North By Northwest

North By Northwest (1959)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll
Extras: Commentary Track, Isolated Score,

"I am but mad north-northwest;
When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."

         William Shakespeare, "Hamlet"
         Act II, Scene II

I first encountered Alfred Hitchcock’s breezy 1959 comic thriller "North by Northwest" in 1982 in the form of a Super-8 "digest" reel. (Grandfather of the home entertainment formats, Super 8mm digest reels telescoped a film’s narrative to roughly 20 minutes, fitting on a 400 ft. spool.) Immediately hooked, I sought to view it in its entirety. Since then, I have seen the film many times by a variety of means: TV reruns, VHS and laserdisc editions, and the occasional theatrical revival. However, nothing prepared me for the vision I beheld when I popped in the new Warner Home Video DVD.

A sparkling love letter to all "North" aficionados and an excellent primer for neophytes, this DVD contains the cleanest rendition of the film I have ever seen. Not only are we treated to an absolutely stunning transfer and a crisp <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack, the DVD boasts a "making-of" documentary hosted by Eva Marie Saint and featuring interviews with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, designer Robert Boyle and Hitch’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock. With features including a continuous <$commentary,commentary track> by Lehman, theatrical trailers and an isolated audio track of Bernard Herrmann’s legendary film score, the disc is a must-have for any DVD library.

Ad man Roger Thornhill (the always-dapper Cary Grant) stumbles into a web of intrigue and espionage by the whim of fate. While having drinks with clients at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, Roger realizes that he must call his mother. Needing a telephone, he summons a bellboy who happens to be paging a "George Kaplan." As he exits the bar, two well-dressed men approach and ask Roger to come with them. Self-described as "mere errand boys with concealed weapons pointed at your heart" the gentlemen escort Roger into a waiting car, leaving behind his clients, his security and, eventually, his old complacent life.

The bewildered Thornhill finds himself at the mercy of Phillip VanDamm, a ruthless but urbane adversary (James Mason) and his equally fiendish right arm Leonard (Martin Landau). Mistaken for the mysterious Kaplan, our coddled hero undergoes a transformation as he enters one life-threatening situation after another. Roger assumes Kaplan’s identity so that he might find out exactly how his part fits in the puzzle as well as clear his own name. Along the way, he finds love in the person of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps Roger summon the resolve he never knew he possessed to survive both the evil spies and the cops closing in.

Ernest Lehman’s droll, watertight screenplay provided a new direction for Hitchcock, one that would ultimately help the film find its audience years later. "Northwest" is a fantasy told in concretely modern terms, possessing elements equally at home in any Grimm or Andersen fairy tale. Roger’s abduction from his routine is his call to adventure, no different from Dorothy going "Over The Rainbow" or Luke Skywalker leaving home to acknowledge his destiny. Mix in a damsel in distress, and a final battle amongst giants (the oversized faces of Mount Rushmore) and we’ve long left the reality of three-martini lunches and a show at the Winter Garden Theater in New York City.

Take, for instance, the famous crop duster sequence. We never see the bi-plane’s pilot. Rationally, we understand someone is guiding it, but through Hitchcock’s gaze, the plane seems sentient. It responds to Thornhill’s turns and ducks, even knowing what to do when Roger finds temporary respite in a cornfield. Yet just like another famous battle between man and machine (Bowman’s bout with HAL in "2001"), our human protagonist commits an act of seemingly illogical self-preservation that confuses his mechanical opponent long enough to achieve victory.

If my discussion seems a bit cursory, examining the film in depth would take far more space than I can provide. Suffice to say, "North by Northwest" satisfies on every level: melodrama, action-thriller, comedy and even mythology. The joys of the film are numerous and that so meticulously crafted a DVD exists demonstrates the irresistible pull of this film, still going strong some 40 years after its release.

The immaculate 1.78 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer ably recreates Robert Burks’ rich VistaVision images. (The VistaVision photographic process ran the film sideways through the camera, yielding an exceptionally bright, deep focused <$PS,widescreen> picture.) There are no film stock anomalies whatsoever: no speckling, no film grain, and no blemishes of any kind. Colors are full but balanced between red and blue saturation (which the Technicolor of yore usually favored). Accurate fleshtones and solid black levels contribute to the intensity of detail. Seemingly every scene not only highlights Grant’s timeless look or Saint’s mysterious blonde, but picks up the sheen off polished oak tables (in the Glen Cove courtroom scenes) or the strain of Grant’s hand tendons in the climatic "cliff-hanger" sequence.

