At last! It took years and years, but I finally own a Blu-ray copy of an Alfred Hitchcock film! And though it may not be the title many of you expected (sorry, Norman Bates fans), it’s nevertheless one of the director’s finest and most revered efforts. In fact, when screenwriter Ernest Lehman first began collaborating with the Master of Suspense, he aspired to create “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” and many would agree “North By Northwest” is just that. The quintessential chase film, a blueprint for the modern action epic, and Hitchcock’s personal homage to himself, this captivating transcontinental pursuit smoothly combines suspense, thrills, comedy, romance, and intrigue, and presents them with all the elegant artistry and brash innovation that has made Hitchcock one of cinema’s most esteemed and admired directors.
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a successful, somewhat smug Manhattan advertising executive whose ordered life takes an out-of-control turn when he’s abducted by a couple of thugs while lunching with clients at the Plaza Hotel. The ruffians believe him to be someone named George Kaplan, and despite Roger’s vehement protests to the contrary, cart him off to a Long Island estate bogusly inhabited by suave Soviet sympathizer Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) for interrogation. Completely flummoxed over why he’s been kidnapped, Roger is unable to provide the information his captors crave. He narrowly escapes their clutches, but can’t convince the police or even his own mother (Jesse Royce Landis) the episode is anything more than a wild drunken escapade. Determined to clear his name, he tracks a lead to the United Nations, but when the diplomat he’s questioning is murdered, Roger is framed for the crime, and quickly becomes America’s most wanted man. All this sets up a frantic cross-country chase, as Roger tries to track down the real Kaplan, elude the authorities, and thwart Vandamm and his henchmen, all with the help (or hindrance?) of the sleek, sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious woman he “coincidentally” meets on the train to Chicago.
Fifty plus years after its initial release, “North By Northwest” remains one of Hollywood’s most stylish, slick, entertaining, and expertly crafted thrillers, but it’s perhaps best known for two brilliantly executed suspense scenes. The first involves Roger trying to evade a dogged attack by a sinister crop-dusting plane in a barren cornfield, and the second is the film’s climactic chase across the sculpted stone faces of Mount Rushmore. Both illustrate Hitchcock’s peerless command of high-voltage action and showcase his uncanny ability to not only build tension and provide a satisfying payoff, but also so fully enrapture his audience; they forget the preposterous nature of the situations they’re watching. The crop-dusting sequence especially relies on carefully chosen camera angles that set mood and tone, meticulously choreographed action, purposeful editing, and the heightened use of subtle sounds. The result is an unforgettable stand-alone vignette that thrills the senses and fosters intense admiration for the talent on display.
The audacious Mount Rushmore chase is even more challenging to put over. Totally studio shot, the sequence relies heavily on suspension of disbelief, but Hitchcock masterfully blends gigantic backdrops and set pieces to fashion a seamless illusion only the most cynical viewer could reject. Aided by Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score and a cast of committed actors, Hitchcock pushes the envelope as far as he can and fashions a thoroughly engrossing, edge-of-the-seat climax. Absurd? Absolutely. Riveting? You bet.
“North By Northwest” also combines a host of elements from previous Hitchcock films, yet never feels like a hodgepodge or rip-off. The wrong man/mistaken identity/man-on-the-run theme has long been a Hitchcock staple, and is employed to great effect in 1942’s “Saboteur,” which also culminates in a showdown atop an iconic American monument (the Statue of Liberty). The sequence on the 20th Century Limited hearkens back to such train-oriented Hitchcock films as “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes“; Saint’s icy blonde with a smoldering soul recalls a string of fair-haired, hot-blooded Hitchcock beauties from Grace Kelly to Kim Novak; and the playful yet potent love scene between Grant and Saint in her cramped train compartment is strikingly similar to the seductive dance Grant and Ingrid Bergman enjoy while talking on the telephone in “Notorious.” (Ironically, Hitchcock’s next picture would be “Psycho,” which escalates the same type of codependent relationship Roger and his mother share in “North By Northwest” to a much darker, more disturbing degree.) Such familiar components never detract from the picture’s on-screen hijinks; on the contrary, they only add to the fun.
