From the 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, and featuring Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau. (North by NorthWest IMDB)
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The image above of the crop dusting plane chasing down Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest remains one of the most iconic in all of moviedom. That this is so more than 50 years after its theatrical release only goes to show the visionary power and mastery of craft that Alfred Hitchcock brought to film making. (You can see a 4:23 long sequence at YouTube; but they do not allow embedding)

Sometime ago, I went to an exhibit at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Chicago. It was filled with original notes, drawings, and other artifacts from Hitchcock’s work. I was reminded of this when thumbing through my copy of “Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film” by Will Schmenner and Corinne Granof, which accompanied that show.

The film is a classic take on mistaken identity, with Grant playing a New York advertising executive mistaken for a government agent by foreign spies. The famous Crop Dusting sequence discussed up top is where we learn how far the spies are willing to go to get rid of Grant, but we also see that he has more survival skills than they bargained for.

The book is a Cinephile’s delight, filled with all manner of delightful insider info to how Hitchcock actually made movies.

One of my favorite pieces of Hitchcock lore from the book is below: It is the Cinematographer’s camera angles for the the crop dusting sequence. All 61 bullet points (below) represent a specific camera angle, a specific shot, as detailed below:

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CONTINUITY FOR CORP DUSTING SEQUENCE, SCENE 115,

1. High Shot – Bus arriving – Man out.
2. Lonely figure (Sketch 3)
(Shot Monday, Slate 211)
3. Waist Shot – Thornhill looks about him in four directions.
a. Process plate for all Thornhill’s Close Ups.
4. a. P.O.V.
Through wide fence onto plowed field.
(Shot Mondaym Slate 203X
b. P.O.V.
Empty road from where bus came
(Shot Monday, slate 201)
c. P.O.V.
Wast Brush
(Shot Monday, Slate 202X)
d. P.O.V.
Corn Field
(Shot Monday, Slate 204X)
e. P.O.V.
Empty road ahead
(Shot Monday, Slate 210X)
5. Closer Shot – Thornhill glaces at west with satisfaction and then looks up road expectantly.
6. Car (Mercury) coming down road left to right. Whips by. Whip Shot
(Shot Monday, Slate 208)
7. Semi Close Up. Thornhill’s head whips around. He turns back and looks up road. – Nothing. His expression changes as he hears a car and turns back in the direction of the previous car.
8. Second Whip Shot – Limousine coming along at not too fast a pace.
Again car whips by.
(Shot Monday, Slate 209X)
9. Semi Close Up – Thornhill’s head turns with changing expression from slight apprehension to normal expectancy.
10. P.O.V. As the limousine is well down the road a truck comes. It approache at fast speed and whips by right to left.
11. Wind of rushing truck causes Thornhill to step back a shade. Overlap truck whizzing by. Shoot all alternates with and without dust.
12. Full figure of Thornhill standing lonely once more. There is a chugging sound off – he takes a step forward.
(Shot Monday, slate 216)
a. Closer shot of Thornhill as in #12.
13. P.O.V. Green sedan is turning around from corn field.
(Shot Monday, Slate 213)
14. Waist Shot – Thornhill as he watches green sedan and reacts to action in #15.
15. P.O.V. Sedan comes to stop, man gets out. Wife inside, turns car. Man is left standing alone as sedan goes away.
INTERCUT THIS WITH THORNHILL WATCHING ALL THIS.
(Shot Monday, Slate 213)
16. Semi Long Shot two men isolated. One, one side of the road opposite the other.
(Shot Monday, Slate 213)
17. Semi Close Up – Thornhill looking across at man. He dusts himself off.
18. Semi Long Shot – The man from Thornhill’s P.O.V. He looks back to Thornhill.
(Shot Monday, Slate 213)
19. Mendum Shot – Thornhill come to decision. He crosses the road diagonally.
Camera panning with him until the man comes into picture right of screen –
21 for dialogue scene.
a. Bus approaching to intercut dialogue scene #19.
(Shot on Monday, Slate 215)
20. P.O.V. of Airplane.
21. Back to shot of two men (Waist). Bus pulls up to stop. Farmer gets on bus which pulls away. Thornhill left looking off at crop duster plane.
22. The crop duster is making turn on left-hand side of screen.
23. Waist shot – Thornhill watching it.
24. Plane coming nearer, and nearer, and nearer to camera.
25. Reverse – Thornhill viewing with alarm.
26. Objective Shot – STUDIO-Plane diving down on Thornhill, who ducks to ground.
NOTE: PLANE REQUIRED FOR THIS SHOT, LOOKS OFF
27. Plane rising away from its dive and going away from us.
28. Fulll Figure – Thornhill rises to his feet – looks after the plane and looks about him desperately wondering where he can go. He is suddenly rooted as he sees.
29. P.O.V. Now coming towards him in line with the farmer’s road.
30. Medium Shot – Thornhill, thoroughly alarmed dives off into ditch, camera panning him. He crouches down as plane is making a dive.
