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In a year that will be known for a downturn in the Home Video market, Warners is showing its faith in the new Blu-ray format with three extremely expensive HD restorations, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and this ever-popular Alfred Hitchcock thriller, North by Northwest. Already the subject of a milestone 2000 touch-up job, Hitchcock's only MGM production has been given the latest in digital restoration. The Blu-ray experience is more powerful than ever, especially with Bernard Herrmann's nervous crescendos blasting out in remixed, lossless 5.1 audio track.
NxNW has long been recognized as the ultimate Hitchcock chase film. Screen writer writer Ernest Lehman strove to top all of the Master of Suspense's earlier cinematic spy chases. Hitchcock remade his The Man Who Knew Too Much, trying to capture the zest of his British thrillers. Here Lehman revisits the spirit of Hitch 'light' thrillers like The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent. The film percolates with a sly wit and a slight tilt toward self-parody that resists the urge to become farce; the tongue-in-cheek humor that Bond films quickly tapped is invented here in Lehman's script. The mix of sex and suave romance allows Cary Grant to be at his seductive, urbane best. Lehman's commentary interview reveals that he either has forgotten or never knew the so-called Hitchcock rule about MacGuffins; he honestly thinks the MacGuffin is Roger O. Thornhill's mistaken Kaplan identity, not the kitschy statuette with the microfilm. Perhaps Hitch invented the MacGuffin concept for the Truffaut interview book.
The mix of elements puts a Paranoia-Lite spin on the spy-chase genre. Thematically NxNW has a lot in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- a vague cold war background, a hero fearful of losing his identity as well as his life. Hitch even uses Don Siegel's same gardener-revealed-as-villain gag. This is possibly the first spy movie that confronts its hero with the nagging suspicion that reality itself may be false, even if only on a comic level. Thornhill is stymied and confused by all the evidence identifying him as Kaplan. The noir film Somewhere in the Night posited an amnesiac hero in the same situation, resisting the bad guys' attempts to convince him he's someone else. Keeping this flimsy concept afloat in this cocktail of a thriller is Lehman's prime achievement.
Lehman also adopts the modern concept that the perfect thriller should be the perfect stack of desirable scenes, a tack eventually taken to an extreme by giallo horror director Dario Argento. The crop duster sequence is a triumph of the unlikely & unmotivated over the logical & organic ... It exists as a self-conscious set piece, its own artistic statement, something Hitchcock would make whole movies out of in Psycho and The Birds. When Cary Grant stands waiting at the side of the road, he seems to know that we're watching ... he's winking at the audience even as we identify with his predicament.
Read Hitchcock / Truffaut and you'll learn little about Hitchcock collaborators or the influences of other filmmakers. Hitch culled from many sources while pretending to be a fountain of originality -- Val Lewton (much of Vertigo and Psycho), William Castle (on cleaning up at the box office with cheap horror in Psycho). Maybe it's all from Ernest Lehman, but NxNW has a number of Tex Avery - slanted gags. Thornhill's attitude is very Screwball Squirrel at times (Or was Screwball Squirrel very Cary?). He does an Avery, 'Imagine that, no door!" take when he says "Locked!" in the kidnap car. The roadside action in the crop duster scene plays (and feels) very much like the classic animated Avery gag where a cartoon character looks both ways down a vacant road into infinity, only to be run down with his first footstep onto the asphalt.
Robin Wood talked about NxNW being the culmination of the 'innocent man on the run' formula and made a good case for it being the stylistic inspiration for James Bond (see Savant's article on this). But he didn't touch on the fact that the romantic center of NxNW is a reworking of the love triangle in Hitchcock's own Notorious. That film's perverse relationship has trampy traitor's daughter (Ingrid Bergman) seduce, sleep with and marry neo-Nazi Claude Rains in order to 'patriotically' inform on him to the CIA. In The Encyclopedia of Film Noir, Julie Kirgo makes an excellent case for Notorious as Hitchcock's most misogynistic movie. CIA agent Cary Grant scorns and abuses Bergman, pimping her to Rains and then damning her as a slut when she follows through on the bargain. Although Grant eventually sees the error of his attitude, the undertow of mental persecution abates only for the finale. Under its glossy production values Notorious shows a sensibility more akin to Luis Buñuel psychodramas like the fetishistic El.
In NxNW Hitch and Lehman don't blame Mame for expressing repressed sex. Eva Marie Saint's teasing sophisticate is a heroine we care about, as well as the one closest to the sexual ideal Hitch seemed to have spent a score of movies trying to create/possess. Eva Marie Saint is both tough and delicate, and the situation that Hitch previously found so dirty is here made poignant. This time around Cary Grant's hero isn't a bitter skirt-hater. Lehman instead points that finger at the hypocritical CIA, who Thornhill declares, ought to start getting used to losing some Cold Wars. For the Eisenhower years the gesture is pretty brassy. When Theodore J. Flicker made an entire comic feature out of the same attitude in The President's Analyst the censors put that much more political film through the wringer.
On the other hand, Hitch and Lehman delight in making the reptilian Leonard (Martin Landau) an incredibly obvious homosexual, in the stock Hollywood tradition of equating so-called deviance with malice. Lehman likes to act coy on the subject, but if you pay attention to his dialog, you'll discover that almost every Leonard line is a gay double entendre of one kind or another. Some of 'em are pretty raw.
