North by Northwest (1959)
Ahhhh North By Northwest. Quintessential Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe not my favorite Hitchcock film, but it pretty much contains all the elements that I enjoy about spy stories. The classic wrong man scenario. A man is mistook for a secret agent and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy. If you have not seen this, put it right at the top of your list.
And to entice you, here is the famous crop-duster sequence. This scene really shows Hitchcock's mastery of camera placement, movement, and editing. Here is a man who knew exactly what this scene was going to look like before and during the filming. So many of these shots I love, many for their simplicity. I mean, look at the first shot of the two men standing on opposite sides of the highway. I would hang that one my wall! It shows what a smart director can accomplish with the most basic elements: a man, a location, and an enemy. Note the absence of music until the very ending. In fact, if music was there (and you can watch this scene on YouTube with music, should you so desire) it would be much less powerful. The sound of the airplane is all that is needed. Only some sparse dialogue sets up the scene, and that last words spoken are the most ominous: "That's funny, that plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops."
Hitchcock understood that the unknown is much more frightening and more intimidating than anything: he leaves the identity of the pilot unknown, we never see if it's more than one person in the plane, and we never get even a point-of-view shot from the plane. The audience is put squarely in Carey Grant's shoes. And I find this sequence terrifying. It is so effective at creating a nightmarish scenario. We are placed in an endless flat environment with plenty of room to run, but nowhere to hide. I don't mean to exaggerate when I say I think this is one of the greatest movie sequences ever filmed.
Click here to watch on YouTube.