Next week will mark the 40th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's death — from kidney failure, a demise he'd have considered far too banal to feature in one of his films. A year before Janet Leigh was knifed in the Psycho (1960) shower, Cary Grant was put through the wringer of North by Northwest (1959), almost snuffed out in a dozen vertiginous ways. But one ambush has always been the most iconic.
The sceneFleeing Chicago as the victim of mistaken identity, Grant's bewildered adman, Roger Thornhill, follows instructions that turn out to be a trap: He's to get on the Greyhound bus towards Indianapolis, and get off at the "Prairie Stop on Route 41".
There's nothing there. He finds himself kicking the dirt at a crossroads, when a man disembarks from a jalopy to wait for the next bus — but, he famously remarks: "That's funny. That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops!"
The plane wheels and comes straight for Grant.
Why is it so good?
Consider first the horizontal expanse. Hitchcock insisted on shooting this film with the widescreen VistaVision process, and this sequence alone in unsparing 70mm. The first act has been chiefly vertical — bustling with skyscrapers and urban chaos.
Suddenly, as Thornhill steps off the bus, the horizon is startlingly bare. Plus, there's the incongruity of Grant, in this back-of-beyond setting. He cuts a puny figure in his business suit. Hitchcock has several cars pass by, the last and wittiest being a black hearse. The prolonging of tension is ruthless — and this includes music. Bernard Herrmann wrote one of his most celebrated film scores — a menacing set of cues that quick-march on Grant with their military snare drums.
For almost nine minutes, the score drops out. All we hear is whistling emptiness, and the crunch of dirt under Grant's feet. And the plane, which dimly roars in the background.
You'd expect George Tomasini's editing to speed up, but it holds on to impressively long takes of the plane's approach. Grant waves his arms as a Magnum Oil truck approaches — his salvation, but not before it nearly runs him over, its huge grille filling the screen as horn blares and brakes screech. Then the plane crashes into the truck.
Behind the scenes
North by Northwest plays like such a perfectly oiled mechanism it's surprising to discover that production did not go like clockwork. In a memo to MGM's production chief Sol Siegel, Hitchcock admitted tinkering about with "a lot of rough spots, necessary retakes and photographic flaws".
Batting ideas around with Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter, Hitchcock had said he'd always wanted to shoot in the middle of nowhere — subverting the cliche of "a man lured to a dark intersection of the city with rain-slick streets and a black cat strolling by".
The setting — supposedly "Prairie Stop on Route 41" — was found, not in rural Indiana, but in California, on a stretch of Highway 155. Hitchcock's notion was to feature a tornado. But Lehman came up with a plane; Hitchcock specified a cropduster, and then Grant cowering in the corn.
With its sharp-suited charmer dangling off landmarks, surviving espionage and indulging in romance with a blonde, North by Northwest has been called the first James Bond film.
While recouping its large-for-the-time US$4.3 million ($7.1m) budget with a US$9.8m ($16.3m) gross, it was not as profitable as Dr No would be (US$59.5m off US$1.1m in 1962), but was a hit with critics, and got three Oscar nominations: for Lehman's script, Tomasini's editing and the art direction.
The crop-duster sequence inspired the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love (1963) as well as the seaplane attack in Arthur Penn's Night Moves (1975).