North By Northwest Review
Alfred Hitchcock is clearly having immense fun with North By Northwest and the viewer has no choice but to enter into the spirit of things. This is a wonderful toy of a movie which doesn't stand up to a moment's careful consideration; it doesn't need to, since it moves with a pace and style that most directors could only dream of achieving.
The plot, which is rather irrelevant, concerns one Roger Thornhill (Grant) who walks into a hotel and, due to a classically Hitchcockian twist of fate, is mistaken for a mysterious government agent called George Kaplan. Thornhill is taken to the plush country residence of Philip Vandamm (Mason) where he is questioned (naturally to no avail since they have the wrong man) and then plied with whisky and placed in a car going headlong towards the edge of a cliff. Needless to say, Thornhill is totally confused and yet somehow manages to stay alive to play one more move in the spy game he has unwittingly joined. It's his ability to adapt and emerge as suave and sharp-suited as ever that makes the film as amusing as it is exciting. The story becomes increasingly convoluted with, it seems, everybody double crossing everybody else as Thornhill is framed for a murder and sent on a cross-country chase that takes in a train encounter with the ice-cool blonde Eve Kendell (Saint), a hilarious disruption of a high class auction, a brilliantly conceived attack by crop-dusting plane and a gripping climax at Mount Rushmore.
In other words, you could say that this is a Hitchcock "greatest hits" compilation, a relaxation after the emotional intensity of Vertigo and a breather before the extraordinary new direction of Psycho which followed. We have the innocent man on the run, the smoothly respectable traitor, the repressed homosexual henchman, the sexually volcanic blonde, the joky use of national monuments, the nailbiting cat and mouse games on a train, the perfectly timed set-piece brushes with death and the entirely irrelevant McGuffin (so irrelevant in this case that Hitch doesn't even bother to tell us what Vandamm is after - the explanation is covered by airplane noise !). We also have Cary Grant, Hitchcock's favourite actor, at the peak of his charisma and probably in the best role of his career. He's having the time of his life, as are Martin Landau and James Mason - Mason's performance is deliciously underplayed, quite a masterstroke since he goes against the stereotype and makes Vandamm considerably more sinister than he would have been otherwise.
Ernest Lehman's script is also a delight, packing more one-liners into a couple of hours than most comedies would have room for while keeping the set-pieces connected together without too many seams showing. It is a bit messy in places but that's rather pleasant; this is, after all, the ultimate shaggy dog story. The little touches are immensely pleasurable; Jessie Royce Landis as Thornhill's deliciously patronising mother, the poised Leo G.Carroll as "the Professor" who reduces the whole of the American intelligence network to "alphabet soup", the witty sexual innuendo which would render an explicit sex scene between Grant and Saint totally redundant. Hitchcock's humour constantly bubbles up to the surface too - only he would stage a climax on the nose of an ex-president, let alone cast the part of Grant's mother with someone who was nearly a whole year younger than him and then allow her to provide one of the most elegantly simple escapes from imminent death in screen history. The work of his regular collaborators is well up to par as well; Bernard Herrmann's mischievous score is ideal and the cinematography from Robert Burks is nicely crisp.
Incidentally, the title is splendidly meaningless and is actually a vaguely accurate quotation from Hamlet.
If you haven't seen this film then you have missed one of the two or three most sheerly pleasurable of all films. It's not a remotely important film and next to Vertigo it's little more than a trinket. But it's a superbly designed trinket made with genuine craftsmanship and that is just as valuable to cinema as serious works of passionate emotions. It's one of the very few films that gets better as time goes by and I have absolutely no hesitation in giving it full marks. Endlessly influential, this is the film that really sums up Hitch the entertainer and it should be in the collection of anyone who cares about Hollywood at its best.
This is a superb disc from Warners which is recommended without reservations. I can't think how it could have been substantially better and it puts to shame some "special editions" which are considerably more expensive.
Michael Brooke's review of the region 1 release of this film described the transfer as "perfect" and I am happy to say that this is also true of the region 2 release. The picture is simply extraordinary, one of the finest restorations of a relatively old film that I have yet to see on DVD. It's simply a joy to watch and I didn't notice any problems with it at all. I thought the richness of the colours were particularly striking. The DVD is, of course, anamorphic and presented in the original 1.85:1 ratio.
The English soundtrack is a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix which, according to Michael's review, reproduces the three track stereo sound which was heard at the film's premiere engagements. It's a very good, clear and crisp track which uses its occasional surround effects cunningly and to great impact in one or two scenes. Nothing spectacular, but a vast improvement on the flawed 5.1 remix found on the Vertigo. There is also a French language mono track included.
There are a nice selection of extras which complement the superb transfer. We get a 40 minute documentary that charts the development of the film from the aborted "Wreck of the Mary Deare" project to the triumphant release. There are lots of interviews, some amusing anecdotes and an affectionate linking commentary from Eva Marie Saint. It's not as detailed as some of the Laurent Bouzereau documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock discs but it's also a far cry from the PR fluff that so many alleged "Special Editions" are filled with.
The commentary track is by an obviously ageing Ernest Lehman and it's slow and uninvolving with lots of long gaps between comments. Some interesting material is included but I agree with Michael that there should have been someone else to spur him on a little. Alternatively, a cut and paste commentary of the kind on the Bond discs might have been a good idea especially since a good number of the production team and cast are still with us. Having said this, at least Warners made the effort to provide a commentary track, something which Universal appear to have given up on in their Hitchcock series.
Along with the English and French soundtracks, we get the isolated music score which is a pleasure to listen to. It sounds as good here as it ever has done.
Along with a gallery of interesting production stills we get the re-release trailer. Not, sadly, the original trailer featuring Hitchcock which would have put this up to full marks on the extras front. There is also a TV spot in black and white. The menus are amusingly animated and there are a generous 46 chapter stops.
This would be a highly recommended DVD at any price and for thirteen quid it is, frankly, a bargain. Hitchcock's most enjoyable film, a perfect picture and good extras all make this a disc to cherish.