North by Northwest – Blu-ray Review

The Movie (5/5)

North by Northwest has been called, “the Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies,” by its screenwriter, and is considered by many to be one of the director’s finest films, sitting at the top of a pile of movies that include Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, and many others. The film is an achievement in many ways – its screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and it was the only film Hitchcock ever made for MGM studios, as well as the final and most prestigious movie Hitchcock ever made with Hollywood legend Cary Grant. On top of that, the film is a technical marvel, being one of two films shot at MGM in Paramount’s Vistavision film format, and o time Hitchcock ever ventured into large format film making. All of these things in combination lead to what could easily be considered the greatest adventure movie of all time.

North by Northwest, for those who have yet to experience such a classic, follows the unfortunate adventure of Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising man caught in the wrong place at wrong time. After a mis-identification at a local bar, he’s kidnapped by a group of mysterious criminals who interrogate him, and attempt to destroy him. After an escaping and then being framed for murder, he must embark on a journey to clear his name, taking him to dangerous and exotic locations where he encounters dangerous hit men, beautiful women, and a game of spies that drag him into a world that is much bigger than himself.

Although Ernest Lehman, the film’s screenwriter, set out to create the thriller adventure to end all thrillers, essentially what he ended up doing is taking and using the main plot structure of an earlier Hitchcock movie, The 39 Steps, and injecting a shot of lightning into it. Hitchcock already achieved great things with his original production, but Lehman went and made the same exact story into a timeless classic, instilling it with a vibrant sense of sexuality and grandeur. Carried by the timing and natural charisma of Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, and the raw sexuality of Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, the script has more sexual innuendo and comedy than the past five Hitchcock thrillers combined.

It features all the classic Hitchcock-isms and themes, such as the distrust of authority, a wrongly accused man attempting to clear his name, a McGuffin style plot device that drives the story and a beautiful blonde that our leading man is paired up with, set against some of the largest and most memorable set pieces ever used in motion picture history. Some of these now iconic set pieces include the Mount Rushmore monument, the United Nations headquarters, the isolated bus stop among the crop fields, and the busy streets of New York City, where Hitchcock makes one of his most famous cameos.

Edited by long time Hitchcock collaborator George Tomasini, who was nominated by the Academy for his work, the film flows with a smoothness only matched by the finest batches of smooth Jif peanut butter. North by Northwest covers a lot of ground in a little over two hours, and it flows together quite naturally, never getting stuck on a single plot beat or action sequence. In classic Hitchcock style, the film moves fast, leaving you little time to digest the material and scan for any sort of inconsistencies. Under the watchful eye of Tomasini however, each shot is perfectly placed, building tension appropriately as the stakes grow in size as the plot progresses.

Speaking of tension, the film features one of the finest Bernard Herrman scores ever written for the screen. Like in many of the films he worked on with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrman’s score is almost as much of a character in the film as our leading couple, helping to establish the mood of each scene masterfully, and establish a sense of urgency and ambiguity in almost every scene.

North by Northwest is a grand adventure in every sense of the word. It takes drags us all over America, showing us just what secrets could lie beneath the surface of our own cities, and sends us running into some of the most mundane settings, only to leave us breathless at what can be achieved there. The script is sharps as a nail, and Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint deliver two of the most entertaining performances ever to hit the screen. It is a film worthy of the title, “classic,” one whose influence can be seen all over pop culture and then some. It is borderline perfection, a mastery of everything required to make a movie intelligent and fun at the same time.

The Video (5/5)

North by Northwest falls into the string of films that Hitchcock and his team shot in the Vistavision film format. Designed to create better looking standard 35mm release prints in terms of overall resolution and color quality, Vistavision is a film format that takes standard 35mm film negative and runs it horizontally through custom cameras using twice the amount of image area of a standard film negative (8 perforations of film negative area versus 4 perforations used in standard 35mm film cameras.) The idea was that the increased resolution, and larger image area combined with a requirement to use the Technicolor Dye Printing process would result in an overall improvement in release prints of the day.

The Vistavision negative has a native aspect ratio of nearly 1.50:1, and because of the larger image area allowed filmmakers to easier crop to multiple aspect ratios, with guides available to shoot and project 1.66:1, 1.85:1, and 2.00:1 off of a single negative if necessary. Hitchcock, for the 4 features that he shot using the Vistavision process, shot his films for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

North by Northwest, the only feature Hitchcock produced for MGM, who sold the portion of their library that it fell under to Turner Entertainment, which landed it at Warner Bros, where it received a restoration based on an 8K scan of the original Vistavision 8-perf negative. Due to the number of 4K digital screenings, and the non-existence of a full 8K workflow, it’s safe to assume that the feature was restored in 4K resolution when this 1080p HD master was prepared in 2009.

