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Category:    Home > Reviews > Thriller > Action > Chase > Mystery > Cold War > Comedy > North By Northwest - 50th Anniversary Edition (1959/Warner Blu-ray)

North By Northwest - 50th Anniversary Edition (1959/Warner Blu-ray)


Picture: B+     Sound: B-     Extras: B     Film: B+



One of the films Alfred Hitchcock was best know for were his smart chase films.  They mixed murder, any war of the time (WWII, The Cold War) and clever male/female relationships with action, adventure and unforgettable sequences that permanently established him as The Master of Suspense.  Writer Ernest Lehman intended to write the Hitchcock (chase?) film to end them all and with North By Northwest, he did.


After his masterwork Vertigo (1958) did poor box office and mystified critics with its complexity, Hitchcock decided to go for a more commercial project.  He was very successful at Paramount in the 1950s and was even allowed to keep the films he made there along with their camera negatives (sometimes co-owned with Jimmy Stewart) so he was on a roll otherwise.  But to make this film, he had to go to MGM for reasons too long to go into here.


Paramount respected Hitchcock so much they even allowed him to use their exceptional VistaVision format to shoot it in; a rare use of it outside of the studio.  Having fallen out with Stewart, Hitchcock turned to Cary Grant to be his lead and Grant agreed.  Securing Eva Marie Saint as “the blonde” and James Mason as the main villain, the film was on its way to production and the result was a huge hit.


So much works in this film it is amazing to watch.  Hitchcock is at the peak of his powers, everyone is turning in some of the best work of their careers, Grant is among those (along with Jessie Royce Landis as his mother) doing great comic work here and the other henchmen (including a young Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible) as a gay killer, Edward Platt (Get Smart) and Leo G. Carroll (Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as authority figures makes for constantly interesting viewing.


Grant and Saint have chemistry and sequences like the Crop Duster and Mount Rushmore sequences are classics, but there are others and this writer will not ruin them.


The 1080p 1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image is from the new restoration Warner Bros. had to undertake in the face of a faded negative they could not save and a film in very bad need of saving.  Despite being a little darker at times than expected, this is a great transfer, Warner secured other VistaVision elements and matches Blu-rays for the other three large-frame format films from the 1950s we have seen to date in depth, color and detail: The Searchers, How The West Was Won and South Pacific.


As shot in VistaVision, Robert Burks, A.S.C., delivers more amazing shots in what was to be his last large-frame collaboration with Hitchcock and it is among the most imitated films visually either of them ever made.  You can see the matte paints more clearly and process photography is obvious, but the vast majority of the shots are in great studio sets or outdoors in ways that take full advantage of the detail and space VistaVision is capable of.


The old Warner DVD is soft and pale by comparison, though it looked good for that format, but this is far superior overall and is worthy of the good 35mm prints I have seen of the film over the years.  In a few places, color is not what I thought it should have been (should the emerald green in the opening MGM logo be brighter or not?) and in some places, it could have been a little lighter.  This does not totally look like a dye-transfer three-strip Technicolor print (35mm reductions were made this way at the time) but does have much of the color you get from shooting in film frames larger than standard 35mm.  This is the best the film has looked in a very long time and otherwise, I am very happy with the caliber of this restoration and should have people talking.


The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix is better than the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix on the Warner DVD with richer sound and better directional mixing.  The Bernard Herrmann score was saved in 16 Bits on a computer years ago as the magnetic tape survived one last pass-through before disintegrating.  Add the age of the dialogue recording and you can expect sonic limits as this was not conceived as a modern surround film, but VistaVision always could be played back with Perspecta Sound, which created a pseudo-stereo effect and a few of those film were in stereo.  Not all of Hitchcock’s films were and this one was not, but he was very particular about how he recorded the sound on all of his films and it shows here.


Extras include the booklet built into the DigiPak case, while the Blu-ray adds the original theatrical trailers, a TV spot, Music-Only Audio Track, stills, feature length audio commentary by Screenwriter Ernest Lehman, career profile Cary Grant: A Class Apart, 2000 documentary Destination Hitchcock: The Making Of North By Northwest, new featurette North By Northwest: One For The Ages that deals with the groundbreaking work on the film along with its influence and another new 2009 documentary The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style.  That is a rich, surprise set of extras that we hope leads Warner to issue the rest of their Hitchcock films on Blu-ray.


North By Northwest is an all-time classic and is a must-own Blu-ray for any serious library.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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