Hitchcock directs with his graphic-minded instincts, isolating Thornhill with frequent high angled shots that make him a pawn in an indifferent landscape. Sometimes reality has to be forced a bit --- the porters in 1950s train stations were in general all blacks, so Hitch's crowd of Anglo redcaps played false to anyone who had ever taken the train. But other scenes are brilliantly done. We are so entertained when VanDamm's spies dupe the detectives the morning after his drunken driving stunt, we don't stop to think of how easy it should be for Thornhill to prove them all liars.
NxNW's main baddie, microfilm smuggler Phillip VanDamm -- a delightfully suave James Mason -- is for once a Hitchcock villain without a mother figure. The charming harpy here is of course Thornhill's momma, a scoffing, spoiled matron (Jessie Royce Landis) who disapproves of sonny boy's bad habits but willingly takes his bribes. From James Mason's point of view, NxNW is really a tragedy. VanDamm has the world by the tail but is so paranoid that he inadvertently 'creates' an enemy to oppose him. VanDamm unknowingly transforms an ordinary citizen into the superspy Kaplan, and then watches helplessly while 'Kaplan' brings down his whole life, taking his girl in the bargain.
The only bet missed by Lehman was not finding a way to put the delightful Jessie Royce Landis and James Mason characters in a scene together. That would have been a riot!
Cary Grant is in top form, impervious to bullets, knives and booze, and a more convincing Romeo at 54 than he was at 30. One would never think he was a neurotic worrywart, fretting about his looks and already threatening to retire. In his commentary Ernest Lehman notes that Cary often whined and complained about having to carry so much expository dialogue.
NxNW is overloaded with exposition. After about 25 minutes of happy confusion, we get a scene where the whole situation is laid out in a CIA think tank: "Good luck, Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are". At the end of the second act there are not one but two consecutive plot recap scenes, at the Chicago Airport and on the observation deck at Mount Rushmore. Hitch is on record justifying all the recapitulations to aid patrons who come into the movie late, but Savant thinks he simply doesn't trust that his audience is smart enough to follow his unconventional storyline. Revealing the charade early could have been an attempt to avoid the audience dissatisfaction that made Vertigo a flop.
Remember that Hitch's onscreen persona often talked to his audience as if we were dull-witted children, while sneaking in clever jokes only hipsters would pick up on. Hitch was drawn to complex concepts yet faced the problem of simplifying them in the cause of popular box office. Hitchcock wanted commercial success first and foremost and leaving his audience behind is clearly the kind of thing he worried about. Psycho's low budget allowed Hitch the freedom to take a risk but he still saw the need to include Robert Bloch's pat psychiatrist scene. Following this line of reasoning, The Birds seems to be Hitch's rebellion against the necessity of explaining anything. This 'let them eat feathers and figure it out for themselves' attitude alone gives The Birds a heroic quality. Savant compares the stumble at the end of Psycho with the maudlin farewell scene in Schindler's List, a cowardly CYA move that doesn't tarnish the brilliance of what comes before. In this sense, Spielberg and Hitchcock relate to their mass audience base in a similar (sometimes self-defeating) way. Removing/including the first CIA scene in NxNW was, Savant bets, a hot debate topic between Hitchcock and Lehman.
Warners' 50th Anniversary Blu-ray of North by Northwest is going to be snapped up by home theater fanatics eager to see the improvement. That DVD from 2000 was highly praised, and does the new Blu-ray really amount to a significant improvement?
The answer is yes. NxNW had suffered from leeched color and excessive grain before that Lowry DVD, and we were all carried away by colors that popped and the film's overall bright tone. But perhaps some of the color was overdone. Cary Grant's perpetual suntan was so pumped that he seemed to glow from within, like a Halloween pumpkin. The new Blu-ray subdues the colors somewhat and adds more image stability and much more sharpness. Those static storyboarded cornfield shots really seem locked down now. Because HD format has a wider range of dark and light, dark scenes can be allowed to darken yet still have gradations in the blacks -- giving much more richness to night scenes.
The effects come off better than ever. Although some reveal techniques that give away the show, many more are almost invisible. Matthew Yuricich's landscape matte paintings bridging combined live action plates look great, as do the many matte angles on Van Damme's cantilevered glass house.
Buyers will get also their extras' worth with the NxNW Blu-ray. The most prestigious offering is Robert Trachtenberg's feature-length American Masters docu Cary Grant: A Class Apart, a topnotch study that pulls in clips from every phase of the actor's career. The handsome new HD pieces feature input from modern directors like Curtis Hanson, who more or less lecture the audience on the Master of Suspense. One for the Ages examines NxNW in detail, while The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style uses seemingly every interesting clip from every Warners- owned Hitchcock title to give a whirlwind equivalent of a college curriculum in the director's work. Newcomers will be bowled over (as so many of us were discovering Hitchcock as teenagers) while more seasoned fans will see it as an endless stack of clips and A.H. lessons in cinema: suspense vs. surprise, the subjective eye, Alfie's blonde fantasy females. The "Vintage 2000" docu Destination Hitchcock hosted by Eva Marie Saint still holds up; it and the disc's commentary track feature the late screenwriter Ernest Lehman.
The package rounds out with a Music-only track, a stills gallery, trailers and a TV spot. The book-like packaging gives the viewer a 44-page program packed with glossy still images. The cover artwork is very attractive as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.