And there’s a lot of fun sprinkled amid the chases, double-crosses, and derring-do in Ernest Lehman’s virtuoso, Oscar-nominated screenplay. In many ways, the whole movie feels like one long inside joke, and all the while puppeteer Sir Alfred is having the biggest laugh of all. Witty nuances abound – my favorite throwaway is the Plaza Hotel orchestra playing ‘It’s a Most Unusual Day’ as Roger strolls across the lobby minutes before he’s abducted – and dry one-liners and comedic imagery, many laced with overt sexual overtones, almost outnumber tense skirmishes. (The final shot of a steel locomotive plunging into a dark tunnel is pure suggestive genius.) Though the tight, complex story may not always make sense, the predicaments in which the colourful characters become embroiled are so beguiling, we don’t really care. “North By Northwest” is a hop-aboard-the-rollercoaster, go-with-the-flow thriller, a precursor to films featuring James Bond, Indiana Jones, and John McClane, in which style, ingenuity, and charisma trump believability.
In his fourth, final, and finest Hitchcock appearance, Grant proves time and again why he was such an asset to the director. Few actors possess such impeccable timing, maximize the impact of every line, exude such allure, or so willingly play the fool, but Grant does it all and somehow remains relatable in the process. Grant may not be the everyman like James Stewart or Henry Fonda, but his approachable nature and lack of airs make him attractive to both women and men. Here, his sizzling rapport with Saint, who nails her duplicitous part, creates taut sexual tension that never slackens, and his rapier repartee with Mason, whose refined villainy surely influenced Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” crackles with thinly veiled mutual disdain. Martin Landau makes a perfect loyal henchman, and as Roger’s mother, Landis (who was a mere seven years older than Grant) adds a delightful sardonic tone to the early proceedings.
To some, “North By Northwest” might seem tame, even a bit dull by today’s adrenaline-rush standards, and it probably runs just a tad longer than it probably needed to (due to Hitchcock’s final-cut contract clause). But if you stand Hitchcock up against some of the hacks making bigger, bolder, emptier movies today, there’s no contest. Hitchcock wins hands down, and “North By Northwest” is one of this legendary director’s best – a droll, thrilling, romantic, altogether captivating work that’s as much fun today as it was over a half-century ago. (My Movie Rating: 4/5)
THE VISUAL QUALITY
When Warner Home Video released “North By Northwest” on DVD in 2000, it instantly became one of the preeminent classic movie transfers of the digital age, so expectations were understandably sky-high when the company announced a Blu-ray edition of Hitchcock’s iconic chase film earlier this year. The restoration price tag reportedly topped $1 million, but it was money (very) well spent, as “North By Northwest” comes closer to achieving perfection than any other 1080p classic movie transfer I’ve seen. The 56 year-old film looks so good, in fact, it puts many recent Blu-ray releases to shame.
Shot in VistaVision (a short-lived, higher resolution widescreen process developed by Paramount in the mid-1950s), “North By Northwest” is a natural for a Blu-ray makeover, and its exquisitely balanced colour and contrast, along with its fine grain structure (a VistaVision staple), produce a crisp, dimensional, utterly pleasing viewing experience. Grain-haters will no doubt rhapsodize over the picture’s sleek appearance, but the 1080p/VC-1 encode never looks processed or digitally smoothed. A palpable filmic feel still prevails, and though a few brief scenes sport a hint more grain than most, the levels never seem out of whack.
The transfer’s quality is evident from the film’s opening frames. The fluorescent green background over which the credits roll is solid and vibrant, and as it gradually dissolves into the glass façade of a skyscraper reflecting Manhattan’s teeming cityscape, the level of detail is striking. (It’s a very tricky shot, and flawlessly rendered.) Background accents are always razor sharp, so whether Grant is navigating the Big Apple’s jammed sidewalks, a dense Indiana cornfield, or the face of Mount Rushmore, the image is always packed with information, and its depth and dimension easily immerse us in the on-screen action. Hitchcock also employs a hefty amount of rear projection work (one of his few shortcomings, in my opinion), and though it’s always apparent, it’s well integrated into the whole.
Colour-wise, primaries pop, but never look synthetic or overly saturated, and though the film’s palette often emits a sterile coolness, enough warmth permeates the picture to keep its temperature in check. Grant’s heavily tanned skin rivals that of George Hamilton, yet it still appears natural, as do all flesh tones. Blacks are deliciously inky, but no incidents of crush drown out shadow detail. Close-ups are strong – despite the stylistic use of filters to shave a few years off Grant’s age and soften Saint’s facial features – and textures, such as the weave of various suits, wall coverings, leather upholstery, even the coarse hair on Grant’s knuckles, are clearly discernible.
Though the upconverted DVD still looks mighty fine on a high-def display, it pales when compared to this superb Blu-ray presentation. Fine details are substantially clearer, flesh tones lose their reddish tint, colours look more realistic, and any stray speckles or dirt marks have been erased. Edges are also cleaner, though no digital enhancements, artificial sharpening, posturisation, or mosquito noise muck up the pristine image. Can “North By Northwest” look any better? I can’t even imagine it.
Simply put, this is a gorgeous, A+ effort that perfectly represents this Hitchcock masterwork. Once again, Warner proves just how brilliant classic movies can look on Blu-ray, and this impeccable transfer more than whets our appetite for the riches yet to come. (Video Rating: 5/5)
THE AUDIO QUALITY
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is a fine upgrade from the DVD’s previous Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but doesn’t quite achieve the same “wow” factor as the video. First of all, don’t be afraid to pump up the volume; I found the track to be surprisingly quiet at first, yet after two or three sizeable increases above my normal settings, I finally reached a comfortable listening level. (Warner’s TrueHD classic movie tracks always seem to be mixed a little on the soft side, but handle augmented volume extremely well.)
Surround elements are understandably faint throughout most of the film, but boy do those rears come alive during the crop-dusting sequence, as the plane makes its dipping and diving passes over Grant, the cornfield, and my living room sofa. (It’s hard to imagine a 50-year-old film competing sonically with today’s action epics, but “North By Northwest” tries its best during this one classic scene.) When the surrounds are silent, the front channels pick up the slack with some distinct stereo separation that lends the audio welcome scope. Dialogue is well prioritized and always easy to understand, even when spoken in hushed tones, and Bernard Herrmann’s highly recognizable score sounds terrific. Though it doesn’t wrap around us as much as we’d like, its fullness of tone and enhanced fidelity make almost every instrument distinguishable. The screeching strings always resist distortion, and the low-end horns and percussion lend great weight to select scenes. (For those who truly want to experience and revel in Herrmann’s marvelous score, a music-only track can be accessed through the disc’s special features.)
Details are always crisply rendered, from the subtle use of hedge-clippers early in the film to the gravel beneath Grant’s shoes as he shuffles his feet while awaiting the crop-duster’s surprise attack. And the one big bass moment doesn’t disappoint, as the subwoofer pumps out a hefty rumble during a memorable crash and subsequent explosion. Best of all, the track is as clean as a whistle, with no errant pops, static, or hiss betraying the movie’s advanced age.
Sound is an essential Hitchcockian element, and the superior audio on this disc does the film proud. (Audio Rating: 4.5/5)
DIGGING INTO THE SUPPLEMENTS
The disc-based extras are of the highest quality – this is, after all, a Warner classic release – and they both educate and entertain while delving deep inside the production. All are well worth checking out.
- Audio Commentary – The late screenwriter Ernest Lehman was a spry 84 years old when he sat down to record this commentary in 2000, and his crystal clear memories of his close collaboration with Hitchcock and detailed chronicle of the creative process behind penning the “North By Northwest” script make for a fascinating listen. He also recalls how composer Bernard Herrmann introduced him to Hitchcock, how he and the director hoodwinked MGM into letting them develop “North By Northwest” instead of work on a previously arranged project, and how he visited all the various locales prior to writing – and that included climbing halfway up the face of Mount Rushmore! Lehman starts slowly, but after 20 minutes or so picks up steam, and his insights will enlighten even diehard Hitchcock fans.
