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North by Northwest(1959)
A suave, succesful New York advertising executive finds himself, through a case of mistaken identity, embroiled in a web of intrigue and murder that takes him across the country to prove his innocence to the police and get an evil crime syndicate, looking for a lost microfilm, off his tail. Filmed in VistaVision.
For more about North by Northwest and the North by Northwest Blu-ray release, see the North by Northwest Blu-ray Review
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jesse Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
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North by Northwest Blu-ray Review
“The Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies.”
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, October 26, 2009
"You know, we're not making a movie," Alfred Hitchcock reputedly told screenwriter Ernest Lehman during the shooting of North by Northwest. "We're constructing an organ, the kind of organ that you see in the theatre. And we press this chord and now the audience laughs, we press that chord and they gasp, and we press these notes and they chuckle. Someday we won't have to make a movie, we'll just attach them to electrodes and play the various emotions for them to experience in the theatre." Whether the portly director was being cynical or merely offering a pithy insight into his own mastery of suspense, the fact remains that Alfred Hitchcock was a virtuoso at knowing not only which emotional keys to press, but exactly when to press them, and in what order. Disparaging critics—what few there are—may level the charge that Hitchcock's films are formulaic, but even if that's so, it's undeniable that he worked out the perfect formula, a cinematic golden ratio that balances tension and darkness with romance and wit.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hitchcock went on one of the greatest winning streaks in cinema history, cranking out Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds in quick succession. Of these, North by Northwest—with all the director's trademarks in place—is arguably the most iconically Hitchcockian, and has also served as the template for numerous espionage thrillers to come, its influence easily seen in the James Bond films and even the Bourne trilogy. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has often said—this is his most lasting contribution to cinema, after all—that he wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." While he didn't exactly succeed—I mean, not literally—North by Northwest is, in some ways, the apex of Hitchcock's career and a summation of his themes and techniques. They're all here: the point-of-view shots, the steely but sexy blond heroine, the glamour, the mistaken identities, the almost-cruel sense of tension, the mother issues, and, of course, the MacGuffin—an unimportant object that drives the plot— presented here in its purest form yet.
Following in another Hitchcock tradition, the film centers around an everyman of sorts. Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill—the O. stands for "nothing"—a Madison Avenue advertising executive who could easily be a character on Mad Men. After being mistaken for George Kaplan, an intelligence agent who we later learn doesn't really exist, Thornhill is kidnapped by a couple of heavies and taken to meet Philip Vandamm (James Mason), a suave and sinister trader in government secrets. Vandamm doesn't buy Thornhill's "no, really, I'm not George Kaplan" shtick and conspires to have him assassinated. Of course, Vandamm's thugs bungle the job and Thornhill, having now been framed for the murder of a U.N. diplomat, sets out for Chicago by train to find the elusive Mr. Kaplan and clear his good name. En route, he meets seductive blond Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who offers to share her compartment for the night (wink, wink) and hides Thornhill from the cops. To reveal any more would be a disservice to anyone who has yet to see the film, as Hitchcock and Lehman's narrative features several neck-breaking turns and twists that still surprise, even if we've now seen this type of film a thousand times. Suffice it to say that no one is who they say they are. For its time, the film has some astounding action set pieces—including the iconic crop-duster chase scene—all culminating in an edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger stand-off that takes place across the presidential faces of Mt. Rushmore.
Thematically, the story is all about identity—mistaken, hidden, or lack thereof. At the start, Thornhill is successful but dull, a man who walks and talks like New York is his personal playground, but who calls his mother when he's arrested for drunk driving. His is a case of arrested development, and over the course of the film, Thornhill, by putting on the super-spy persona of Roger Kaplan, matures and develops an identity of his own. Cary Grant is perfect here, playing the fool, the romantic lead, and the reverse agent-in-disguise with equal agility. He's charming, debonair, funny, and like any advertising exec worth his salt, incredibly good with words.
