DVD - Image A Sound B Extras A
BD - Image A+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis
screenplay by Ernest Lehman
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is Alfred Hitchcock's most mercurial anti-hero, the soup bone reduction of the Master's wrong-man theme. An advertising executive so at ease with changing his identity at the fall of a hammer, he has, by film's end, become/done all of the things he's wrongfully accused of being/doing at the beginning of the film. Indeed, Hitchcock would never again mine the idea of the wrong man with this kind of heat--veering off as he did into a more metaphysical kind of guilt transference à la Vertigo with The Birds, Psycho, and Marnie. As North by Northwest opens, Thornhill gives his regards to a night porter's wife ("We're not talkin'!"), steals a cab from a Good Samaritan, and instructs his secretary to send a neglected lover a box of gold-wrapped candy because "she'll think she's eating money." He's a charmer--and he's as oily, despicable, and fast-talking as almost every one of Grant's romantic comedy heroes. Hitch undermines and exploits Grant for the fourth and final time here as a guy we love until we stop for a second to catch our breath and take stock of the myriad ways in which we've been bribed, glad-handed, misled, and led-on.
Colour is of primary importance in North by Northwest, as are the names of liminal places (each suggesting transformation) and the ways that Hitchcock has decided to demonstrate that people are reducible to numbers, money, items, and, in an idea heretical during the Eisenhower era, the equivalently shady idea of patriotism. ("If this is how we win cold wars, maybe we better start losing a few.") Saul Bass's opening credit sequence--lines at angles bisecting one another that resolve into the face of a Madison Avenue skyscraper--always looked to me like a ledger, and as the picture progresses, Ernest Lehman's screenplay takes pains to assign explicit room numbers, car train numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, and, finally, auction prices that Thornhill corrupts to effect his escape. (Eva Marie Saint's femme fatale Eve Kendall, for instance, is usually found in places the number sum of which is thirteen: car 3901, hotel room 463; Thornhill, meanwhile, is apprehended on a "code 76.") Consistently on the left, "weak" side of the screen until the finale in which he enacts the only positive motion of the film, Thornhill is clad throughout in a blue-grey suit, colours that denote ambiguity and the protean nature of the wearer. See how Hitchcock uses blue (especially on the side of a Zephyr truck that obscures Thornhill at the Prairie Stop/crop-duster scene), then red (for the fallen woman), then white (for the freshly knighted knight errant).
Perhaps the most breezily enjoyable of any Hitchcock for the mousetrap concision of its narrative and the breathtaking technical proficiency of its performances and direction, North by Northwest is thought by many to be the quintessential Hitchcock film for its adherence to nearly every one of Hitchcock's themes up to this point. It explores the unreliability of written language in ways wry (Thornhill's life and staged-death affirmed by "the quiet authority of the written word") and literal (as when a message hidden in a matchbook is intercepted by the enemy), the wrong man problem afflicting a wrong man who's actually more comfortable as an Odyssean nobody (the "O" in his monogram ROT stands for "nothing"--and decomposition), drinking as a means to metastasis, sexual ambiguity on the part of villain Van Damme (James Mason) and his henchman Leonard (Martin "Call It My Woman's Intuition" Landau), and the ideological defacing of national monuments (Mt. Rushmore and the United Nations building). Indeed, North by Northwest is something of a kinetic remake of Notorious that recasts the monstrous mother (Jessie Royce Landis) as a woman with Elizabeth Taylor's hooker's phone number--Butterfield-8 being bought off by her son for fifty bucks to do something illegal.
But North by Northwest is more than a clearing house of Hitchcock's auteur tendencies: It's neither a self-homage nor a shrine, but rather a devilishly complex pre-post-modern beast rumbling along on its style and self-knowledge with an energy more exhilarating than enervating. Its set-pieces are self-contained and wondrously illogical (indeed, the film was pitched on the strength of a scant three hastily-sketched scenarios: a murder at the UN; a chase across Mt. Rushmore; and a scene at an automobile plant), and at the end comes the understanding that were you ever given a moment for contemplation, the whole confection would fall like a house of cards. North by Northwest is Hitchcock at his most entertaining and contemptuous--a response to the failure the year before of Vertigo and the last time he really gave a shit about what the audience thought of his pictures. The success of this one, after all, lubricated the way for the highly personal films that would make Hitchcock a legend as opposed to a mere genius.
