North By Northwest's Famous Plane Chase Could Have Been A Lot More Cartoony

As Time notes, the title of Alfred Hitchcock's spy thriller, "North by Northwest," seems to be a reference to flying north on Northwest Airlines, which we see Cary Grant's protagonist and mistaken identity victim, Roger Thornhill, do as he leaves Chicago for South Dakota's Mount Rushmore National Memorial toward the end of the movie. There's a much more famous scene involving Grant and a plane in "North by Northwest," of course, but while Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were brainstorming for that scene, the movie itself almost flew right off course.

In a 2000 interview with the journal Creative Screenwriting, Lehman explained how the classic scene of Grant's character running across an open field in the middle of nowhere with a plane chasing him from behind first came together. Hitchcock spoke elsewhere about how he wanted to upend cliches by putting his protagonist in peril in "the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide." Yet his first instinct didn't involve putting a plane in that setting with Thornhill. Lehman told the journal:

"One day, Hitch said to me, 'I've always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere — where there's absolutely nothing. You're out in the open, and there's nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there's nothing there but this one man standing all alone — because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot.' Then Hitch continued, 'Suddenly, a tornado comes along and...' 'But Hitch,' I interrupted, 'how do the villains create a tornado?' and he had no idea."

'What if a plane comes out of the sky?'

It's funny to imagine a tornado blowing in out of the blue to chase Cary Grant in "North by Northwest," as if this were "Twister" and he was in danger of being swept up like that movie's flying cow. Obviously, Hitchcock was a man full of ideas, and the tornado sounds like one he just tossed off the top of his head without really thinking through the full creative implications of it.

Screenwriter Lehman came up with a way to salvage the spirit of Hitchcock's idea without turning "North by Northwest" into a movie where the villains were using weather control (as audiences would see decades later in the critically maligned 1998 adaptation of the "Avengers" spy TV series). What he thought of instead, he explained, was the image of a plane:

"I wondered, 'What if a plane comes out of the sky?' And [Hitchcock] liked it immediately, and he said, 'Yes, it's a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby.' So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that's how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It's strange, isn't it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?"

As Lehman points out, the image of Grant running from the plane became so indelible that he would forever be associated with it. Over 60 years later, we're still talking about it, so it's a good thing Hitchcock and Lehman had a meeting of the minds and we got that crop duster instead of some zany twister.