It's been fifty years, and in celebration of the event, Warner Bros. present "North by Northwest" in a restored and remastered 50th Anniversary, high-definition Blu-ray Book Edition. Things couldn't be better.
With this movie, we find director Alfred Hitchcock at his most playful and Cary Grant at his most debonair. It's a potent combination for one of the screen's choicest comedy thrillers, "North By Northwest."
Actually, I suppose one might best describe "North by Northwest" as a romantic adventure comedy thriller. It is quintessential Hitchcock, containing every ingredient the old master had perfected up to that point, 1959. The two films that came directly after would follow different paths, "Psycho" in 1960 and "The Birds" in 1963 adding outright shock and a little fantasy to the mystery. But "North by Northwest" stays clear of too many scary episodes, and when things do get tense for a few minutes they are sure to lighten up before long.
What we have here is the innocent bystander caught up in extraordinary events, believed by no one and pursued by everyone. If that sounds like "The 39 Steps" or "The Wrong Man" or "The Man Who Knew Too Much," you'll already have the idea of Grant's predicament. He plays a Madison Avenue advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, whom a gang of international spies mistake for a secret agent named George Kaplan. They kidnap Thornhill and attempt to make him talk; they never mention what they want him to talk about, nor should they. It is, in fact, what Hitchcock called a McGuffin, a plot gimmick that moves the story along but, otherwise, has no real purpose. Therefore, we don't need to know what the bad guys want from Kaplan, only that they're after him and they think Thornhill is their man.
Anyway, Thornhill gets away from them and in the process manages to appear as though he's killed a man, right in the middle of the U.N. Building in full view of witnesses and a photographer! Now, he figures the only way to prove his innocence is to find the real murderers, which leads to a cross-country romp, a romance, and at least two of the most celebrated chase sequences ever filmed.
Don't even begin to figure out the reason behind it all. In Ernest Lehman's blithely illogical plot, the spies are after Thornhill, the police are after him, his picture is in all the newspapers, so he hides out on a train, where he meets a young woman named Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. Ms. Saint is in the mold of many Hitchcock heroines--Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren--blond, beautiful, seemingly harmless, but harboring more secrets than she lets on.
James Mason plays the chief scoundrel, Phillip Vandamm, with roguish charm. I mean, men with British accents make for such wonderful heavies, don't they? One can't help thinking of Basil Rathbone, Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, and the rest. Maybe it's the something about the pompous precision of the scoundrels' enunciation that makes us long to see them get their comeuppance. In any event, Mason makes a strong, menacing, gentleman villain, ordering about several henchmen, including Martin Landau as the sinister and enigmatic Leonard. Leo J. Carroll, a reliable staple of Hitchcock films, plays the Professor, a CIA operative we're never too sure about until the very end.
Indeed, nothing in Lehman's script is quite what it appears to be. For instance, Grant is almost too handsome, too fit, too elegant, too suave, too refined for anyone to trust. Remember, as an ad man, his business is duplicity; he lies for a living. Then, too, his middle initial is O, as in zero, because it stands for nothing except to give him the acronym ROT. Nothing but rot? Curious, no? As a piece of further mischief, Jessie Royce Landis plays his mother in the film, yet she was in reality only seven or eight years older than Grant. Well, it does tend to make Grant seem younger than his actual mid-fiftyish age and helps us to accept his romance easier with the much-younger Eva Marie Saint.
Finally, you may wonder, where is Hitchcock's famous cameo in all of this? Audiences would sometimes spend as much energy looking for Hitch's appearance as they did following the plot. As in most of his later films, the director gets it over with early on, playing a fellow trying to catch a bus and being shut out.
Trivia note: "North by Northwest" made such an impression on the producers of the first Bond film in the early Sixties, they tried to recreate the movie's substance and style in their own picture. Not only that, they even tried to hire Cary Grant for the part of 007. Grant declined because he wanted too much money and because he wouldn't do more than one film. Grant would go on, though, to reprise much the same tone and material as here several years later for director Stanley Donen in "Charade," both films providing romance, excitement, suspense, and humor in equal measure.
Heading vaguely northwest from New York via Northwest Airlines, Thornhill winds up dodging a biplane in a Midwestern cornfield and later hanging from the face of Mt. Rushmore. And here's where Warner Brothers' fully restored and remastered, high-definition, 1.85:1 ratio widescreen transfer comes into its own. Using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 1080p encode (reduced from an 8K image scan), the engineers ensure that the movie's Technicolor VistaVision image (from a 1.50:1 ratio negative) never looked better. With tints and hues very deep and vivid, the corn stalks were never more distinct nor the Presidents' faces more realistically represented on the home screen. Which is somewhat ironic since Hitchcock faked the cornfield in the Southern California area near Bakersfield, and because the National Park Service wouldn't let him film on Mt. Rushmore, he built the whole Mt. Rushmore set in Hollywood.
Nevertheless, through the magic of movies, everything looks authentic, and the Blu-ray disc's excellent visual qualities reproduce every nuance in gleaming clarity. About the only things I can fault are minor: The definition varies somewhat from scene to scene and shot to shot, and the picture quality never gleams or glistens but seems a bit reserved, with surfaces just slightly veiled. Fortunately, the image's clean screen and excellent dimensionality more than make up for it.
As important, the audio engineers remixed and transferred the film's audio in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 to good advantage. It's not state-of-the-art 5.1, certainly, but it acquits itself well enough. The crop-duster plane flies over the audience in surround sound, and when it does, several times, it makes a vigorous impression. Underscored by Bernard Herrmann's riveting musical track, the whole film is a delight to look at, listen to, and enjoy. What the TrueHD reproduction brings to the equation is its rock-solid stability and smoothness, making the regular, lossy Dolby Digital track seem more forward and lightweight.
Appropriate to a film of this caliber, Warner Brothers offer "North by Northwest" in a 50th Anniversary Blu-ray Book Edition, with several new bonuses. The newly made items include a 2009 documentary called "The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style," fifty-seven minutes on Hitchcock's influence on the mystery-suspense genre; followed by "North By Northwest: One for the Ages," also from 2009, twenty-five minutes on the making of the film with comments from fellow filmmakers, actors, and writers.
The rest of the items are a little older. There's an audio commentary by the film's screenwriter, Ernest Lehman; an eighty-seven minute career profile, "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," made in 2004 and hosted by Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam; and a thirty-nine minute documentary, "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest," produced in 2000 and hosted by Eva Marie Saint that provides background information, interviews, and behind-the-scenes footage on the filmmaking.
In addition, you'll find a stills gallery; a music-only audio track for those who just want to highlight Herrmann's notable score; theatrical trailers and TV spots, including a wonderfully droll trailer hosted by Hitchcock himself; forty-six scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Italian, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
The disc comes housed in the back of a forty-four page, hardbound Blu-ray Book with pictures and text covering numerous aspects of the film and filmmaking. Very nice.
As the movie goes on, misunderstandings, irony, and deception build on more misunderstandings, irony, and deception. The last twenty minutes of "North by Northwest" abandon whimsy altogether and turn into genuine tension and thrills. This movie never lets us go in peace until the final fade-out. But we wouldn't have it any other way. It's classic Hitchcock.
"This is silly."
"I know, but I'm sentimental."