It happened in a cornfield, supposedly in Indiana. In fact when Cary Grant gets off the bus at Prairie Stop on Route 41, he’s actually near the intersection of Corcoran Road and California Highway 155, outside the town of Delano.
Roger O.Thornhill’s life is in danger, but not in some dark city alley, but in an innocent looking place with nowhere to hide, in broad daylight in the middle of a faceless landscape stretching as far as the eye can see.
Thornhill has come to meet.at last, the mysterious Mr. Kaplan whom he has been mistaken for.
Manhattan is Thornhill’s milieu . In his trademark grey suit, he is very much out of place in the prairie setting.There is so little dialogue in the entire 9 minute sequence. The camera, Cary Grant and the skill of Alfred Hitchcock tell the story. Even Bernard Hermann’s terrific music is stilled until the end of the scene.
At first Thornhill is just puzzled.He’s wondering why Kaplan would meet him at this spot. He looks around him.Two cars and a truck pass . He looks at them expectantly, but none of them stop. All he gets is dust on his shiny suit (just recently pressed), kicked up by the passing truck.
Then he spots a car driving through the field opposite him. It comes to a halt and a man gets out and stands on the highway.Thornhill stares at him, and when there is no response, he slowly crosses the road. The man says nothing and finally Thornhill breaks the silence, “Hot day.”
And he says, “Are you Kaplan?” The stranger says he is waiting on a bus, but as he is replying ,he is looking beyond Thornhill.
And this is when Malcolm Atterbury gets the famous line about a plane he can see in the distance which is crop dusting where there ain’t no crops.
Thornhill isnt too interested in the plane. A bus comes along and the man gets on. Thornhill is on his own again.
I love this quote from a Guardian newspaper review of 2013,
“His (Hitchcock) finger is on the trigger but he’s not ready to pull it.”
He is still expecting Kaplan, but he can now hear the sound of the crop duster plane and he turns to look at it.
I know I’m writing about a scene which any Hitchcock fan knows back to front, but I found these wonderful pictures on The Hitchcock Zone website (http://the.hitchcock.zone), a 1000 frame blow-ups.
The plane banks and comes straight towards him, and suddenly Thornhill realises the danger. He falls to the ground and the plane turns and takes off again.
The next time the plane approaches, it sprays bullets but Thornhill is lucky. He spots a cornfield (especially planted for the scene) and runs towards it as the plane follows.
He feels a little safer, concealed among the tall corn. But then the plane returns and this time sprays the crop dusting chemical which forces Thornhill into the open.
He spots a truck coming up the highway and runs to the middle of the road, with his arms raised in desperation.The truck, carrying gasoline, is forced to stop but not before Thornhill falls under it.
The plane can’t pull up and ploughs into the truck . The two people in the truck manage to escape and Thornhill pulls himself from the undercarriage He and the two men move quickly away as the truck and the plane explode.
Some traffic on the highway stop when they see the explosion. Thornhill eases himself away from the crowd and takes off back to town in a small pick-up truck , with the truck’s owner running after him.
And then you realise that throughout this scene, there has been no music. Hermann’s marvellous overture only starts up again when the explosion occurs. And we are back to reality as if we had been holding our breath since Thornhill got off that bus.
It’s altogether an unforgettable piece of cinema and perfectly illustrates Hitchcock’s mastery of the screen.
The plane was flown by local crop duster pilot Bob Coe.
It was planned to film some shots from the plane, looking down on Thornhill , and I think it’s a pity that budget considerations meant it didn’t happen.
The whole sequence was filmed over three days.
I wonder if Hitchcock ever considered doing the whole sequence without any dialogue. Only the sounds of the automobiles and the plane, until the explosion. But that would have meant losing Malcolm Atterbury’s famous line!