Of course, there are elements of the script that, in hindsight, seem absolutely unbelievable, overly machinated, ridiculous even. I mean, why would Vandamm hire a pilot to shoot at Thornhill from a biplane when he could just as easily have one of his thugs do the shooting up close and personal-like? Still, when watching the film, none of this matters. Hitchcock makes the implausible plausible, and more so, eminently suspenseful and surprising. The film is cut with machine precision, every sequence custom orchestrated for maximum dramatic impact. The action is expertly staged, the rhythms of the editing have an impeccable musical cadence, and the performances, especially from Grant and Eva Marie Saint, are phenomenal. I can't say that I've ever seen flirting in a film sexier than the entendre-laced banter that the two actors share in the train's dining car. I can only imagine how mid-century audiences must have reacted to such brazen-for-the-time dialogue, especially since it's Saint that plays the sexual aggressor, and not Grant. The film's closing shot—a train entering a tunnel—is a clever and intentionally phallic bit of symbolism from Hitchcock, who, along with being the master of suspense, was apt at implying arousal and desire without rousing the ire of Hollywood censors. With North by Northwest, he crafted one of his most purely entertaining films, a time-tested classic that's just as suspenseful now as it was when it debuted in 1959.
North by Northwest Blu-ray, Video Quality
As the first of Hitchcock's films to arrive on Blu-ray in the U.S.—The 39 Steps was released recently in the U.K.—there's been a great deal of anticipation and outright skepticism regarding North by Northwest's picture quality. For what it's worth, I'm thoroughly impressed by this new 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer, which was scanned at an 8k resolution using the film's original VistaVision production elements. The film has also been given an outstanding restoration; there's no print damage at all, not a speck or fleck, and it appears that no tampering has been done with the film's grain structure, which is still readily visible, albeit thin and unobtrusive. (There are exceptions. An insert shot of Martin Landau at the 1:45:50 mark is incredibly grainy. Not sure what the story is here, but it's obviously a source-related issue.) Color has received a slight boost in saturation from prior DVD releases, and the Technicolor hues are rich, stable, and—I'll say it—dreamy, presenting an ideal, Hollywood-ized vision of mid-century America. Black levels are spot on, contrast is pleasantly weighted, and shadow delineation is revealing. Cary Grant looks tan as always, but skin tones are warm and flattering throughout. Though the film isn't razor sharp by today's standards, overall clarity is greatly increased with this release, and for a 50-year-old film, there are several moments of stunning depth and presence. Just check out the crane shot of the empty expanse of highway as Thornhill's bus pulls up to a stop in the middle of nowhere. Or the shot of Grant crouching in the cornfield. Or the meeting between Thornhill and Eve in the pine woods. There were a few times when I rewatched sequences just to take in the beauty of the cinematography. Could the film look any better? Naysayers will always find faults, and it's hard to say what future technology holds, but at our present state it's difficult to imagine a more aptly realized version of North by Northwest.
North by Northwest Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The film's original monaural presentation has been expanded into a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track here, and though purists may cry foul, few will have any complaints after hearing the subtle and impressive ways that the rear channels are implemented. Of course, the most striking aspect is how Bernard Hermmann's classic orchestral score has been bled into the surround speakers, creating a tense and immersive experience. Strings spiral dizzyingly up and down, timpani drums pound mercilessly, and flutes dart and weave with a clear and breathy timbre. Considering the age of the source material, the music is remarkably full, with deep, mellow bass and crystalline high-end clarity. The rear channels also broadcast some ambience from time to time—like the bustle of the New York City streets—but I was struck most by the bold, directionally accurate panning effects used during the iconic crop-duster chase scene. The plane makes several passes, from front to back and side to side, and each time the roar of the engine screeches convincingly through the channels. Some of the foley sounds are a little weak—especially the puny punches—but that's always been the case. Dialogue is well-prioritized and easily discernable throughout, but I should note that the whole audio track seems mixed rather low, as I had to ratchet the volume on my receiver up about 8 or 9 notches from my usual listening level.
