(If you must, scroll to the bottom for the video essay.)
The cornfield scene from North by Northwest (1959) is perhaps the greatest scene in all of Hitchcock. It is the director’s great rebuke of the “plausibles” — those miserable critics who all too often dismissed his films for their implausibility. The beauty of this scene specifically comes from its utter unnecessity; one could remove it from the story and the film’s plot would remain unchanged.
Of course, the scene is essential to understanding Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), the urban, rich, advertising executive, who prior to the film’s opening moments lives a predicable, banal existence. To describe the significance of this moment, I turn to Robin Wood, who writes in his 1965 monograph, Hitchcock’s Films:
“In the midst of this he stands, an isolated speck with the whole world against him, absolutely exposed and vulnerable: modern man deprived of all his amenities and artificial resources.”
Something similar could be said of Ben McKenna (James Stewart), the protagonist of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). McKenna is a physician from Ohio, perfectly happy with his ordinary life in the MidWest. His complacency drives a wedge between him and his spouse, the famous singer Jo Conway (Doris Day), who longs to return to her career. Like Thornhill, McKenna will find himself thrust into a James Bond-like situation, full of spies, lies and attacks on the lives of diplomats.
I never would have thought to compare the films had it not been for Truffaut, who notes their similarity not in story or character, but technique. Specifically, the art of silent, grandiose suspense.
F.T. I’d like to talk about that long sequence with Cary Grant in the cornfields which starts long before the plane appears overhead. The scene is completely silent for some seven minutes; it’s a real tour de force. In The Man Who Knew Too Much there is a ten-minute scene showing the concert at Albert Hall with no dialogue, but that scene is sustained by the cantata music and by the anticipation of an incident we’re expecting. I believe the old way of handling this sort of thing was to accelerate the montage using shorter and shorter cuts, whereas in North by Northwest all of the shots are of equal duration
A.H. Here you’re not dealing with time but with space. The length of the shots was to indicate the various distances that a man had to run for cover and, more than that, to show that there was no cover to run to. This kind of scene can’t be wholly subjective because it would go by in a flash. It’s necessary to show the approaching plane, even before Cary Grant spots it, because if the shot is too fast, the plane is in and out of the frame too quickly for the viewer to realize what’s happening.
(Chapter 12, Page 254)