Breaking Down the Iconic 'Crop Duster' Scene from Alfred Hitchcock's 'North by Northwest'

North by NorthwestThink about the most iconic scenes in cinematic history. What comes to mind? The "Here's Johnny" scene from The Shining? The "Trio" scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly? There are definitely too many great ones to mention, ones that probably made you want to be a filmmaker because of their masterful storytelling through the cinematography, editing, as well as the actors' performances. Cinephilia and Beyond has shared some content that breaks down the famous "Crop Duster" scene from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, including an interview with Hitchcock detailing the scene, as well as a document from the film's cinematographer that maps out all 61 camera angles.

First of all, let's take a look at the scene:

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Hitchcock was (and still is) the master of suspense not just because he understood perfect pacing, but because he was able to repackage nightmarish clichés into fresh and exciting pieces of cinema. As you'll hear in this interview from 1965, the director explains something quite profound -- something that captures the heart and nature of filmmaking in a palpable way. (La Mort aux Trousses is the French title for North by Northwest.) He says:

That film was -- un rêve, comme un mauvais rêve [a dream, like a bad dream]. When you dream, you dream very real. Very real. Everything seems real in a dream. You are glad to wake up, because it's so real. So, you take a dream idea like La Mort aux Trousses -- it's a nightmare -- and you make it real. The audience [is] looking at a nightmare, and crazy things happening to him, but it must be real.

Cinema is essentially a lie -- a grand, beautiful lie that audiences are willing to believe if filmmakers are able to tell it well. Making things look "real" is not only subjective, but it also depends on your project. In Hitchcock's case, however, putting Cary Grant through a waking nightmare was his aim, and part of making that look "real" meant breaking away from clichés -- the quintessential scene that takes place in a dark alley, steam rises from a manhole cover, rain pelts the pavement, a single street light illuminates a man in a trench coat and fedora smoking a cigarette, when, from out of the shadows, his killer emerges. Instead of this, Hitchcock puts Grant in the middle of a rural intersection in the middle of the day. He explains why he did this in more detail in the interview below:

Studying North by Northwest is important for so many reasons, but its cinematography, especially in the "Crop Duster" scene, is so intricately, and beautifully done, that it deserves a thorough examining. Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture shares an image that stuck out to him in a book written by Will Schmenner and Corinne Granof, Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Filmthat details the planning of each camera angle used during the sequence. At first glance, it looks like an absolute nightmare (which is fitting for this film), but none of this is apparent on-screen -- a testament to the talent of those who worked on the film, including editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, both long-time Hitchcock collaborators. Now, if you really was to dig into this material for a legitimate study session, Ritholtz also breaks down each camera angle shown in the image below into 61 bullet points, determining the shot size, location, editing, and more. Check it out here.

What do you think of Hitchcock's explanation of the "Crop Duster" scene from North be Northwest? What lessons on cinematography have you learned from Hitchcock's work? Let us know in the comments below.

Link: Sequencing the North by NorthWest Crop Dusting Scene --The Big Picture

[via VintageEuroTV & Cinephilia and Beyond]

Your Comment


In the book/interview "Hitchcock/Trauffaut," he said that the very basic set up is to (1) film an actor looking at something (2) show what they're looking at, (3) show their reaction. He said though this seems easy, it was difficult for some actors, like Gregory Peck. Hitchcock adored Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, partly b/c the could use the COMIC timing they'd learned in comedies, and apply it to help build suspense, moment by moment.

March 9, 2014 at 7:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

logan lark

Why is everyone so in love with this scene? It doesn't serve the story at all. It would have made a great deleted scene for the DVD, yes, but the movie would have been better off without it.

March 11, 2014 at 2:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Liver Casserole

If a person is out of touch with most of the viewing public it behooves him or her to try to understand why. Take the extreme example of someone who says he hates "The Shawshank Redemption," especially that scene of Morgan Freeman at the stone wall opening the tin can. In other words, if you want to make movies, better get in synch with your audience or your career will be short lived.

March 12, 2014 at 11:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


heh, you took him seriously after reading......liver casserole....?

March 14, 2014 at 7:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Anyone have Hitchcock on the NFS bingo this week?

1. Kubrick
2. Scorsese
3. Hitchcock

I'm going Welles for number 4.
C'mon Welles!

March 11, 2014 at 3:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Fresno Bob

That was a good article, enjoyable read and watch while the render is was on.

March 12, 2014 at 12:15PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'm just working on a film... it's a nightmare! So, succes must be no problem.

July 10, 2014 at 2:16AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Albert Sterenborg

Similar pre-production planning should happen with sound, but it almost never does.

July 10, 2014 at 1:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Randy Thom

Wow, those rear projection scenes really are obvious.

LOL why does the fuel truck driver shut the door as the airplane burns in the background? Screw the door, I would haul ass!

August 6, 2014 at 10:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM