Hitchcock’s 1959 classic was ahead of its time in many ways, but the tense few moments in which suave ad executive Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is terrorised by a murderous crop-dusting pilot is the film’s biggest triumph. It is also one of the most emulated action sequences in Hollywood history. It’s been parodied by everything from The Simpsons to Metallica.
The scene begins when Thornhill, a New Yorker caught up in a life-threatening case of mistaken identity, arrives at an isolated rendezvous point in rural Indiana to meet the man for whom he has been mistaken. He steps off the bus and on to a gritty, lonesome highway surrounded on both sides by farmland. It is not a place where many sophisticated businessmen would choose to spend their afternoons, but there is beauty in such bleakness, as Hitchcock and his longtime cinematographer Robert Burks were only too aware.
A slow establishing shot of the area emphasises Thornhill’s vulnerability in such unfamiliar surroundings. This is crucial because, up until this moment, Thornhill has managed to charm, bribe or bluster his way out of whatever danger is about to befall him. In this scene, Hitchcock, the masochist, is at pains to make his character appear as helpless and exposed as possible. The twinkle in his eye and crisp notes in his wallet are not going to help him weasel his way out. Thornhill is dressed in a well-tailored suit, waiting alone on the side of the road. He is disorientated and completely defenceless. Not that the latter seems to worry him too much initially – this is a man who has so far evaded kidnap, arrest and several murder attempts.
As Thornhill weighs up the situation, vehicles zoom noisily past him, throwing up thick clouds of arid dust in their wake, while the buzzing crop-duster can clearly be heard in the distance. There’s a sense of foreboding, but nothing much actually happens until a car pulls up and a suited man gets out. The plane continues to buzz while, nearby, corn stalks shiver in the wind. Hitchcock uses these eerie sound effects to ratchet up the tension a notch. He wants the audience to know that Thornhill is in imminent danger, but from what? Will he be attacked by the mysterious stranger? Picked out by a hidden sniper? Mowed down in a hit-and-run?
In true Hitchcock style, the stranger turns out to be a red herring – he departs as quickly as he arrives, but not before uttering the immortal line: “That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
This is the point where a less restrained director would have let all hell break loose, but not Hitchcock. His finger’s on the trigger but he’s not ready to pull it. Neither Thornhill nor the audience are still quite sure how to feel about the plane, which is getting closer and noisier all the time, and is clearly not doing what it’s supposed to be, but where’s the threat? Only when it flies menacingly towards Thornhill and swoops low enough to slice his head clean off his shoulders does the danger become apparent.
Hitchcock and the film’s screenwriter Ernest Lehman could so easily have let this scene descend into Looney Tunes territory. A nameless, faceless pilot raining bullets and pesticides on his bewildered victim as he cowers in a cornfield sounds absurd to say the least, yet it’s played entirely straight. Grant, in one of the most memorable performances of his career, quite literally throws himself into the action. He has little dialogue throughout the scene and no supporting cast members to back him up, but is utterly skilful at making the audience feel every ounce of fear and blind panic that his character feels as he ducks, dives and runs for his life.
North By Northwest’s expert pacing, intriguing characters and outlandish plot are often cited as the reason for its enduring popularity. The crop-duster scene cheerfully took all of these elements and combined them with masterful editing to create a truly unforgettable action sequence and a wonderful piece of cinema.