Saturday, October 31, 2009

NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Bluray (MGM 1959) Warner Home Video

Arguably, the Hitchcock thriller by which all others are measured, North By Northwest (1959) is a superior example of all the technical mastery and visual storytelling craftsmanship that director Alfred Hitchcock acquired during his American tenure in films. After the abysmal box office performance of his psychologically complex Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s last film of the 1950s returned to his more reliable blend of dark sadism and light humor and his 'wrong man' scenario to ensure audience popularity.

Determined to write a ‘wrong man’ movie to top all the rest, screenwriter Ernest Lehman devised a stylish thriller incorporating nearly every Hitchcockian film devise from the director’s illustrious tenure into one seamless roller coaster ride of masterful thrills and humorous suspense.

Over the years rumors have circulated that Hitchcock unintentionally mentioned the idea for the project to James Stewart while production was wrapping on Vertigo. When Stewart became eager to play the part of Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock was forced to admit that he had Cary Grant in mind all along. However, there are problems with this story.

First, Hitchcock seldom worked far in advance in planning his subsequent projects. In general, but specifically at this point in his career, Hitch’ took his time deciding what film would come next. Also, once he was involved on a movie, he committed himself wholly to that project until it was completed. Since North By Northwest was not a pre-sold play or movie property already waiting in the wings, but one commissioned from Lehman by Hitchcock, it seems unlikely that the idea came to him well in advance of wrapping production on Vertigo.

Second, given the solid working relationship between Hitchcock and Stewart, it does not make much sense that Hitch’ would have mentioned a movie idea to his star without having Stewart in mind for the lead. More than likely, MGM did not want Stewart cast – either because he seemed too old for the part, was not one of their stars under contract or was inadvertently being blamed for Vertigo’s poor performance at the box office.

Whatever the reason, North By Northwest stars Cary Grant as harried ad man, Roger O. Thornhill. After being mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Van Damme (James Mason), Roger quickly discovers that he is a sitting duck, rift for multiple assassination attempts by Van Damme’s men unless he can get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, Roger’s attempts at contacting UN political analyst, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) goes horribly awry when one of Van Damme’s assassins kills Townsend in the middle of the United Nations lobby, making it appear as though Roger is the killer.

Considered a fugitive from justice, Roger next stumbles onto Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious flirt traveling by train and oddly intent on helping Roger elude the authorities.Slowly Roger comes to trust Eve and the two have an affair. However, when Eve appears to be working for Van Damme, Roger confronts their motley crew in the open, thereby exposing Eve to terrible danger because Eve is the double agent that Van Damme has mistaken Roger.

Hitchcock relied heavily on matte paintings and process photography in North By Northwest to sustain a level of purely escapist make-believe. The film’s two most memorable set pieces – a bi-plane assault on Roger along a lonely stretch of North Dakota road – and the scaling of Presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore were both elaborately staged at MGM in front of sets and process screens rather than shot on location.

In the former instance, Grant was placed on a treadmill in the foreground, running for his life while reacting to rear projection; the bi-plane photographed separately. In the latter sequence MGM’s scenic art department crafted an elaborate plaster replica of Rushmore’s faces, relying on equally elaborate matte paintings to capture the steep downward perspective as Eve and Roger appear to be dangling from the jagged precipices for the film’s climactic showdown.

Some surviving studio memos indicate that this final race across Rushmore was recreated out of necessity rather than from Hitchcock’s innate dislike of location shooting. It was only after the State Park denied MGM access, or even permission, to the real location that the decision was made to recreate Rushmore on the back lot.

At Hitchcock's request, MGM licensed Paramount’s patented VistaVision process for North By Northwest after Hitchcock refused to photograph the film in Cinemascope. Although the making was an enjoyable experience for all concerned, North By Northwest was to be the only film Hitchcock ever made at MGM. It also marked the last time Cary Grant worked for Hitchcock.

Today, rumors abound as to why these two alumni never reunited for another try – especially since North By Northwest was one of Hitchcock’s most profitable thrillers. One plausible reason is that Grant had begun to feel as though his days as a leading man were numbered. While the actresses Grant was frequently being paired with were increasingly getting younger, Grant himself was already well into middle age at the time North By Northwest went before the cameras. Following the success of the film, Grant would reluctantly agree to make only one more thriller: Stanley Donen’s faux Hitchcockian spy movie: Charade (1963).

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray transfer doesn't necessarily best their beautifully remastered standard DVD so much as it presents us with an alternate viewing experience. The original DVD's color palette has been considerably toned down on Blu-Ray; particularly the red levels, yielding more realistic flesh tones but robbing us of the blood red patina of Eva Marie Saint's sultry cocktail dress.

Directly comparing the Blu-Ray to the standard DVD illustrates some stark differences. Overall, the image is considerably darker. Flesh tones appear more natural. Blues are more pronounced. Night scenes are now very dark and saturated in deep blue hues.

It's no surprise that Blu-Ray's infinite capacity for storage yields a more robust image with finer details jumping off the screen. The image is startlingly sharper, crisper and more refined. Wow! is the first word that comes to mind. Also, colours and flicker have been stablized. For the first time since its release, we truly get to see North By Northwest in VistaVision's motion picture 'high fidelity'. The remastered True HD audio is the welcomed upgrade; crisper, cleaner and more finely balanced than the old 5.1 audio on the DVD.

Extras are also a reason to trade up for the Blu-Ray. They include the SD's audio commentary by Ernest Lehman and the Eva-Marie Saint hosted documentary on the making of the film. Also added into the mix is the extensive bio on the life of Cary Grant that previously appeared as an extra feature on the Bringing Up Baby collector's set offering from WB. Newly created featurettes on the making of the film and Hitchcock's prowess as a director round out the extras.

Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
4

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