31. STUDIO SHOT – Plane makes a dive over Close UP Thornhill in ditch.
Wheels go through rop of picture. Thornhill watching.
32. P.O.V. Plane going away again.
33. Medium Shot – Thornhill gets out of ditch and runs toward an approaching car. He tries to stop (by Robertson sign) but car goes on.
34. Close Shot – Thornhill looking after departing car. He looks off and sees …………………….. .
35. P.O.V. Plane turning and coming down above road apposite farmer’s road.
36. Waist shot – Shooting over Thornhill’s shoulder – plane is approaching him. Thournhill turns and runs toward camera. Camera tracks back. We now have a picture of Thornhill running with occasional frantic glances over his shoulder as the plane approaches him. The plane gains on Thornhill and dives close to him as he drops to ground out of picture.
37. STUDIO SHOT – Thornhill drops onto side road as the wheels again go above him. Bullets hit the road between Thornhill and camera.
(Process plate required)
38. Alternate – See sketch 39 for alternate shot taken on as Thornhill funs under passing wheel. (Process plate required)
39. Close Shot – Thornhill rising in road. He looks off and sees ……… .
40. Long Shot – Corn as Sketch 41
41. Medum Shot – Shooting East Northeast. Thornhillm after looking at corn field, rises and dusts off,. Plane to right in the background in beginning to make a right to left sweep in a forward turn. (Wing over)
42. Closer shot. Waist hight – Starting with stationary camera. Dolly profile shot of Thornhill running with 203 glances over his shoulder left to right. After short run of camera, camera stops and Thornhill runs out of picture.
43. P.o.v. Dolly Shot – Camera moving backwards as though Thornhill seeing plane beginning to make a turn to come towards Thornhill.
(Shot with 50 m.m. and 35 m.m lenses)
44. Thornhill dives from left to scene full figure and dives onto ground
(Back field)
45. Flash – Skimming shot of leaves moving as Thornhill dives into the corn and weaves short way through it. The shimmering stops and the corn stays still.
46. Medium Shot – Thornhill lying doggo without any movement in the corn.
47. Objective Shot – Long shot the plane diving towards the corn and turning away.
48. Close Shot Thornhill – A dolly of set in his face but still lying doggo.
49. Long Shot – corn tabbed in the corner of the picture. The plane turns and now comes toward camera again. This time it starts to exclude dust. It swerves toward camera secluding dust.
50. STUDIO SHOT (Sky backing) – Close shot Thornhill – Roar of plane overhead. Thornhill’s expression changes as asphyxiating dust falls all around him. He begins to cough and sneeze, etc. Camera dollies into close up shot. He needs air. He rises out of corn, takes a deep breath and goes off.
51. Long Shot – From corn field view point. In far distance is double gasoline truck with ocrn in foreground.
52. Close up Thornhill dives out of picture, camera left ( Studio Shot)
53. Double for Thornhill – Long Shot – Shooting towards the highway. The flying fall of Thornhill diving toward the highway and in the distant truck approaching.
54. Flash – Sky Shot – The plane circling after the corn dusting failure.
This should be shot at a reasonable distance away.
55. Semi Long Shot – Thornhill diving onto the roadway, braces himself against the advancing truck which is only a short distance from him.
He watches it frantically at the same time looking desperately off screen to the right.
56. Flash – The plane coming down the highway after Thornhill.
57. Medium Shot – The frantically waving arms of Thornhill.
58. The truck advancing on him as it swerves with a screech of brakes.
59. Thornhill (Double) losing his nerve, tries to dive away and slips between the wheels of the truck.
60. Flash – Low Shot of the plane scooping down with the big wheel in the foreground, coming to a screech and the plane dives at the same moment.
75 m.m lenses
61. Miniature Impact

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Artwork, Cinematographers notes from Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film by Will Schmenner and Corinne Granof.

Category: Film, Weekend

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2 Responses to “Sequencing the North by NorthWest Crop Dusting Scene”

  1. beaufou says:

    Nowadays, they would make a whole movie out of this sequence, ever noticed how much music and slow action has taken over content?

  2. NDD says:

    Appropos of your post today, notice that none or at least very few of the camera angles in the movie are straightforward. For example in the photo on your blog, the plane is not directly behind Cary Grant, but is depicted from a slight angle — north by northwest, as it were. Hitchcock’s cinematography usually was part of his moviemaking story, and in the case of “North by Northwest”, almost all of the camera angles are slightly “off.”

    As “North by Northwest” is also an homage to “Hamlet”, note that, just as in Hamlet, all of the characters are very smart and are very sure of themselves. And yet all of their schemes – and they scheme in almost every scene – go awry.