The Set-Up – Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is dropped off in the middle of nowhere for a meeting.
Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to refresh oneself on what a genius Alfred Hitchcock was. To create tension onscreen, many lesser filmmakers rely on crutches: Ominous music, shadows, claustrophobic set design. Fair enough – Those things work. Now consider this great sequence from North by Northwest. It is set in the middle of the day in a wide open space. There’s the tiniest bit of music, there’s barely any dialogue, and the only other character is quite obviously not a threat. Hitchcock creates unease with a LACK of unease, and that’s a neat trick, indeed. Check it out, there’s a car, which merely speeds by. Then another. There’s a brief shot of a crop duster, but nothing alarming about it. Another car appears from an area that we don’t expect, and drops off the other man. There are a few seconds, as the camera holds on the two of them on opposite sides of the road, that a bit of tension creeps in, but when Grant goes to talk to him, he is so harmless that it throws us off. It’s only when the other man says “That’s funny...That planes’ dustin’ for crops where there ain’t no crops.” that we really feel the vice tighten. This whole scene is drawn out over 10 minutes of screen time, and like I said, there is virtually no dialogue or music. It’s absolutely masterful in the way it manipulates the viewer.