A newly restored Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track accompanies the pristine images. The front soundstage is exceptionally wide, with numerous instances of sound effect pans from left-center-right and vice versa. Little activity occurs in the surround channel. (This may be a recreation of the MGM-backed Perspecta Sound, a stereophonic playback process for its motion pictures. Perspecta called for left-center-right channel assignments, with little or no rear channel involvement.) Appropriately, the surrounds make their presence most dramatically known during the crop duster sequence. Dialogue sounds naturally integrated within the soundfield and the soundtrack is uncannily free of defects. LFE enhancement is practically non-existent, although again the crop duster sequence benefits from leaving the subwoofer on.

The isolated audio track of Bernard Herrmann’s score is a treat for two reasons. One, it sounds like a bona fide CD: well engineered, full blooded and visceral. Secondly, it gives an independent nod to a great practitioner of film composing. Many words, both extolling and vitriolic, have been written about Bernard Herrmann. I will only add this: no one could get under the skin of a film as Herrmann could. His musical sense elevated many potboilers into the realm of art. One of his trademarks was using exotic orchestrations and instruments to create a logical extension of a theme of a particular film. His all-strings arrangements for Hitchcock’s "Psycho" infused the black and white images with a black and white sound. For "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Herrmann employed nine organs to evoke both drama and descent. His use of the theremin for "The Day The Earth Stood Still" aptly defined the otherworldly presence of Klaatu on Earth. These are but a few examples of how his keen musical sense blazed during a 40-year career.

Herrmann’s score for "Northwest" veered from the Gershwin-esque rhythms expected for a story starting in the Big Apple. Instead, his swirling main title music evokes the crazy, intoxicated dance between Roger Thornhill and the world after he steps through the looking glass. As Lehman states: "Without Herrmann, there would be no ’North by Northwest.’" Amen. While Lehman was referring to how Herrmann introduced Lehman to Hitch, I see the comment reaching far beyond that.

The documentary is thorough, but a bit staid in delivery. "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of "North By Northwest’" presents an in-depth look at the making of the film, perhaps too much so. Hosted by Eva Marie Saint, the almost hour-long documentary practically tackles the film scene for scene. Recountings from screenwriter Ernest Lehman, star Martin Landau, art director Robert Boyle and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia Hitchcock illuminate the tribulations of filming Cary Grant chased by an airplane or Eva Marie Saint hanging off George Washington’s face. While thoroughness is a virtue, the narrative flow could have been streamlined. A little too self-consciously, the video has moments where we see the talent being set up for the camera during a voice over introduction for the person. If their goal was to mimic Hitchcock’s gift for self-reflexive parody, it does not work.

Lehman’s running commentary range from observations about Saul Bass’s main title credits to Hitchcock’s brief appearance (at the beginning, so audiences wouldn’t be distracted looking for it). Musings about the genesis of the screenplay to offering praise for the stars and behind the camera artists run freely, though not necessarily matched to a specific scene. I hoped Lehman might shed some light on a few irregularities. For instance, why did Hitch frame the plaque for the United States Intelligence Agency so off-kilter (losing a good third of the lettering)? Then there is the infamous "gaffe" of the kid in the cafeteria plugging his ears seconds before a gunshot (Chapter 35). Debate about why Hitchcock, the consummate perfectionist, would leave so glaring an error in the final print still rages today. The documentary brings up the subject but provides no explanation. Alas, Lehman offers no insight as well. Nevertheless, my observations should not deter anyone from listening to his comments. Just to have the eloquent Lehman on record about the film is cause enough to celebrate.

Two trailers included on the disc demonstrate the difference between Hitchcock’s flair for promotion and the typical Marketing Department slant. Identified as the "Hitchcock Trailer," Hitch wittily touts the film as a vacation getaway (keeping with the "directional" aspects of the story as well as the title). The "theatrical trailer" is a standard reissue trailer that, in the hands of the studio, trumpets the staid litany of superlatives as a means to get seats filled. Both shorts look in reasonably good shape, in picture and sound.

The photo gallery includes publicity photos, behind the scenes shots, poster and lobby card artwork as well as still photos taken from the taping of the documentary. Cast and crew bios provide the usual pithy rundowns, focusing on the three main leads and Hitchcock. The black and white TV trailer, from the 1967 re-release, plays up the secret agent aspect for audiences in the midst of the superspy craze. Another nice touch is the opening menu incorporating design elements, animation and (hurray!) music from the film to get the viewer into the mood.

Warner Home Video and MGM have done an outstanding job of giving us a radiant DVD of this classic film. In his narration for the original trailer, Hitchcock refers to the film as "pure entertainment, a vacation from all your troubles." Truer words were never spoken. Run, don’t walk, to get your "North by Northwest" DVD before someone mistakes you for George Kaplan!