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Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) gets mistaken for a man called George Kaplan. He is kidnapped and interrogated and then meant to be killed off in an “accident”, but instead escapes and does some investigating on his own after the police don’t believe his wild story. When a man is then actually killed, Thornhill becomes the suspect and has to go on the run to clear his name. Aboard a train, he meets a beautiful young woman named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who first hides him from police and then begins a torrid affair as she and he begin an adventure that connects them far more than he suspects.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest is considered a masterpiece in cinema, one of the most influential films ever made and a template by which the genre it created has followed since. With outstanding performances, incredible direction, and a sensational score by Bernard Herrmann, this is a movie experience no real fan of film should miss. An epic tale of deception, mistaken identity, love and romance, North by Northwest is a genuine classic.
Thornhill is framed for murder where witnesses at the UN General Assembly building see what looks like a flagrant attack with a knife. With nowhere to go, he goes on the lamb and begins his search for the real Kaplan, stowing away on the famed 20th Century Limited rail service from New York to Chicago. After meeting and having sex with Eve, whom claims to know the real Kaplan, she arranges a meeting for him at an isolated bus stop out of the city. She is a mysterious woman, but Thornhill already trusts her, and decides to go alone.
The bus drops him off far from the city at a dusty intersection where four empty farm fields meet. He waits and not long after a car approaches and drops off a slender man in a brown suit. Naturally, Thornhill thinks this is Kaplan. A long moment between the two pass, but the man doesn’t speak, and so Thornhill walks cautiously toward him (with Hitchcock’s brilliant POV shot). He isn’t Kaplan, but does make an interesting observation. In the distance, a plane is dusting “where there ain’t no crops.” Soon the Interstate bus arrives, the man boards, and then Thornhill is alone again.
With nothing but open country and a bed of dry cornstalks behind him, he waits but is drawn by the motion of the crop duster. He watches as the bi-plane suddenly banks toward him. Curiously, and then shockingly, he realizes the pilot is heading straight for him. Just in time, Thornhill dives into the dirt before the plane swings around again and gives chase. There is also a man in the second seat of the plane and he fires at Thornhill, but misses. Frantic, Roger ducks into the dry corn but is flushed out with a pass of the plane dumping insecticide, so he dashes for an on-coming fuel truck ambling down the road. He steps in front, wildly waving it down, and just as he does, the plane comes ’round again and slams straight into the tanker and explodes as the drivers and Thornhill run away.
Arguably the greatest directed moment by Hitchcock, the anonymous pilot and the sheer menace of the omnipresent plane, unencumbered by a musical cues, makes this an extraordinary and unique villain moment. Mostly, blissfully dialogue-free, with Grant in top form, he communicates everything we need to know with determined expression, carrying us through the moment as he comes to realize the full extent of not only what is happening to him in the moment but the scope of the plot he has become a part of. Worse, as it was Eve who sent him here, there is a new spark of betrayal and outrage that begins to sear the edges of the moment, and it is after this when we see Thornhill’s truly clever side emerge as he puts things together and learns more about the man who is after him and the woman he has come to care about. North by Northwest is one of the finest movies ever made and the cropdusting scene is one great moment.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason