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North By Northwest

review by Anthony D.



Not Rated

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Starring Cary Grant

Studio: Warner

Directed by Alferd Hitchcock


Retail Price: 24.99

Features: Theatrical Trailers, Audio Commentary by Lehman, Stills Gallery, Documentary

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital English, English Captions, French Captions, Chapter Search (22 Chapters)

It's a most unusual day when Roger O. Thornhill, Madison Avenue advertising executive, decides to send a message from the Oak Bar in The Plaza Hotel at the same time that a Mister George Kaplan is being paged. Roger's synchronized gesture catches the eye of two thugs, who thinking that he is "Kaplan," promptly hustle him off to a mysterious mansion on Long Island. Owing to that one, ill-timed gesture Thornhill's life is thrown topsy-turvy into a web of sinister spies, false identities, icy blondes and onto a journey that ulitmately lead him to Rapid City, South Dakota on top of Mount Rushmore.

Cary Grant headlines as Roger Thornhill in Alfred Hitchcock's stunning spy thriller NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the master's only film for M-G-M, and the film wedged in between the visceral VERTIGO and his ultimate masterpiece PSYCHO. This was Grant's final teaming with Hitchcock - - SUSPICION, NOTORIOUS and TO CATCH A THIEF preceded - - and a zenith in both of their illustrious careers.

Revisiting the past theme of a wrongly accused man, Hitchcock leads a merry chase across half of the United States, as Thornhill attempts to prove that he is NOT George Kaplan, C.I.A. agent; but Roger Thornhill, adman. Following a well-documented assassination in the United Nations, Thornhill is forced to follow the path of the elusive George Kaplan (he is able to track him down through forwarding addresses left at hotels) eluding the authorities and the bad guys each step of the way.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST has been described by screenwriter Ernest Lehman as "the ultimate Hitchcock movie," and though I fell that honor falls to VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST does contain many unforgettable Hitchcock set pieces: the murder in the United Nations (which looks a lot like the murder in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH), the crop-dusting plane attacking Cary Grant (unparalleled in the Hitchcock canon) and the final moments atop of Mount Rushmore (in SABOTEUR, it was the Statue of Liberty). If not "the ultimate Hitchcock movie," NORTH BY NORTHWEST is held in high regard from Hitchcock fans.

Warner Home Video has given us an anamorphically enhanced, widescreen presentation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 thriller. Filmed in VistaVison for added width, depth and clarity, NORTH BY NORTHWEST seems to be framed properly at 1.78:1, all the screen information is correct including the wide vista shot in Chapter 24 containing Cary Grant, the bus passenger, as well as the open plains on either side of them - - previous widescreen versions of NORTH BY NORTHWEST has cut off some information on the left and right hand sides of the screen. The print itself is pristine, with no artifacts to be seen.

On the other hand, I found the Technicolor to be problematic. The film has that glossy look of 1950's films, but the flesh tones rendered here often veer toward orange, Cary Grant's "California Tan" notwithstanding. There is also a softness to the picture which is also a result of that glossy, big-studio look. The image, however, looks far better in a completely darkened screening room. I have read complaints that this recent remastering was grainy in the first half, but, I found no traces of graininess.

Bearing all of this in mind, I did find this to be on the whole, a very natural presentation, with blacks that never go too deep, and a color scheme that works quite well. There are no bleeding reds, and the contrast, though soft, is above average. As for the color red: well, in the Chicago train station, those porters known as "Red Caps," are all sporting vermilion caps. In a later scene (Chapter 27), leading lady Eva Marie Saint is clothed in a dress of red floral design against a black silky fabric, and each hue of red can be discerned. Aliasing is non-existent.

The audio presentation of NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a re-mixed Dolby Digital 5.1, exclusive to this DVD. And what a splendid mix this is! Dialogue is firmly placed, and the surrounds used for effects and music. This mix has none of the hokeyness that I associate with the recent 5.1 release of VERTIGO. Paying well in the LFE channel is Bernard Herrmann's serio-comic score, his first in this mode since his first association with Hitchock,1955's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. Basses are nicely rounded out, and directionality is often employed to great effect: check out the crop-duster in Chapter 25, or the truck in Chapter 23 - - all part of the great Hitchcock set-piece in the cornfield. Dialogue is wonderfully rendered here, with rare moments of ADR which sound very studio-like. All in all, a very fine sound design.

Warner offers up some very interesting Special Features for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, taking their cue from the excellent Universal Hitchcock Special Editions. Up front is the made-for-video documentary, Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest. Hosted by female lead Eva Marie Saint, the feature is a very cut-and-dry exploration of what indeed go into the making of the film, with appearances put in by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, production designer Robert Boyle and Universal stalwart, as well as director's daughter: Patricia Hitchcock. It is in this documentary that the issues of script censorship are raised concerning one line of dialogue ultimately re-looped: if you watch closely during Chapter 17 ("It's a Nice Face."), Eva Marie Saint's lips are clearly saying, "I never make love on an empty stomach," while the quip is something completely different.

Two audio-only Special Features are well worth remembering. On one track we are given a cd quality representation of Bernard Herrmann's wonderful score, and watching the film with this function on, I was reminded of how brilliant Hitchcock's visual story-telling is. But for those initial moments of exposition, this is a very easy film to follow without Lehman's scintillating scenario. Even the major centerpiece of the film ( the corn field sequence) is nearly eight minutes of soundtrack silence. The other audio only feature is a feature length, running commentary by Ernest Lehman. Lehman is relaxed and anecdotal throughout, giving nice insights into his working relationship with Hitch, and his unadulterated love of this film.

Three very different trailers round out the Special Features: M-G-M's re-issue trailer, a stunning black & white letterboxed (!) television trailer and of course, Hitchcock's very own personalized guided tour of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. There is also a very appropriate production stills gallery.

Warner has done a bang-up job on their first widescreen Hitchcock release, but what a wonderful film they were working with! NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of those rare films where everything works. Thanks to a droll script the early expository scenes fly swiftly by setting up the role-playing Thornhill, an advertiser ("In the world of advertising there is no such thing as a lie...there is only expedient exaggeration.") must go through when his very life depends on living an expedient lie. This is a film fantasy of the absurd, as attested to by its title: there is NO north-by-northwest on the compass - -it's an impossibility. Shakespeare buff's will instantly recall the source for the film's title - - Hamlet to his companion," I am mad but north-by-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." Roger Thornhill, on taking the identity of George Kaplan, is still Roger Thornhill - - able to detect the difference, hopefully, between his reality and Kaplan's un-real universe.

A thrilling, sexy, spy versus spy story, told in the hands of a suspense master has reached the digital domain with marvelous transfer sure to please both Hitchcock fans, as well as film lovers. Warner deserves every accolade possible for making NORTH BY NORTHWEST available in such a modestly priced package.

(5/5, NOT included in final score)




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