North by Northwest’s crop-duster scene—in which Cary Grant’s victim of mistaken identity finds himself in a fallow Indiana field, hunted by a low-flying biplane—is one of the most iconically thrilling moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s fiendishly clever body of work. But, according to Robert F. Boyle, who served as production designer on this as well as four other Hitchcock films, the genius of the sequence isn’t in the pursuit itself—it’s all in the buildup.
In this new piece by Daniel Raim, who interviewed the late Boyle at his home in 1999, the Hollywood veteran points to the patient setup of Hitch’s immortal flyby—with Grant nervously approaching a solitary man across a dusty highway, and a lonely bus trundling through on the road to nowhere—as a textbook example of the power of the “penultimate moment,” or the anticipatory time before something happens. And teasing out a subterranean connection between two of the twentieth century’s most influential artists, Boyle also finds such subtle hints of suspense throughout Edward Hopper’s portraits of American city life. To cut to the chase, there’s only one way to break the tension: check out the whole video above, then head over to the 10 Minutes or Less section on the Criterion Channel for Raim’s piece, also featuring Boyle, about the backdrops in North by Northwest’s cliff-hanging Mount Rushmore climax.