November 7, 2009

North by Northwest movie image slice.jpg

Going back to the old masters, going back to the classics is always illuminating. Someone like Alfred Hitchcock knew how to frame a film. He knew where he was putting his camera, and why it was there. As in North by Northwest he achieved one of the great visual representations of sex. Cary Grant lifts Eva Marie Saint up to bed, and then a train enters a tunnel. Not exactly subtle, but undeniably brilliant. My review after the jump.

North by Northwest Blu-ray.jpgNorth by Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s most pleasurable films. In his cycle of “wrong man on the run” films, which includes The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent, North by Northwest has one advantage over those others films: It stars Cary Grant. And Grant’s dapper persona adds a level of debonair to whatever he did. Here he stars as Roger Thornhill, who’s mistaken for secret agent George Kaplan. He’s picked up by some thugs, questioned, and then has alcohol forcibly poured down his throat in hopes of him having a fatal accident. He escapes, but no one believes him – including his mom.

He tracks down the man he thinks kidnapped him, but when he shows up the man is murdered, and Thornhill is implicated. The man who might be able to clear him is Kaplan, but there’s one problem: Kaplan doesn’t exist. When escaping by train, Thornhill meets Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), who seems easy, but is working for Roger Vandamm (James Mason), and extends his chase of Kaplan into a cornfield.

Well, if you haven’t seen the film, it’s not fair to spoil any more, but if you haven’t you’re either young or don’t love movies. North by Northwest is a masterpiece by one of the great filmmakers of all time, and it’s a fun film, with set piece after set piece that have defined suspense and action filmmaking since Hitch made them. But where films like Vertigo and Rear Window chew on some interesting concepts of voyeurism and obsession, NbNW is Hitch at his lightest, and the master could have a delicate touch. There are no missteps, and when the film comes to its conclusion, it wraps up perfectly.

North by Northwest movie image (2).jpgThe main reason to write about the film is Warner Brother’s new 4K 1080p transfer, and to call it a revelation is unfair. The film has been well looked after, but the new level of detail available at home is undeniably impressive. As Glenn Kenny and Jeffery Wells noted, there is details here that were probably there before, but now pop off the screen. The film is fifty years old, but has never looked better at home (though the film is a perennial revival house favorite. As my friend Tom Raneri called it, it is the single most rewatchable film ever made). If you like HD because of the difference in quality, this is one of the best older films to use as a touchstone.

The film comes widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD. The film also comes with a music only track in 5.1, which highlights Bernard Hermann’s excellent score (rousing). The film also comes with a commentary by the late screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and though it was recorded not too long ago, and Lehman was an older gent, it’s pretty riveting once the man picks up steam. “Cary Grant: A Class Apart” (87 min.) is a biography of the film’s leading man, and while going point by point through a lot of his career, it does get some good talking heads. “Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest” (39 min) gets Saint to host a making of with comments from Lehman and Martin Landau. This is TV background stuff, but the film is great enough that it deserves some puffery.

North by Northwest movie image (3).jpgNew for this release are two documentaries: “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style” (57 min) and “North by Northwest: One for the Ages” (25 mi) These documentaries give such filmmakers as Curtis Hanson, William Friedkin, Christopher McQuarrie, John Carpenter, and Martin Scorsese a chance to wax about how Hitchcock made films, and why North by Northwest is one of the best films ever made. There’s enough content here to forgive the somewhat scattershot method of what’s accomplished. I don’t know how much Francis Lawrence took from Hitchcock, nor even know if he’s professed a great interest in him, which makes some interviews better than others, but most everyone has something interesting to say about the master.

Also included is a Still Gallery. A TV spot, re-release trailer, and the theatrical preview, which offers Hitchcock as a tour guide.

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