North by Northwest 50th Anniversary Edition Review
When you break any piece of entertainment down, it can end up seeming awfully simple. Horror films are indoor rollercoasters, romances are date movies, and action movies are so we can make up for the basic mundanity we all live in. Many people involved in the business of movies have come up with formulas to identify the key elements of an evening's entertainment for their chosen demographic. It used to be that stars were on the top of such lists as to what got people along to the cinema, but nowadays it seems to be the promise of stunts, explosions, and blockbuster special effects.
Consequently, the modern movie has to be designed to feature the right elements, the 2.5 car chases, the 46 explosions and 6 hip songs. It can all seem awfully mechanical, or lacking in creativity and essentially a world where the marketing men write the movies. It might seem a long way from the popular but artistically satisfying work that Alfred Hitchcock leashed on the world, and in fact perhaps the master of suspense bears some of the blame for this modern tendency. The proof for that thought exists in the origins of one of the master's finest works.
Scriptwriter Ernest Lehman was asked to write a narrative that essentially pieced together three setpieces that Hitchcock wished to create. His brief was to have a chase sequence over the faces of Mount Rushmore, a scene with a man being pursued by a plane in a corn field, and the ultimate in murder setups at the United Nations building in New York. The result was North by Northwest, a thriller about an advertising executive mistaken for a spy and forced to improvise his survival in a world of lies and intrigue.
Lehman delivered and his feat was made more amazing for the fact that the story he wrote seemed to revel in its unlikelihood, and in its absurd glamour and moments of nonsensical adventure. In this respect, North by Northwest winks at the viewer to make sure that we all know how fantastic and silly it is but asks you to enjoy the hell out of it all the same. If its barebones formation resembles anything it is the many modern action movies that offer 3 or four setpieces, a memorable villain, some sex, and some laughs.
Just how well these elements are fleshed out is what creates a masterpiece of its type, and the prototype modern action thriller. Bernard Herrman delivers a score that swoons, excites, and unnerves, the cinematography and composition verges on poetic with shots such as the famous UN building viewed from above and the visual position of objects and people to support the story that's unfolding, and we are invited to share Roger Thornhill's desire for an Eve Marie Saint who may be a pawn or a queen, the kind of woman who can win your heart and still leave you guessing.
North by Northwest also offers the urbane villain, played with great charm by James Mason, and the twisted henchman played by Martin Landau. Yet it is the centre of the piece which matters most and Roger Thornhill is the most appropriate role that Cary Grant ever played. It takes a pretty extrordinary individual to be just as at home in the world of espionage as in the corporate world, a man who could win the heart of the most beautiful woman on the planet and improvise his way out of any tight corner. It takes quite an actor to convince in such a role, I can't imagine anyone other than Grant as that performer.
Where James Stewart allowed Hitchcock to explore his good guy persona to expose the seediness of voyeurism and a desperate need to love in Vertigo and Rear Window, Cary Grant offers far less darkness and much more steel and wit. Grant can laugh at death, issue a bon mot and then do slapstick in the next moment, he can be fabulously witty and in control then slip into the role of the henpecked son in the blink of an eye. His ease and his versatility allow a movie of many moods and situations to not stand as hotchpotch but as outlandish careering masterpiece. The whole of the cold war may fall on the head of the unfortunate Roger Thornhill, but it is Cary Grant who makes you believe that he will make short work of all of it.
Elaborately false, happily entertaining and perfectly made, North by Northwest is probably the master's most entertaining work. The history of the modern action thriller is one of unflattering imitation, shameless mimicking and ultimate failure as no work can quite scale the heights of North by Northwest.
Just how clean this transfer looks is quite breathtaking, the reds and blues often pop out of the screen, and skintones are appropriately tanned and warm. The black levels and the contrast are excellent, detail is rich and the image is not over sharp or ringed. My colleague, Michael McKenzie, has wondered whether there is some DNR used which shows up in some of the hotel scenes(you can read about that on his blog at www.landofwhimsy.com), but this VC1 encoded transfer is first rate with a 50 year old film looking better than it has on home video ever before.
A True HD 5.1 mix is included for the main feature, and a music only mix as well. The bit rate for the lossless track hovers between 1500 and 2000 kbps mostly and listening to the score with this clarity and richness is a true pleasure. The surround capabilities are mostly exercised by the score and effects. but coverage is well enough done to not leave you hankering for original mono mixes.
Ernest Lehman's commentary has been available before, and he talks sparingly but with much of interest. He mentions turning the gig down for Hitch's original project, and the first person research he did for scenes such as Thornhill's drink driving arrest, and climbing, or at least trying to, the faces of Mount Rushmore.
The documentary looking into Grant's star appeal and career examines his early life, the rumours about his friendship with Randolph Scott, but mostly enjoys his great work with the likes of George Cukor and Hitchcock. The rumours about him and Scott are given an airing but denied thanks to some rather frank admissions from past partners about his love of good old fashioned heterosexual intercourse - a rather shaky premise that!
Guillermo Del Toro plays up Hitchcock's demons, Curtis Hanson praises his signature style, John Carpenter talks about his inspiration and William Friedkin talks vague nonsense in an appreciation of the master next. Scorsese crops up as we consider first person shots, the richness of the villains is discussed, and his blonde femme fatale fetish thoroughly given a once round the block.
Following this present day appreciation is a featurette looking into the making of the film with Eve Marie Saint narrating. Presenting the movie as the "ultimate Hitchcock thriller", Ernest Lehman is interviewed along with Pat Hitchcock and the tale of adapting The Wreck of the Mary Deare is rolled out again along with the conversation I quoted at the beginning of the review.
Another featurette using interviews with modern day directors directly considers the film. We learn how these directors were influenced by the film from the opening Saul Bass titles to the "perpetual motion" of the action. It's a pretty redundant piece given the earlier documentary and as much as I enjoy Friedkin's films, I can't say I love his contributions to pieces like this.
A stills gallery of shots taken during production along with the production of some of the documentaries here, and a set of publicity trailers complete the package. The chief highlight is the director's "guided tour" where Hitch enjoys tantalising the viewer with the treats in store if they should watch his movie.
There is plenty here in the way of extras that might take your fancy, but the real star is a fabulous transfer. North by Northwest is a cracking movie and this is a lovely way to see it.