This restoration of the film, which frames the film in a pleasing and comfortable slightly more open 1.78:1 aspect ratio, 7 years later still looks startlingly good. I got to see an Eastman Archive print of the film recently this past spring, and while the colors were slightly more vibrant, this presentation of the film is an all-around better experience. Grain is sharp and natural on screen across the entire feature, and the detail is outstanding. Close-ups on Cary Grant reveal the wrinkles in his face and the pores of his skin, highlighting the worst aspects of his sometimes ugly brown makeup. Wide shots reveal the true depth and clarity that the Vistavision process was capable of. Even the many process shots of characters driving look excellent, if not a little goofy in the classic rear-projection way. The print is immaculate in every way, even if the colors are not quite as exaggerated as the archive prints that are floating around – it’s probably much more in line with what the negative was actually capable of producing. It’s been 7 years, and this 1080p presentation has not aged a day.

The Audio (4/5)

North by Northwest was originally presented in mono optical sound in its original 35mm premiere and standard engagements during its 1959 theatrical run. In a strange move by Warner, the English tracks for the film, of which there are 2, one in HD lossless and one in standard lossy, are both mixed in 5.1 surround sound. The Brazilian Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, French, German and Italian dubs included on the same disc are presented using tracks that preserve the original mono sound design.

That being said, the 5.1 multi-channel mix prepared for North by Northwest is fairly tasteful, restricting most of the film’s dialogue and sound effects to the center channel, reserving the front stereo channels for Herrman’s score and the occasional sound effect. I only noticed activity in the surround channels during a few sequences, primarily during the plane chase scene. All things considered, this is not a gimmicky remix. I just think it’s odd that they would include 5 dubs in the original mono, and then decide that it isn’t worth it to do the same for the native language tracks for the film. It feels lazy. Home video enthusiasts shouldn’t have to deal with revisionist multi-channel sound. Oy.

Special Features/Packaging (4/5)

North by Northwest is available in many ways, such as the out of print US Digibook and standard blue keepcase, but the version currently under the microscope is featured as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Collection box set from Warner Bros. available in Europe. This lovely box, which features the three biggest Hitchcock titles that Warner has rights to, features three standard European sized keepcases for the included moves housed in a colorful cardboard box featuring Hitchcock’s face against three colors on the front and shots from the film and their respective colors along with paragraph descriptions of the films, technical specs, and credits for the release.

North by Northwest itself is packaged in a standard European Blu-ray keepcase, with a stylized drawing of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill running away from the now iconic plane, with Grant running across a runway of bright red that features the film’s title in its signature font. It bears a 50th Anniversary Edition banner at the top, as well as the standard EU rating logos. The back artwork features a small shot of Grant and Saint together, and a massive wall of text featuring a paragraph about the film, a list of special features, credits and logo, technical specs, and some rather large EU standard logo descriptors. Overall, nothing fancy in the packaging department.

And now onto the features:

Audio Commentary – a feature length commentary, performed by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, is included in which he shares various stories and anecdotes about making the film with Alfred Hitchcock.

The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style – a 57 minute long 2009 documentary, featuring a massive group of Hollywood directors who have close relationships with Warner Bros. talking about the various storytelling devices that Hitchcock pioneered and mastered, mixed with actual interviews and pieces performed by Hitchcock himself about his movies, and footage from the films that Warner Bros. has under their umbrella.

Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest – a 40 minute long 2000 documentary, narrated by Eva Marie Saint about the writing, planning, shooting, and editing of North by Northwest, featuring screenwriter Ernest Lohman, his daughter Patricia Hitchcock, and many other members of the team including actor Martin Landau and others.

North by Northwest: One for the Ages – a 25 minute long discussion about all of the film’s most memorable elements; it’s villain, the various action scenes and motivations behind them, and many others led by directors such as Chris McQuarie, Guillermo Del Toro, and William Friedkin.

Still Gallery – a large collection of production stills from the set of North by Northwest, featuring many of the lead players, crew, and the director himself in action during the making of the film.

TV Spot – a black and white TV ad for the film from its original release, showing off some of the many action sequences of the film to draw audiences in. The print used looks like its seen better days.

A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock – the most famous of the advertisements made for the film, in which Hitchcock himself presents by means of a travelogue. He shows off the major locations, and explains why they’d be a great place to plan a vacation to.

Theatrical Trailer – the film’s original theatrical trailer, as seen in theaters during its year of release in 1959.

While the packaging doesn’t inspire anything incredible, the special features, mostly the 3 documentaries and commentary included, are substantial and well worth the price of admission for fans of Hitchcock and North by Northwest.

Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)

Video

Codec: VC1

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Audio

Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English)

Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)

Dolby Digital 1.0 (Brazilian Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, French, German, Italian)

Subtitles

English, Brazilian Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Latin Spanish, Norwegian, and Swedish

Runtime: 136 minutes

Overall (4.5/5)

As a devout lover of cinema, and a massive admirer of all thing Hitchcock, I could probably go on for hours, but my point is clear – North by Northwest is one of those rare movies where everything falls perfectly into place. The editing, the score, the cinematography, the acting, and the masterful direction of Alfred Hitchcock collide to make for one of the most engaging and entertaining feature films ever made. If you’ve seen it before, surely you can afford to dig into such an experience again, and if you haven’t, now is the perfect time to jump in with an incredible Blu-ray release. It features a beautiful digital restoration, plenty of excellent audio options, and a healthy serving of special features.