Warner outdoes itself with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer of North by Northwest that, aided by Lowry Digital's computer-restoration techniques, rediscovers the astonishing VistaVision detail and clarity of Robert Burks's cinematography. That Eve's eyes are moist during the auction sequence is one of those details that says everything without saying anything--and this is the first time I ever noticed them. Amazing. The DD 5.1 remix presents dialogue and Bernard Herrmann's extraordinary score--sourced from the original stereo masters--in distinct channels to good, if subdued, effect. On another track, a feature-length commentary from screenwriter Lehman is useless, really, unless you care what Lehman thinks works and doesn't work about a film that doesn't justify a whole lot of criticism. Lots of long silences mark the yakker (never a good sign), but I was pleased to learn that it was Herrmann who first introduced Lehman to Hitchcock.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers This Blu-ray Disc keeps getting saddled with the hyperbolic praise that it makes North by Northwest look like it was shot yesterday. It doesn't, nor would you want it to, as that would constitute revisionism. (That said, I'm sure I'm guilty of recycling that exact cliché when talking about transfers of other old films.) No, the 1.78:1, 1080p presentation, downconverted from a wonderfully gratuitous 8k scan of archival elements treated to a painstaking digital restoration, makes the film look new by 1959 standards: The actors remain overlit and overtanned in the fashion of Fifties colour productions, but boy, does the image sparkle. You can say it puts the 2000 DVD release to shame, though it also approaches the material less naturalistically and thus, given that this is Hitchcock, probably more accurately, first by turning down the brightness a few notches (better blending the traveling mattes of the Mt. Rushmore climax), then by increasing the amount of red and gold in the palette--these two corrections working in tandem to significantly enhance the magic-hour flavour of the cropduster centrepiece. In addition, the backdrop to Saul Bass's main titles is now a deep, Emerald City green instead of a bland turquoise. Grain is minimal but doesn't seem tampered with; North by Northwest was shot in VistaVision, with film running horizontally through the camera--a process that traditionally produces cleaner imagery (hence its continued usage in many effects houses long after the format's demise). In short: revelatory. The accompanying 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio isn't as dramatic an upgrade, although Bernard Herrmann's score--isolated in a separate, lossy DD 5.1 track--was never so nerve-jangling. Still no original mono option, alas.
All of the SD platter's extras resurface here, where they're joined by Robert Trachtenberg's feature-length Cary Grant: A Class Apart (87 mins., 480i) plus two cutesily-edited Gary Leva featurettes--"The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style" (58 mins., 16x9/480i) and "North by Northwest: One for the Ages" (26 mins., 16x9/480i)--that serve as an extension of the tapestry Leva started weaving on Universal's Legacy Series editions of Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho. The Grant doc, which initially appended the Two-Disc SE of Bringing Up Baby (does this mean we're not going to see that on Blu-ray anytime soon?), is comprehensive but also iconoclastic enough as to be depressing; it feels like emasculating Grant is a favourite pastime of DVD-supplement producers, since this is merely the longest irreverent tribute to the screen legend I've seen.
The new stuff is more for Hitch newbies than for anyone else (I swear, if I hear about that goddamn bomb under the table one more time...), and the one devoted to North by Northwest proper winnows the previous segment's eclectic roster of interviewees (which runs the gamut from Camille Paglia to Ben Burtt) down to filmmakers Francis Lawrence, Christopher McQuarrie, Curtis Hanson, William Friedkin, and Guillermo Del Toro. The presence of Lawrence, perpetrator of Constantine and I Am Legend, is especially dubious and makes you wonder if being on the Warner lot at the time was the primary consideration when casting these things, though Friedkin is typically useless on the subject of someone else's film despite his boast that he's seen North by Northwest hundreds of times. Loved Martin Scorsese's dissection of The Wrong Man's use of subjective camera, however, and wish he occupied a slot on the aforementioned director's panel. My suspicion is that he doesn't have any particular love for North by Northwest. The BD comes in digibook packaging, complete with a 44-page, colourfully-illustrated booklet containing brief biographies of the above-the-title players. Originally published: November 11, 2009.