The knife behind the shower curtain. The telescopic camera lens. The toilet flushing on screen for the first time ever. The movies of Alfred Hitchcock are overflowing with iconic moments, and the likes of Psycho and Rear Window are two movies full of particularly memorable scenes. But one of the best iconic scenes in a Hitchcock movie appears in North by Northwest.
Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising expert who, in a case of mistaken identity, is forced to race around the United States to avoid being murdered by a group of shadowy and trustworthy individuals led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Thornhill has been mistaken for George Kaplan, and the men after him want him dead. Whilst on the run he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a stranger who – for some reason – aids him on his evading of the police. However, the plot thickens once we find out that Kendall has ties to Vandamm.
One of the greatest things about North by Northwest is its somewhat convoluted nature. Hitchcock never allows you to feel comfortable at any moment of the film, with each new character or location suddenly casting doubt over you. We want to adore Eve Kendall the first time we see her – blonde hair, beautiful face, exquisite charm – but then her apparent betrayal of Thornhill leaves you taken aback. So when she sends Thornhill on a bus into the middle of nowhere, we’re forced to ask: do we trust her? SHOULD we trust her? The answer, given North by Northwest’s iconic moment, is no.
And Hitchcock, ‘The Master of Suspense,’ certainly shows why he earned his nickname in this scene. When Thornhill departs the bus the tension begins to build. Hitchcock pans the camera around the scenery, as if searching for something or someone approaching in the distance. Then a car drives by slowly, and another. By the time another car pulls over and a man gets out the tension is almost unbearable. Is this the guy Thornhill is waiting for? Is it a trap?
And whilst we’re initially adamant that this stranger could be the man Thornhill is out to look for, Hitchcock suddenly shuts that theory down. Instead the gentleman is just waiting for a bus that slowly rolls up the dusty road. But not before the stranger can reveal the true sinister element of this middle-of-nowhere setting. “That’s funny, that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.”
As the bus departs the crop-duster ploughs toward Thornhill, swooping down to try and knock him dead. As if that isn’t bad enough, the plane starts firing bullets, with the tension reaching sky high levels when Thornhill darts into the crops to avoid detection. But the real crescendo is when Thornhill sprints into the road in front of an oncoming truck, waving frantically for it to stop and just barely slipping underneath the front of it as it grinds to a halt. But the crop-duster can’t slow down, resulting in an explosion that Michael Bay would be proud of.
What makes this movie, and especially this scene, so iconic is how it serves as one of many perfect examples of Hitchcock’s creation of suspense. And it’s influence is obvious, with parodies of this scene appearing left, right and centre – even noticeably in an episode of The Simpsons. Not many filmmakers can match the intensity or tension of Hitchcock nowadays, so this is certainly a re-release to get hold of instantly.