Blu-ray Review: North By Northwest

In Blu-Ray’s by Rebecca WrightLeave a Comment

50th Anniversary Digibook Edition

Warner Bros. | 1959 | 136 mins. | Not rated


I’ve always considered Alfred Hitchcock one of the greatest directors in the history of history of cinema. As such, I find it nearly impossible to say which of his more the fifty films is the best. However, I can say that 1959’s North By Northwest ranks somewhere near the top. Both entertaining and suspenseful, the film marked Hitchcock’s fourth and final pairing with his favorite actor, Cary Grant. In the included audio commentary, screenwriter Ernest Lehman says, he “wanted to write the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Fans can debate whether Lehman’s script is the best of all Hitchcock’s films, but few will deny he wrote a great one; the script moves Cary Grant’s character from one dangerous situation to another, and all the while the dialogue is sharp, the action superb and the cast is excellent.

North By NorthwestRoger O. Thornhill (Grant) is Madison Avenue advertising executive who, on a typically busy day, is understandably surprised and confused when he’s abducted at gunpoint by a pair of mysterious strangers (Adam Williams & Robert Ellenstein). He’s taken to a beautiful Long Island estate where a sleek, smooth man (James Mason) who seems to be one Lester Townsend calls him George Kaplan.

When Thornhill repeatedly denies he is Kaplan, the two thugs and a quieter fellow who is at the house (Martin Landau), pour an entire bottle of liquor down his throat and put him in a sports car, intending to dump him off a cliff side road. However, after a car chase on a perilous road, he manages to rear-end a police patrol car and get apprehended. He is charged with drunken driving. No one, not even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis, who was a year older than Grant), buys his story about being kidnapped. Roger can’t catch a break—next thing he knows he’s being framed for murder and has to go on the lam—which puts him into contact with the requisite Hitchcock Blonde, in this case Eva Marie Saint.

It’s on the train to Chicago that Thornhill quickly begins a romance with sultry blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). While in search of the mysterious George Kaplan, and in fear for his life, Thornhill still finds time to romance this lovely lady. We, buy not Thornhill, soon learn that she is working for spy Phillip Vandamm (the man Roger originally thought was Lester Townsend), and is his lover.

At the same time we learn Vandamm is a spy, we also find out there is no George Kaplan. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his agents, all working for an unidentified American spy organization, have led Vandamm to think Kaplan is real in order to distract him from the real agent in his midst. Thornhill has simply been a victim of this carefully constructed plot.

Some movies are referred to as classics and we’re hard pressed to know why; other get the label because there the first of their kind; then there’s a movie like North By Northwest—watch it once and you understand why it’s a classic—it’s a story that has it all. Humor, action, suspense, and a gorgeous blond; Top it off with the iconic crop dusting scene, and you have an undeniable classic.

The transfer is presented in full 1080p using the VC-1 codec, in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Taken as a whole, this transfer is excellent from start to finish. North By Northwest is the first film of Hitchcock’s to be released on Blu-ray and Warner has done one of their terrific restoration jobs on it. Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging scanned the original VistaVision production elements in 8K resolution, which has resulted in a near flawless high definition transfer. Right from the opening titles, you’ll notice incredibly sharp detail without the use of any filters. Black levels are accurate throughout the presentation and the color palette remains spot on, with no fading or bleeding. Fleshtones also remain realistic throughout.

Robert Burks excellent cinematography looks brilliant throughout. The detail is simply astounding; you can see strands of gray hair on the sides of Cary Grant’s head, I could even see that his nails were perfectly manicured when he put his hands around Eva Maria Saint’s back to kiss her. You will notice small details you’ve likely never seen before, even if you’ve seen North By Northwest more than a dozen times, as I have. There is also a pleasant level of grain that gives the transfer a true filmic look.

The audio is presented in both Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround & Dolby Digital 5.1. The first thing viewers are likely to notice is the film’s marvelous original music done by Bernard Herrmann, with its new high resolution lossless mix. Right from the opening credits, you’ll be treated to an enveloping soundtrack which gets excellent rear channel and bass use; as well as the front left and right channels which receive the majority of the music.

Dialogue is also a very important part of North By Northwest, and that is handled expertly. Dialogue is delivered primarily through the center channel, with some presence in the right and front channels. The sound effects—the rolling of the train, the crop duster, the shooting in the cafeteria etc.—also have newfound life to them via the Dolby TrueHD lossless track. Warner Bros. has brought out a title in North By Northwest, that shows what great things Blu-ray can uncover in a title that’s fifty years old.

North By Northwest has the following special features:

The special features on this release are presented in Standard Definition video quality with Dolby Digital sound. The sound quality varies between 5.1 Surround, Stereo and Mono; which will be noted below.
DigiBook packaging is included which is 44 pages in length for the booklet. The booklet contains tons of facts about the film itself, poster art, biographies of the cast members, a short biography on the Director Alfred Hitchcock and other crew. If you’re a fan of digi-book packaging, you’ll love all the photo stills.

Two NEW documentaries are included on this 50th Anniversary Edition:

The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57:32) takes a look at the director and his method of filmmaking. This includes interviews Martin Scorseese, John Carpenter, Guillermo del Toro and various others.
North by Northwest: One for the Ages (25:29) features interviews with most of the same screenwriters and directors from the previously mentioned documentary.

These Original DVD (ports) special features are included:

Screenwriter Audio Commentary: Ernest Lehman offers some interesting thoughts, but there are several silences and occasions were he says, “I don’t know why Hitchcock did that.”
Music Only Track: showcases the film’s score by Bernard Herrmann.
Cary Grant: A Class Apart (87:12) is a 2003 TCM documentary in its entirety. This is worth watching, especially for fans of the screen legend. Features interviews with family, friends, co-workers, ex-wives, his widow and some great clips. This features Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound.
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest hosted by Eva Marie Saint (39:27). Fairly standard making of, that was made well after the fact.
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