The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents November 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Where the Wild Things Are
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Natural Born Killers
North by Northwest
ASC Close-Up
North by Northwest (1959)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Warner Bros., $34.99

Fifty years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest plays like a piece of sheer cinematic alchemy, an instance in which personal expression and mass appeal merge to generate a film both thematically complex and thoroughly entertaining. On one level, the movie is pure escapism: Cary Grant, at his most relaxed and charming, plays advertising executive Roger Thornhill, a shallow but content man whose complacency is disrupted by a case of mistaken identity. Authorities and criminals pursue Thornhill across the country as he tries to figure out why he is being targeted; meanwhile, he falls in love with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may or may not be a double agent. From this premise, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman spin a romantic, fast-paced adventure yarn that represents Hollywood gloss at its finest: the cast is glamorous; the costumes and production design are the best money can buy, and the color images of cinematographer Robert Burks, ASC, are suitable for framing.

Yet North by Northwest’s slick surface belies its darker undercurrents; in the love triangle of Thornhill, Kendall and villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), Hitchcock subtly explores the link between romance and betrayal that obsessed him throughout his career. But that is not the only Hitchcock preoccupation that finds rich expression in North by Northwest, a film that ponders the dangers of conformity and complacency — Thornhill’s identity is so easy to mistake because he barely has one — and depicts a somewhat odd relationship between a grown man and his mother, a Hitchcock staple in films from Notorious and Psycho to The Birds. Also evident is the director’s typical relish of unusual set pieces, most notably the famous “crop duster” sequence and a chase set on the faces of Mount Rushmore. Indeed, for Hitchcock buffs, North by Northwest plays like a “greatest hits” compilation of the director’s motifs, yet the film is a self-contained masterpiece that can move and delight viewers who know nothing about the man behind the camera.

Technically, the film represents the high point of the long partnership between Hitchcock and Burks, who first worked together on Strangers on a Train (1950) and went on to collaborate on 11 more movies, including Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Vertigo (1958).  Like Thief and Vertigo, North by Northwest was shot in VistaVision and Technicolor, resulting in images of astonishing depth and clarity. The mise-en-scéne in the film perfectly conveys the tension that defines Thornhill’s predicament: the vibrant colors and precise compositions represent the surface appeal and stability of Thornhill’s Manhattan advertising milieu, but the extended depth of field reinforces the dangerous sense that threats to his existence could come from any pocket of the frame.  

Burks and Hitchcock were never more disciplined in their use of camera angles, movement and lighting to generate suspense and meaning than in North by Northwest, and their work has never been better presented on home video than on Warners’ new Blu-ray DVD.  Working from an 8K scan of the original VistaVision elements, the team at Warner Bros. has created a virtually flawless transfer in which even the most learned Hitchcock scholars will discover new visual (and, thanks to an equally fine Dolby sound mix and music-only track, aural) details. The disc includes two illuminating new documentaries, North by Northwest: One for the Ages and The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style. The first featurette is a 25-minute collection of interviews with filmmakers William Friedkin, Curtis Hanson, Francis Lawrence, Christopher McQuarrie and Guillermo del Toro, all of whom provide insights into the style, themes and influence of North by Northwest. All five directors also appear in The Master’s Touch, a one-hour documentary in which the scope is broadened to address Hitchcock’s career as a whole, with observations from additional commentators, including Martin Scorsese and John Carpenter.  

The other supplements are carried over from previous DVD releases — trailers and photo galleries, a surprisingly mundane commentary track by Lehman and a terrific hour-and-a-half-long Turner Classic Movies documentary on Grant. Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest, is a fine 40-minute featurette from the standard-definition DVD release that supplements One for the Ages with remembrances by the people who worked on the film, including Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, and production designer Robert Boyle. Finally, the Blu-ray edition of North by Northwest comes with a beautifully illustrated, 44-page booklet containing cast and crew biographies, production and promotional stills and assorted bits of useful trivia.  

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