Warner Bros. // 1959 // 136 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 18th, 2000
The chase is on.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood history. From the horrific Psycho to the black comedy Family Plot, "Hitch" became a legend at feeding off our fears and paranoia in films that became classics. One of his best, North By Northwest, starred Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason in a romantic thriller that takes place all over the United States. Throw in music by Bernard Herrmann and you've got a winner. Warner Brothers has released North By Northwest (originally owned by MGM) in a widescreen format with some nice extras.
Advertising Executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is not having a very good day. Roger has the unparalleled bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While having a business meeting over cocktails at a hotel, Roger is mistaken for George Kaplan, a supposed federal agent on the trail of some local spies. Thornhill is kidnapped and taken to a mansion in Glen Cove owned by Lester Townsend (James Mason). Townsend questions Thornhill about being Kaplan, which Thornhill vehemently denies. Denial, however, is his worst course of action as it just hammers in the fact to Townsend that Thornhill is Kaplan. Following all this?
Roger's "oh crap" meter starts to peg at around 10. He knows he's in deep horse ca-ca.
Obviously Thornhill is not going to talk (since he "doesn't know what the devil" he's talking about), Townsend decides to get rid of Thornhill by force-feeding him a bottle of bourbon via his right hand lackey Leonard (Martin Landau of Ed Wood fame). They drive Thornhill up to a peak and put him in a car, readying him to be "accidentally" driven off a cliff. Through drunk, Thornhill still has other plans. He's able to escape and drives off into the sunset, safe at last.
HA! No way, this is just the start of Thornhill's troubles. He's arrested for drunk driving and taken to court the next morning. There he pleads his innocence, spewing testimony about how he was kidnapped, forced to be intoxicated, almost killed...blah blah blah. No one believes him, not even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis). To prove his story, Thornhill shuffles the police to the mansion of the previous night, but to his dismay all traces of the incident from last night are gone. Frustrated, he finds Kaplan's hotel room. While there Townsend's men catch him in the room, solidifying even more that Thornhill is Kaplan. He escapes and finds the real Townsend at a meeting. While chatting, the real Townsend is killed with Thornhill as the suspect. Now Thornhill is on the run as a spy he isn't and for a murder he didn't commit.
While hiding on a train Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a sultry blonde who helps him out (in more ways than one...hubba hubba). She's an industrial designer...or is she? And what exactly is her connection to Mr. Townsend?
Thornhill continues his race to discover exactly who Kaplan is, and what the devious "Mr. Townsend" wants with him. It's a spectacular chase that will have viewers breathless from north to...northwest.
I'll admit it, I'm no Hitchcock connoisseur. I won't try to convince you that I've seen most of his films. I have seen Psycho (who hasn't?), and The Birds. Sadly, so far that's the deepest I've reached into the Hitchcock cannon. North By Northwest wasn't even a film I wanted to see when I originally saw it. I was at college in a film class, and when the professor announced that we'd be watching North By Northwest, I cringed. I instinctively thought "Cripes, another long, tedious film from the '60s" (see, I didn't even get the era right). So, there I am. I'm forced to sit though some old film with Cary Grant that couldn't possibly measure up to today's big budget action films. And you know what?
I was right. But only about the effects parts. Sure, you watch a film from 1959 and of course you're not going to get the bing-bam-zoom effects in the action flicks of today. Ah, but my friends, you get so much more. North By Northwest shows off why Hitchcock is considered a genius filmmaker. Whereas action films today tend to go for the gusto in effects and explosions, North By Northwest goes for story and wit, a crackling script filled with romance, mystery and adventure. Grant is superb in the role of Roger Thornhill, a dry, sarcastic fussbucket always on the lookout to use his humor as filler for in his adventures. Supported by a great script by Ernest Lehman, Cary leaps from one scene to another challenging all that surrounds him with zinger after zinger. While wearing sunglasses to hide, a ticket booth man asks him if his eyes are sensitive. "Yes," he replies with malice, "they're sensitive to questions." He is an everyman (if you consider an everyman to have a job, a secretary, a mother, 2 ex-wives and several bartenders dependent on them) caught up in an extraordinary situation.
James Mason as the baddie gives a gleeful, cocky performance: you can't help but love to hate him. He is so full of himself he's like gramps after Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike the villains of today, Mason plays it cool and collected, not grating and explosive. It's as if he walked off a Bond film, the type of no-goodnick that looks as if he'd rather play craps in Vegas than take over the world. Finally, Eva Marie Saint is sexy as Eve, a voluptuous blonde who is never what she seems (rumor has it that Hitchcock himself was entranced by blondes. My kinda guy).
