s left alone with the man. this is the second phase of the design. Is this going to be the man? Well, they stand looking at each other across the roadway.”
This is a fantastic shot composition, breaking the back and forth between Cary Grant and his point of view. This is the 49th shot of the sequence, occurring about three and a half minutes in.
Here is Hitchcock again:
“Grant, our hero, decides to investigate, and casually walks across and talks to the man.”
Up to this point in the sequence, the camera has remained static. But now, as Grant walks across the road to the man in the brown suit, the camera tracks towards him, again in the form of a point of view shot. The tension continues to escalate.
When Grant first addresses the man (played by veteran character actor Malcolm Atterbury, who appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows) the sequence has gone on for 4 minutes and 10 seconds with no music and no dialogue. But it feels like much less time, because of the manner in which the sequence has been edited together. When is the last time you saw a movie that had no dialogue or music for over 4 minutes? Let’s hear from Hitchcock again:
“…obviously nothing is going to emerge from this man…Now the local bus comes and just as it pulls up – and this is a matter of timing – just before it gets to the stop, the man says to Grant ‘That’s funny.’ And Grant says ‘What’s funny?’ He says ‘That plane’s dusting crops where there are no crops.’ Before this can be gone into in any way at all he’s on the bus and gone. So now you’ve got the third phase. The audience says ‘Ah, the airplane.'”
Again the sequence returns to the earlier format of showing Cary Grant, showing us what he sees from his point of view, then showing us Grant again as he reacts to what he sees, which in this case is the crop duster plane running him down and shooting at him. Up to this point in the sequence, everything has been shot on location. In the movie, it is an Indiana highway, but in reality the sequence was shot on California Highway 155, near the town of Delano (north of Bakersfield.)
This is what it looks like today, according to Google Maps. As you can see, it really hasn’t changed much at all. The scene is improved by being shot on location. There is no question that you are really seeing Cary Grant, running at full speed, sweat on his brow, his tailored suit getting dusty and his tie flapping over his shoulder. There are a few inserts though that were shot in the studio. These occur when Cary Grant dives to the ground and the plane passes, and shoots at him. The first of these is the 73rd shot of the sequence.
So this is a process shot, filmed back at MGM studios. There is a screen behind Cary Grant, projecting footage of the plane passing.
You can see how this was achieved in this rare behind-the-scenes photo taken during filming at MGM. Watching this sequence on blu ray, these basic process shots hold up very well. One of the keys to this is again in the quick cutting. The cutting between the studio shots and the location shots is fluid and seamless. The back-and-forth cutting between Cary and his point of view continues, but now the shot length is getting shorter; many of the shots now are averaging less than 3 seconds in length. He ends up in a field of dried cornhusks, and again the close-ups of Cary in the corn were shot in the studio.
“There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield. Now, you do in the design a very important thing. You smoke him out with the very instrument that you’re using, a crop duster. Theory being, don’t have a crop duster without your using it, otherwise you could have any airplane…It must be used according to its function. All backgrounds must function.”
After Cary Grant gets smoked out of the corn he runs towards the road, and there is a shot of him from behind, running. This shot breaks the point of view pattern that has been established up to this point. Grant runs into the road and tries to flag down a truck. Again we return to the previous pattern, cutting from Grant waving his hands, to the truck getting closer and closer, until the truck is right on the camera, and the viewer.
The truck stops, almost running Grant over in the process, and the plane, out of control, crashes into the truck. There is a quick sequence here of the plane striking the truck and bursting into flames which appears to be a model shot. These two model shots last literally less than a second, almost subliminal, and then Hitchcock cuts back to location, and the full-size plane already engulfed in flames. Again this section works because of the rapid and seamless cutting.
As soon as the plane crashes, a Bernard Herrmann musical cue begins. This is the first music to appear in almost nine minutes of screen time. The sequence ends with Cary Grant stealing the pick-up truck of an onlooker, and finishes as it began with another dissolve, this time to the abandoned truck on the streets of Chicago.
So what Alfred Hitchcock (and George Tomasini) have managed to do in this sequence is build tension and menace first and foremost by confounding the viewers’ expectations, putting us in a bright, shiny place where nobody could hide; then shifting our focus from one element to another. This was accomplished using almost no dialogue and even less music, all through the brilliant and seamless editing. Let’s let the master have the final word:
“Oh, well a cut is nothing. One cut of film is like a piece of mosaic. To me, pure film, pure cinema is pieces of film assembled. Any individual piece is nothing. But a combination of them creates an idea.”