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