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Just when you thought North by Northwest was being ignored in the wake of the classy Universal Hitchcock DVDs, Warner Home Video comes to the rescue. Hitch's most famous man-on-the-run epic is now restored to a superior lustre. Boasting a flawless 16x9 transfer (with nary a spec of dirt ) and an excitingly remixed 5.1 track making Bernard Herrmann's nervous crescendoes more powerful than ever before, NxNW is a keeper.
Savant won't bother with a plot synopsis or a list of NxNW's classic scenes. It truly is the 'Ultimate Hitchcock Film' that writer Ernest Lehman strove to create, not a pastiche of situations and motifs in the manner of a Brian DePalma hommage orgy. 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 in the The 39 Steps vein, and improves on the general audience appeal of the formula. The film is shot through with a sly wit and a slight tilt toward self-parody that resists the urge to become farce. ... the James Bond tongue-in-cheek humor (which Bond films quickly un-learned how to tap) 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 the MacGuffin concept was really invented by Hitch for the Truffaut interview book.
The mix of elements is no rehash of Hitchcock gags but instead a very progressive spin on the spy-chase genre. Lehman's style is Paranoia-Lite; 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 along with his life. Hitch even uses Don Siegel's same gardener-revealed-as-villain gag. This is possibly the first 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 such a concept afloat in this cocktail of a thriller is Lehman's prime achievement.
Lehman also adopts the very 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 cropduster sequence is a triumph of the unlikely & unmotivated over the logical & organic ... It exists as as a self-conscious setpiece, 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, we feel by the look on his face that he knows 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 lots of sources while pretending to be fountain of originality - Val Lewton (much of Vertigo and Psycho), William Castle (on cleaning up at the boxoffice 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 cropduster 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 the film 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. Its 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 misongynistic movie. CIA agent Cary Grant scorns and abuses Bergman, pimping her to Rains and then damning her as a slut because 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. Notorious, under its glossy production values, shows a sensibility more akin to the Luis Buñuel of psychodramas like the fetishistic El.
In NxNW Hitch and Lehman don't blame the woman for expressing repressed sex. And Eva Marie Saint manages to make her teasing sophisticate into a heroine whom 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. The situation which Hitch previously found so dirty is here made poignant, and Eva Marie Saint is tough and delicate at the same time. This time around Cary Grant's hero isn't a bitter skirt-hater. Lehman instead very lightly points that finger at the hypocritical CIA, who Thornhill declares, ought to start getting used to losing some Cold Wars, if their ethics don't improve. The gesture is subtle, but for
the Eisenhower years, 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.
For the most part Hitchcock directs Lehman's crooked story straightforwardly, using technique mainly to isolate Thornhill, as in the frequent use of high angled shots that make him a pawn in an indifferent landscape. Sometimes reality has to be forced a bit --- in 1950s train stations, the porters were in general all blacks, so Hitch's crowdful of Anglo redcaps played false to anyone who had ever taken the train. But other scenes like Thornhill and the detectives being duped by VanDamm's spies the morning after his drunken driving stunt, are brilliantly done - we are so entertained, 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 a Hitchcock villain without a mother figure. The charming momma harpy here is of course Thornhill's, 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. He 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 more convincing a Romeo at 54 than he was at 30. One would never think he was a neurotic worry wart, 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 his audience to be smart enough to follow his unconventional storyline.
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 boxoffice. Revealing the charade early could have been an attempt to avoid the audience dissatisfaction that made Vertigo a flop. 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 risk alienating his entire public 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 this necessity of explaining anything. Its '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 narrative 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.
On to the disc itself. This DVD is a visual delight, with a brilliance that brings attention to details one has missed in years of murky, badly framed transfers. The tears welling up in Eva Marie Saint's eyes, the light in the room where we meet VanDamm (ever notice he's introduced almost like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, lighting lamps?) haven't been seen like this since the last 35mm IB Tech prints were retired. Best of all is the special-effect laden conclusion on the Rushmore monument, which suffered the most on previous video transfers. Even the laserdiscs were far too bright, with mismatched colors in the matte areas. The DVD corrects all of these flaws. Elsewhere in the transfer, all traces of dirt and imperfection have been digitally vanquished. Even the reel changeover cues have been eliminated. The 5.1 remix (no original mono?) was done in 1996 at the old MGM, but this is the first release of a really restored VistaVision picture. Previous lasers, even the Criterions, were not only visually challenged, but cropped slightly left and right. This the cleanest Hitchcock film yet on DVD. It leaves the competition in the cropdust, so to speak.
The handsome longform docu produced by Peter Fitzgerald, Destination Hitchcock, is formatted around the personal memoirs of Eva Marie Saint, the show's only surviving above-the-title talent. Interview material is dominated by the insights of a spirited Ernest Lehman, and art director Robert Boyle is on hand to point out some surprising production details. The ebullient Patricia Hitchcock provides extra personal perspectives on her famed father's background. The docu charts the production from location to location across America, and makes particularly good use of music cues to shape its structure, a Fitzgerald strength. Too bad he didn't supervise the disc's menu design. Its klunky animation is better fit for a Pink Panther movie. The menus also billboard NxNW's main Bernard Herrman theme, blunting the musical impact when the viewer starts the movie proper. The extras also include a suitably droll Hitchcock 'travelogue' themed trailer.
Warner's has been fairly good to Alfred Hitchcock on DVD - they came out early with a fascinating Strangers on a Train double bill, including two slightly different versions. North by Northwest is one of the most entertaining thrillers in the Master of Suspense's filmography. With their distribution acquistion of the Turner/MGM library, Warner has now made it the best-looking Hitchcock title yet.
Bravo Warner. Now, if they would only turn their attention to their Technicolor Hammer horror films, Savant could die happy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, North by Northwest rates:
Note: Savant is the editor of the supplementary docu on this disc, and hopes his comments about it are reasonably objective ...
Other Alfred Hitchcock - oriented Savant articles and reviews:
The missing shot from Psycho ...
Review: Rope ...
Review: Saboteur ...
Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much