North by Northwest Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Commentary by Screenwriter Ernest Lehman
Lehman offers up a quiet, subdued, but ultimately enlightening commentary that owners of the film's DVD release will immediately recognize. Aside from the occasionally lagging pace, this is a great track filled with stories about working with "Hitch" and making movies the old-school Hollywood way.
The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style (SD, 57:32)
Like an introductory course on Hitchcock's directorial trademarks, this excellent documentary is broken into sections that cover the master's editing techniques, ideas about suspense, theory of the Macguffin, his use of music, and his love of glamour and Hollywood blonds. Several directors, including Martin Scorcese, William Friedkin, and Guillermo Del Toro dissect and pay tribute to Hitchcock's often-imitated style.
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest (SD, 39:27)
Eva Marie Saint hosts this retrospective look at the making of North by Northwest, guiding us through the shooting schedule with the help of screenwriter Ernest Lehman, actor Martin Landau, and Hitchcock's daughter Pat. There are a lot of great stories here, including the revelations that the entrance to the UN building was secretly—and illegally—filmed from a VistaVision camera hidden in a delivery truck and that Cary Grant, always the businessman, charged 15 cents for autographs.
North by Northwest: One for the Ages (SD, 25:29)
Directors Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), and writer Christopher McQuerrie (The Usual Suspects) examine North by Northwest from start to finish, giving their expert analysis of the film's character development and Hitchcock's visual acumen.
Cary Grant: A Class Apart (SD, 1:27:12)
This PBS documentary gives a thorough and unflinching look at the inimitable British-born actor, covering his unhappy childhood in Bristol, his journey to America in 1920, his rise from vaudevillian to Hollywood leading man, and his often unhappy family life, marked by failed marriages and experimentation with LSD. Features interviews with ex-wives, friends, and colleagues, as well as footage from many of the actor's now-classic films.
Trailers (SD, 6:30 total)
Includes a TV spot, the A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock promo, and the film's theatrical trailer.
Music Only Track
Choose this option to isolate Bernard Herrmann's classy score, via a Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
Stills Gallery (1080p, 5:52)
This 43-page full-color digibook contains two short essays, actor/director/screenwriter bios, and lots of great publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, and one-sheets.
North by Northwest Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
As the first film by Hitchcock to appear on Blu-ray in the U.S., North by Northwest is a must-have release for many regardless of the film's picture and audio quality. Purchase with confidence, then, because I have no qualms whatsoever about this disc's stunning A/V treatment. The video presentation is uniformly excellent—as close to a definitive version of the film as we're going to get in 1080p—and the new TrueHD soundtrack means North by Northwest sounds bigger and more clear than ever. With a generous host of supplementary features and one of the best digibook packages to come down the Warner pipeline, I'm confident in giving North by Northwest my highest recommendation.
North by Northwest: Other Editions
Blu-ray bundles with North by Northwest (1 bundle)
North by Northwest Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Today on Blu-ray - November 3rd - November 3, 2009
When 'Forrest Gump' received its theatrical release 15 years ago, the media quickly latched onto the realistic special effects used to insert Tom Hanks character into a number of historically significant film footage that can be seen throughout the film. ...
• Heat, Logan's Run, Negotiator Delayed One Week - August 27, 2009
Warner Home Video has announced that three of the catalog titles it had announced on Blu-ray for November 3 –'Heat', 'Logan's Run' and 'The Negotiator'- have been delayed a week and thus will be released on November 10. On the other hand, 'North by Northwest' isn't ...
• North by Northwest Announced for Blu-ray Digibook Release - July 20, 2009
Warner Home Video has announced that they will bring the classic Alfred Hitchcock film 'North by Northwest' to Blu-ray as a Digibook release on November 3rd, day-and-date with the DVD re-release. Technical specs have not been announced at this time, though you ...
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