“Yes, it’s a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby”

The Cinematographer’s camera angles for the crop dusting sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. All 61 bullet points (above) represent a specific camera angle, a specific shot, as detailed at The Big Picture. The iconic sequence was a combination of location footage and studio-based rear projection. The book, Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film, by Will Schmenner and Corinne Granof is a Cinephile’s delight, filled with all manner of delightful insider info to how Hitchcock actually made movies.

One day, Hitch said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere—where there’s absolutely nothing. You’re out in the open, and there’s nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there’s nothing there but this one man standing all alone—because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot.’ Then Hitch continued, ‘Suddenly, a tornado comes along and…’ ‘But Hitch,’ I interrupted, ‘how do the villains create a tornado?’ and he had no idea. So I wondered, ‘What if a plane comes out of the sky?’ And he liked it immediately, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby.’ So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that’s how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It’s strange, isn’t it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot? —An Interview with Ernest Lehman

 
In this 1965 interview, Hitchcock discusses—partly in French—La Mort aux Trousses (French title for North by Northwest), and in particular the famous “that’s funny—he’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops” scene.

 

Even though it was early October, the climate was like a sweltering desert. This was one of the only times Hitch wore short sleeves on the set. For three days, poor Cary ran with a stunt plane swooping down at him or so it would seem. As nobody would think of putting Cary Grant in the position of getting decapitated by a plane some trick photography was used. I feel like a traitor telling you this but first the crew shot a swooping plane from a ditch and then, later, Cary was shot on a sound stage jumping into a fake ditch with the plane footage on a process screen behind him. —Eva Marie Saint

 
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter, read Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for North by Northwest [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers.

 
Here is an expert from the interview with Ernest Lehman.

Reads/Watches/Listens:

 
The making of North by Northwest. Still photographer: Kenny Bell.

 
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