Lehman's script is fast and witty, making grand use of all its locations. When you have a script that combines cornfields, Embassies, Mount Rushmore and nookie on a train, you know you've got something special. Hitchcock directs with gentle ease. Consider the crop dusting scene, where Grant is being hunted via bi-plane though the middle of a cornfield. Hitchcock is able to squeeze maximum tension out of his minimal settings just before Bernard Herrmann's wonderfully adventurous score kicks in, letting us know that Roger is off to yet another location and another danger. North By Northwest is a film that begs repeat viewings, as there is so much to see and catch that owning it on DVD is well worth a viewer's while.
North By Northwest is presented in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen and Warner has done a fantastic job with restoring this print. For a film that is over 40 years old, North By Northwest looks absolutely brand new. Colors show no sign of bleeding or fading, and aside from a few minor spots, blacks were solid and dark. There was no shimmer or digital artifacting and only the slightest bit of edge enhancement. Dear Lord, why can't all films look as clear and clean as North By Northwest? I hope that certain studios take a look at this and see the error of their ways. and this is Anamorphic!! A film like North By Northwest from forty years ago is done anamorphic and films from 1996 are full frame? Patrick don't play that. Thanks to Warner for making the old look unbelievably new again (though that 1996 film I was thinking about was My Fellow Americans, also released by Warner. How unfair).
Considering how old North By Northwest is, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds exceptionally clear. Bernard Herrmann's original score shines as one of his best (Hitchcock and Herrmann worked together on many pictures, sometimes friends, sometimes foes). The sound effects are good, if not as well done as the score. The dialogue was clear and crisp with no straining to hear. Also included on this disc is an alternate French audio track as well. Top notch from Warner Brothers.
North By Northwest includes some nice extras from Warner. Though not a ton, what we do get is meaty enough to make this an exciting DVD. First up is the almost 40-minute documentary "Destination Hitchcock: The Making Of North By Northwest" by Peter Fitzgerald. The documentary combines interviews (Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, Patricia Hitchcock), movie clips and behind the scenes photos to make for a fascinating look at one of the silver screens glowing gems. For fans of North By Northwest and Hitchcock aficionados, this is a must see.
Next up is a commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. It's great that Warner has taken someone so associated with the film and used them for this track. Since this was a film of almost forty years ago, the remaining principals from that era are few and far between. Lehman gives great insight into locations, principal cast members and working with Hitchcock. Though at times a bit dry, it's still a great listen when you have the time. It's too bad that Hitchcock or Grant weren't around to give their insights as well. What a great experience that would have been.
Two theatrical trailers are included, the first being the typical '50s trailer which are always fun to watch. The second is the famous "Hitchcock trailer" in which Hitchcock does a little "skit" about the movie. In this preview he talks about you the moviegoer going on vacation right there in your very own theater! Of course, his idea of a vacation is seeing his new picture North By Northwest! Har, har, har! A fun little spoof, and both are presented in widescreen anamorphic (if not a bit scratched up). Also included is a TV spot that is also anamorphic and also in black & white, to give you that down home "Honeymooner's" feel.
Next up is an isolated music only track of Bernard Herrmann's score, which is just fantastic. Even though the tense string score to Hitchcock's Psycho is probably his best known, North By Northwest is really his best effort. Combining eloquence, action, adventure and tension, he comes up with the ultimate chase score. For film score fans (such as myself) this is worth its weight in octaves.
Finally there is a still gallery with behind-the-scenes photos and a cast and crew bios page, standard on most Warner releases. Whoop-dee-friggin'-doo.
Well, what's really bad to say about this pretty package? I mean, it would have been nice to have had a commentary track by Hitchcock, but since he's dead that seems unlikely. It would have been nice to have had some of the notable actors still living (Landau and Marie Saint) to have participated on the track, but nitpicking is so not my style (you may commence laughing...now).
For the low price of around $19.99 you can't go wrong with this classic film from the master of suspense. Warner has taken a gem and given it new polish along with some nice supplements (can you imagine what MGM might have done with this disc? I shudder to think). Commentary track and music tracks, a long documentary, a great flick...a near perfect DVD.
Innocent of all crimes against it! Except for that pesky cropdustin' plane...
Review content copyright © 2000 Patrick Naugle; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 136 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track by Screenwriter Ernest Lehman
* "Destination Hitchcock" Documentary
* Production Stills Gallery
* Music Only Isolated Track
* TV Spot
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* Cast and Crew Bios