Splitting the Screen

In the modern world of CGI, some of the special effects and rear projection techniques in Hitchcock’s films can seem a little dated and crude.

One of the sequences that I think has stood the test of time well is from near the end of “Foreign Correspondent (1940)” when the clipper plane is shelled, one of its engines destroyed, and it nose-dives into the sea.

As the passengers brace themselves for impact, the two pilots try to keep the clipper steady…

Through the cockpit we see the sea rushing up and the pilots at the controls. At the last possible moment you expect the film to jump to an external shot — maybe an unconvincing model aeroplane hitting the surface of a tank of water in the studio.

Instead, without a single cut in the film or any dodgy model shots, we see the pilots leaping from their seats, the plane hitting the water, the cockpit windows shattering, and the cold sea water crashing into the plane…

The sequence is incredibly convincing and you’re left wondering if Hitchcock didn’t indeed get the footage by crashing a plane into the sea!

In reality, it was filmed in the studio…

The footage of the sea was taken by a special stunt plane, filmed from a dive in which the pilot (Paul Mantz) pulled up at the last possible moment. Back in the studio, the footage was projected onto a thin paper screen in front of the cockpit set. Behind the screen, a large tank of water and a closed chute which was pointed towards the screen.

After a number of rehearsal runs to ensure the timing was correct, the cameras rolled. Just before the footage of the stunt dive into the sea ended, the stuntmen playing the pilots jumped from their seats and the chute behind the screen pulled open. The water from the tank then poured down the chute and ripped through the paper screen and into the set.

By pausing the DVD, a single frame of film (which lasts just 1/24 of a second) shows the screen ripping upwards from the bottom…

After the impact, we then see the passengers struggling to escape the sinking plane. In a rare Hitchcock goof, the unsteady camera rocks upwards for a fraction of a second and we see the studio lights above the set…

As a brief footnote, the stunt pilot Paul Mantz was killed in 1965 during the making of “The Flight of the Phoenix“. In the film, the survivors of a plane crash in the Sahara build a new plane out of the wreckage.

To simulate the take-off of the new plane, Mantz was asked to fly it in low with the landing gear down, let the wheels run along the ground, and then take-off again. Sadly, on the second take, the plane crashed and the 62 year old aviator was killed.

James Stewart, who starred in the film, helped carry Mantz’s coffin at the funeral.

One Response to Splitting the Screen

  1. great info! thanks


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