North By Northwest is perhaps the finest example ever of the possibilities of popular entertainment. Alfred Hitchcock's film is thrilling, funny, and romantic; it elevates popcorn adventure to art, and defines the ideal use of star power. It also perhaps best represents Hitchcock, who shepherded Ernest Lehman's outstanding screenplay through elegant production design to a final product that marries deadly intrigue to out-and-out delight.
North By Northwest storms onto the screen with a thundering Bernard Herrmann overture and angular Saul Bass titles superimposed onto a New York skyscraper (the sequence rounds off with Hitch's customary cameo). Amid the hustle and bustle of New York, we hone in on one man, Roger O. Thornhill, played by a never-better Cary Grant. Hitchcock takes full advantage of Grant's droll delivery and debonair charm, while gently mocking that very suavity by making advertising executive Thornhill both an everyday, accidental hero (a custom of the master of suspense) and--horrors!--a mama's boy (incidentally, Jessie Royce Landis, who played Mrs. Thornhill, was actually within a few months of Grant's age).
In a simple twist of fate, Thornhill is mistaken for one George Kaplan by a ring of international spies, headed up by Philip Vandamm (James Mason at his most urbane). More sheer luck allows Thornhill to escape the bad guys' clutches, but his attempts to expose them to the police leave him baffled and chagrined. Taking it upon himself to investigate, with mother in tow, Thornhill finds himself framed for murder. In a series of cat-and-mouse games with Vandamm, his gorgeous paramour (Eva Marie Saint), and the American authorities, (represented by Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll), Thornhill sees the country, gets the girl, outruns a sinister cropduster, and faces a final challenge on the rock face of Mount Rushmore. (Hitchcock famously planned to call the film "The Man in Lincoln's Nose"; the actual title's fictional compass direction hails from Hamlet's feint of insanity "I am but mad north-north-west.")
North By Northwest takes on near-mythical proportions as Thornhill leaves the comfortable womb of mother and the patriarchal halls of business to face the dizzying world of big brother. Thornhill's lone ranging--though motivated by longing for the lady Eve--makes Thornhill feel small in the imposing American landscape (physical and metaphysical). Nothing is as it first seems, and Lehman and Hitchcock elaborate on the particularly thorny problems of identity and personal trust. Thornhill's initials--R.O.T.--doubly emphasize his unsavory existence before his call to adventure ("What does the 'O' stand for?" Eve asks; "Nothing," Roger shrugs).
North By Northwest races past "icebox logic" (Hitch's phrase for the viewer's late-occurring realization of plotholes) with brilliantly conceived action sequences that make for swift, breathtaking fun. Saint as Hitch's "cool blonde" femme fatale recalls Kim Novak's object of obsession in the previous year's Vertigo, while Grant's literally monumental adventure improves upon the already snappy Saboteur. But few if any films have ever challenged Ernest Lehman's crown for flirtatious dialogue, punctuated by Hitchcock's precociously raunchy final shot of a train plummeting into a tunnel.
After years of suffering scratchy, jumpy, faded prints of North By Northwest in revival houses (or, worse, pan-and-scan home video copies), the recent digital restoration by Lowry Digital Images struck me as nothing short of miraculous when it hit DVD. Bright, colorful, crisply detailed, and spotless, this hi-def transfer gets its full due on the 2009 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition, the film's next-generation debut. As fantastic as the DVD seemed earlier in the decade, the Blu-ray tops it in every respect, maximizing the source material with greater depth, definition, and sharpness. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround dynamically honors the original soundtrack and pumps up Herrmann's score to its full grandeur (for those who don't already have the terrific restored original soundtrack CD, Warner thoughtfully provides an isolated score track).
North By Northwest comes with a feature-length, screen-specific commentary with the film's dry-witted screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Though Lehman leaves a few gaps in the track, the legendary scribe offers plenty of reminiscences about Hitch, the cast, and the production.
The 2009 documentary "The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style" (57:32, SD) examines Hitchcock's career with extensive use of film clips, as well as commentary from director Martin Scorsese, Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto, director Curtis Hanson, director Guillermo Del Toro, director William Friedkin, director John Carpenter, director Richard Loncraine, director Joe Carnahan, director Francis Lawrence, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, sound designer Ben Burtt, sound designer Gary Rydstrom, costume designer Ruth Myers, makeup artist Marvin Westmore, costume designer Ruth Carter, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock author David Sterritt, Writing with Hitchcock author Steven DeRosa, and Camille Paglia, whose many books include The Birds (BFI Film Classics). Hitchcock also explains himself in clips from a vintage interview. The film addresses the themes, psychology, humor, fashion, sight and sound of Hitchcock's films, as well as the director's trademarks, such as his cameo appearances.
TCM's excellent, feature-length 2004 documentary Cary Grant: A Class Apart (1:27:12, SD) tells the great movie star's story through archival photos, clips, rare home movies and television appearances, and interviews with Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, Lehman, director George Cukor (1973), director Howard Hawks (1967), Hitchcock (1966), director Stanley Donen, Ralph Bellamy (1988), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1988 audio), George Kennedy (2003), Deborah Kerr (1988), Dina Merrill, Jill St. John, Samantha Eggar, Peter Bogdanovich, writer Sidney Sheldon, film historian Jeanine Basinger, film historian James Harvey, film critic David Denby, film critic Todd McCarthy, film critic Elvis Mitchell, Evenings with Cary Grant author Nancy Nelson, Grant's wives Barbara Grant and Betsy Drake, and friends Roderick Mann and Ralph Lauren.
The reasonably thorough 2000 documentary "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest" (39:27, SD), is hosted by Eva Marie Saint and features interviews with Martin Landau, Patricia Hitchcock, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and production designer Robert Boyle. Peter Fitzgerald's film covers how the film was greenlit, casting, production, publicity, and the film's initial run and ultimate legacy. Along the way, the interviewees offer charming anecdotes (accompanied by rare on-set and publicity photos), separate locations from sets, give insight into Hitchcock's approach and style, allude to friction between Grant and Hitch, and address the Mount Rushmore controversy, as well as the trickiness of censorship; it's a terrific overview.
In the newly produced "North By Northwest: One for the Ages" (25:29, SD) Hanson, Del Toro, Friedkin, Lawrence, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie wax enthusiastic about the film, recalling their first exposure to it and their enduring love for it, as well as their analysis of Hitchcock's technique and the film's content.
Next up is a Stills Gallery, followed by a gallery of Trailers: a vintage TV Spot (1:02, SD), the original "A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock" version of the North By Northwest trailer (3:14, SD), and a re-release "Theatrical Trailer" (2:13, SD); the trailers come with a "Play All" option.
Lastly, there's a Music-Only Track featuring Bernard Herrman's classic score.
This is one disc any self-respecting film-lover cannot afford to be without.
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