For this exercise, I chose the iconic crop dusting scene from North by Northwest (1959). Hitchcock is often considered to be one of the greatest film editors. He prepared complex and precise storyboards for every scene and is said to have approached his work as if he were a composer writing down musical notes.
In this scene, Thornhill (Cary Grant) has been misidentified as a government agent called Kaplan, is abducted and implicated in a murder. He goes to meet Kaplan to establish his innocence and is waiting at the designated location.
Having analysed this scene in great detail , I would say that he rhythm of the cuts does not change greatly but does allow us time to regroup after some of the dramatic moments. Lots happens within each shot so it is still quite suspenseful whilst showing the agony for Thornhill as he fears for his life.
We have some very short cuts (less than 2 second shots) where Grant is reacting to the impending threats from the plane and also when he flagging down the truck:
- Long shot, low angle, Thornhill in road, truck approaching (1.5 secs)
- ELS, plane banking over corn (2 secs)
- MS, T trying to stop truck, sound of horn and brakes (2 secs)
- LS, truck approaching (2 secs)
- MS, T looks up and back at plane (1.5 secs)
- LS, truck getting closer (1 sec)
- MS, T waving frantically (1 sec)
- CU of truck grille, sound of brakes (1 sec)
- CU of T looking very alarmed (1 sec)
- CU with hands over face as head drops (1 sec)
- LS as T falls under truck (1 sec)
- MS, side view of T under truck (2.5 secs)
The longest shots are where he is running towards the camera being chased by the plane and when he feels safe in the corn and allows himself a smile.
The composition of the shots is mostly quite simple. Lots of blue sky so we can grasp a sense of the space the plane inhabits; long perspectives of the road and fences and the cornfields. The corn is dried up and inhospitable. The whole scene is held together by the genius of Cary Grant who can show emotion so well, without speaking, so we are gripped by the inexplicable terror of the plane attack. We need to understand the isolation of the area and how alone is our hero, which is well achieved by the composition.
The motivation for the cuts is largely to show the ‘battle’ between Thornhill and the cropduster. We need to follow the action and progress of both. We can allow for the slightly different pacing of the late 50s but this scene is still pretty tight.
I have managed to knock out quite a lot of time and make it punchier but it loses some of the painful anticipation and suspense of the scene. The style at that time was much more explicit in terms of showing direct human reactions to events. It would have been good film grammar to show the protagonist looking, then showing what he was looking at, then going back to the actor before the next action happens.
When I de-edited, I found it to be very interesting how cutting one part out leads to another seeming to be superfluous and suddenly whole chunks are removed! Reminds me of pruning a hedge and it ending up quite bald. The scene still makes sense but it would never have held its legendary and iconic status as it is now devoid of Grant’s angst.
I removed the part where we see him realize that he is not safe in the corn (after his satisfied half-smile) and that the plane is about to release dust. It is not essential as we understand what is happening but the viewer has not had chance to catch and grasp the emotion of the scene before the next bit of action happens. However, when Thornhill spots the truck is it necessary for us to see him look back and up at the plane? We know it is there and is not giving up so this seems OK to cut. But then in a way it is as if Thornhill is taking a moment, a gulp, before he makes a run for it so it probably is worth the few seconds of extra time to maintain empathy from the audience.
The removal of the smiling shot, and some other cuts, makes the whole scene much faster and in some ways more dramatic but, as viewers, we have no time to get into the psychological drama of the events.
This was a fantastic exercise and I really think it should be included much earlier in the course. It is much more intense and enlightening to actually play with the edit rather than just analyse shots. Everything can be slowed down to the point where you can see the fraction of the second when a front view switches to the side etc. I would love to have time to do this with lots of other well-known and brilliant scenes.
I reduced a 03.31.11 long sequence to 01.58.04, removing 94.07 seconds of footage.
The sequence still conveys all the information that it needs to. It just feels more ‘action/adventure’ rather than psychological drama because much of Grant’s emotional revelations have been reduced or removed.