- Documentary: “Cary Grant: A Class Apart” (SD, 87 minutes) – Originally broadcast on PBS as part of the network’s acclaimed ‘American Masters’ series, this incisive 2004 documentary (previously included in the Cary Grant DVD box set that contains “North By Northwest“) takes an in-depth look at Grant’s screen persona and how it shaped and affected his private life. Reminiscences from close friends, two wives, and noted critics provide fascinating perspective on the actor’s professional and personal relationships, his difficult upbringing, stellar work ethic, and underrated talent. Film clips galore, from Grant’s first role in 1931 to his last in 1966, illustrate his versatility, magnetism, and iconic style. Though his contributions to cinema dominate this excellent profile, Grant’s five marriages, his controversial relationship with fellow actor Randolph Scott, experimentation with LSD, affair with Sophia Loren, and lifelong struggles with intimacy are also explored with integrity and good taste. This is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in this beloved Hollywood legend.
- Documentary: ‘Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest’ (SD, 39 minutes) – Eva Marie Saint hosts this thoughtful look back at the film’s production, which was included on the previous DVD release in 2000. Saint takes us through the film’s shooting chronologically, and along the way relates personal anecdotes, spills secrets, identifies one notable gaffe, and recalls some on-set buffoonery. Martin Landau, Ernest Lehman (whose remarks on the commentary track were largely – if not totally – lifted from his interview here), and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, also share their memories of the director and his technique.
- Still Gallery (HD) – Forty-three stills in both black-and-white and color are included in this gallery, which features on-set production shots, a selection of poster art, and photos of notable personnel (Saint, Lehman, and Patricia Hitchcock) during the shooting of interviews for the DVD’s special feature package in 2000.
- Theatrical Trailers (SD, 6 minutes) – In addition to a black-and-white re-release TV spot and full color re-release trailer, there’s the amusing theatrical preview, ‘A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock,’ in which the master himself hypes “North By Northwest” as if he were a travel agent hawking a cross-country vacation.
Two excellent, brand-new supplements exclusive to this Blu-ray release further explore Hitchcock’s genius and the enduring allure of ‘North by Northwest.’
- Documentary: “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style” (SD, 57 minutes) – Myriad aspects of Hitchcock’s inimitable technique are scrutinized in this probing, well-produced piece that shows how the director’s personal idiosyncrasies influenced his work. A host of fellow directors, from Martin Scorsese to John Carpenter, as well as Hitchcock himself (care of an archival interview) comment on such topics as visual storytelling, subjective point of view, editing, and building suspense. We also learn about the fascinating villains Hitchcock often employed, the sense of humor that pervades his films, his selective use of sound, impeccable sense of style, and, of course, his penchant for blonde heroines. Clips from such classics as “Dial M For Murder,” “Strangers On A Train,” “Stage Fright,” “The Wrong Man,” “I Confess,” and “North By Northwest” illustrate the various points. This top-notch documentary is another must-view that will captivate both Hitchcock junkies and those just discovering the master’s work.
- Featurette: “North by Northwest: One for the Ages” (SD, 25 minutes) – This all-new, absorbing featurette allows directors Curtis Hanson, Francis Lawrence, Guillermo Del Toro, and William Friedkin, along with screenwriter Christopher McQuerrie, the chance to honor, analyze, and dissect this Hitchcock masterwork. Among other things, the quintet identifies the various classic Hitchcock elements present in the film, discusses the script’s surprising depth, and provides an in-depth examination of the crop-dusting scene.
(Special Features Rating: 4/5)
Hitchcock fans, rejoice! The master’s high-def release of one of his most influential pieces of work hits the ball out of the park. “North By Northwest” may be 56, but this immortal action-comedy thriller doesn’t look or sound anywhere near that old on Blu-ray. Superb video and audio immerse us in Roger Thornhill’s desperate, madcap plight, while a fantastic array of extras puts Hitchcock, Grant, and this wildly entertaining film in their proper perspective. One to own – and replay often – indeed. (Overall Blu-ray Disc Review: 4.5/5)