Warner Bros. // 1959 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 3rd, 2009
The master of suspense presents a 2000-mile chase across America!
"Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant, Charade) is an ordinary businessman just going about his usual day. While he's in a restaurant enjoying a meal, some mysterious men order him at gunpoint to get into their car. They take him to the home of a man named Lester Townsend (James Mason, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), a wealthy yet sinister figure who insists that Thornhill is really named George Kaplan. Townsend insists that "Kaplan" cooperate. Not knowing anything about what is going on or why Townsend thinks such things, Thornhill refuses. Townsend orders his goons to have Roger killed, but Roger manages to make an escape. Alas, his situation only gets worse from there. Roger was making a desperate getaway while drugged, but he can't prove that anyone actually kidnapped him, so the police simply accuse him of drunk driving.
Roger also discovers that his kidnapper was not who he claimed to be. The real Lester Townsend is a United Nations representative who has nothing at all to do with the kidnapper. Roger visits the real Townsend in the hopes of getting some information about what's going on, but Townsend is murdered during their visit. Sure enough, nobody other than Roger saw the actual killer, so Roger is accused of murder. Forced to clear his name, Roger makes a run for it and attempts to find answers to his questions: Who is George Kaplan? What did not-Lester-Townsend want with him? And why is a beautiful woman named Eve (Eva Marie Saint, Superman Returns) being so trustful of him despite the fact that she knows he is accused of murder?
Pretty much any list of "great Hitchcock films" is going to include North by Northwest, but one doesn't usually find it at the top of such lists. People tend to veer towards Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Birds, and Notorious when it comes to selecting a single masterpiece among masterpieces. However, I have a friend who once told me that he felt North by Northwest was not only Hitchcock's greatest film, but one of the greatest films of all time by any director. When I asked him why, he answered without hesitation: "It has absolutely everything an audience could want in a mainstream movie. It has comedy, it has action, it has romance, it has suspense, it has mystery, it has colorful locations, it has a great score, it has terrific cinematography, it has great dialogue, it has great acting, and absolutely everything works." He is correct. While I may not be quite so confident in declaring the movie Hitch's unquestionable best (the man made so many brilliant films), I can certainly say that it does the best job of showing off the director's skills as an entertainer. North by Northwest is indeed a movie that has everything.
Like many of Hitchcock's films, North by Northwest is primarily remembered today for its big set pieces, most notably the tremendously intense sequence in which Cary Grant attempts to escape the deadly crop duster and the thrilling climax at Mount Rushmore. To be sure, these are great moments, deserving of their iconic status in cinematic history. But what some viewers might have forgotten is just what a rich piece of entertainment this film is from start to finish. There isn't a single moment that bores or fails to be engaging. Hitchcock juggles a lot of elements in the film, and a lesser director surely might have dropped the ball or pushed too hard in one particular direction. By some miracle, North by Northwest is more or less pitch-perfect, being light on its feet when it needs to be and dramatically gripping during other moments.
Cary Grant is a huge key to the film's success, as there was perhaps no other actor of the era who could have made the role work so well (Jimmy Stewart lobbied for the role, but was turned down). Despite the fact that his age was starting to show, Grant was still the ultimate movie star in 1959. When we're first introduced to Roger Thornhill, we recognize the character as being the usual sort of man that Cary Grant plays: witty, charming, intelligent, and friendly. His dialogue is the sort of playfully hilarious material that Grant mastered over the years. However, Thornhill is quickly thrown into a rather desperate situation, and Grant excels at conveying a sense of genuine fear and tension during these moments. Though he never loses his silver tongue ("Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theatre this evening, to a show I was looking forward to, and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that"), there's clearly an element of vulnerability in Grant's character. He is bold and charming in spite of his fears, not because he doesn't have them.
It's particularly impressive to note just how quickly many of the scenes in North by Northwest can slip between comedy and drama with ease. Consider the moment in which Grant desperately attempts to convince the police officers that he has been abducted and drugged by evil men. The humor generated by the fact that Grant's story sounds very much like the typical ravings of a drunken bum plays devilishly against the fact that Thornhill is indeed a man stuck in a very troubling situation. Likewise, the confrontational scenes between Grant and James Mason (marvelously cool and sinister) crackle with that intoxicating blend of wit and danger. Hitchcock loved the "Innocent Man Wrongly Accused" plot element, but never was it as playfully entertaining as it is in North by Northwest. Even Thornhill's own mother (a very amusing Jessie Royce Landis) clucks disapprovingly when she hears Roger's ludicrous story.
Though North by Northwest may seem strikingly different than much of Hitchcock's work, many of the director's trademark elements are still in place. In addition to the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused protagonist attempting to convince everyone around him of the truth (not to mention the fact that he is yet another one of Hitchcock's everyman detectives), we have the icy yet immensely alluring blonde female lead (Eva Marie Saint, quite good if not a match for Kim Novak), a vivid Bernard Herrmann score that not only comments on the action but adds its own subtext, and a perilous climax in which at least one character will fall to their death. Oh, and let's not forget the director's trademark cameo.
This transfer is nothing short of superb, particularly when you consider the film is now 50 years old. The image is almost entirely free scratches, flecks, and grit, with only a mildly distracting blemish in the lower left corner during the main title sequence actually being noticeable. There is very little grain, though there is also no evidence of noise reduction or other troubling techniques. The folks at Warner Bros. have simply done a pristine job of cleaning this thing up. Blacks are rich and deep, and the darker scenes in the film (though there are only a few of them) benefit from impressive shading. The level of detail is very strong, with the exception of occasional shots that are quite soft (though this is entirely an artistic choice made by Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks). The audio does demonstrate its age just a little bit more than the video, but it's still an exceptionally strong track. The Herrmann score is crisp and dynamic, relatively free of distortions. Dialogue is also clean and clear, while the sound design is mostly low-key with the exception of a few dynamic sequences (the crop-duster scene is very impressive).
The supplements are a mix of new material and older stuff that was included on the DVD release. The older material includes a slightly dry commentary track with Ernest Lehman and a 40-minute making-of documentary entitled "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest." Other older materials include trailers and TV spots, a stills gallery, and a music-only audio track. Now, on to the new inclusions. First up are two original documentaries. The first is the 57-minute "The Master Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style," an appreciation of the director's techniques and cinematic accomplishments featuring a variety of film historians and modern filmmakers. It's a bit on the fluffy side at times, but mostly a rather compelling watch. Also worthwhile is the 25-minute "North by Northwest: One for the Ages," in which another batch of noted names speak about the film's virtues. Also included is the meaty 87-minute documentary "Cary Grant: A Class Apart," which was produced for PBS in 2004. I've actually seen a handful of documentaries on Mr. Grant before, and this was easily the most substantial and informative I've seen thus far. Finally, the Blu-ray disc is given the "collectible book" packaging that Warner Bros. gives to some of their more high-profile releases, and this includes some glossy pages with info on the film, Hitchcock and the cast. Some have complained about this packaging because it stands out and doesn't match their other Blu-ray discs, but it does look attractive (particularly when you have several of these book packages to put together on the shelf).
It's a small problem, but there are a couple of casting issues that made me raise my eyebrows. First of all, Landis was actually a year younger than Grant when the film was made, so the idea that she could be his mother was nothing short of absurd. Additionally, I couldn't help but laugh out loud when the 35-year-old Eva Marie Saint tells Grant that she is 26. She may be attractive, but there's no way she can pass for a day under 30.
North by Northwest is a great film that belongs in any movie lover's collection. This Blu-ray release is superb, giving the film an excellent transfer and some engaging new supplements. It's worth an upgrade by all means.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score