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NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  136 Minutes
Release Date:  September 7, 2004

"I am but mad north-north west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." - Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Film ****

North by Northwest is the central film in what many fans consider to be Alfred Hitchcock's holy trinity of films, starting with Vertigo and completing with Psycho.  For many, it's the quintessential Hitchcock film:  wry and funny, suspenseful, adventurous, romantic, and filled with danger, intrigue and mistaken identities.  Most of all, it's two and a quarter hours of dynamite entertainment.

It stars Cary Grant at his most affable and charming as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who, by one harmless gesture, ends up in the hands of Vandamm (Mason), a master of international espionage.  Vandamm thinks that Thornhill is George Kaplan, an American government agent on his trail.  When Kaplan...that is to say, Thornhill cannot cooperate, Vandamm tries to have him killed by pouring a bottle of bourbon into him and setting him out on the road!

Thornhill survives, but finds no evidence the next day to support his desperate claims of kidnapping and attempted murder, meaning his only chance to clear his name is to find the people who did it to him.  A daunting task, to be sure, but it's made even more difficult when Thornhill becomes framed for a murder at the United Nations!

With his picture in newspapers from coast to coast, Thornhill goes on the lam, but ends up in the company of a sultry, mysterious train passenger named Eve Kendall (the alluring Saint).  He's not quite sure why she's willing to help him, and neither are we...until we have reason to believe she's one of Vandamm's operatives.  Will Thornhill find a way to save his own hide, finger the bad guys, and end up with the girl?  Hey...this is Cary Grant we're talking about!

Hitchcock's favorite "mistaken man" plot has never been crafted so smartly and entertainingly before, thanks to a keen screenplay by Ernest Lehman and Hitch's own uncanny sense of pacing and rhythm.  Case in point is the famous sequence where Thornhill goes to meet Kaplan on a hot, dusty, empty crossroads. 

He stands and waits.  A car come up, and goes by, and then another.  A truck does the same.  A car pulls up and stops, and a man gets out, while the car goes on its way.  The two men stare at one another.  Thornhill approaches.  It's not the right man...he's just a guy waiting for a bus.  The man looks off at a distant plane and casually remarks that the plane is dusting crops where there ain't no crops.  He gets on the bus.  Thornhill is alone again, except for that plane...

And the rest, is of course, history.  It's a brilliant piece of filmmaking in which Hitchcock knows just how long to toy with us before delivering the action packed finale.  When the chase begins, the effect is even more thrilling because of how long we sat in anticipation without anything happening.

The second major signature piece is the finale where Roger and Eve are chased across the face of Mount Rushmore by the bad guys.  It's a skillful blend of actual location shooting and carefully reproduced interior sets to give the illusion that our heroes' lives are always a footstep away from ending.

Though it's impossible for any group of fans to agree on which of Hitchcock's many indelible films constitutes his greatest works, North by Northwest is always one that gets brought up.  Almost 50 years after its release, it remains a classic and a favorite amongst Hitch's devotees, and quite possibly the most perfect of his movies to use in introducing a newbie to the films of Hitchcock.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Cary Grant's line to Eva Marie Saint about "got the pumpkin" is a reference to the famous "Pumpkin Papers"; documents stored in a hollowed out pumpkin by Whittaker Chambers that proved once and for all Alger Hiss' subversive link to the Soviets.

Video ****

This DVD marks one of the all time greatest efforts in transferring an older film to modern digital technology.  North by Northwest is a crisp, clean, colorful visual feast from start to finish.  Every line is solid, every detail is striking, every tone is rich and natural looking.  This is easily a classic movie on DVD by which almost all others can be judged by.

Audio ***

The new 5.1 audio mix is striking and dynamic, with Bernard Herrman's classic score sounding brighter and more potent than ever.  Spoken words are clean and clear, and sound effects and other cues sound sharp and distinct, with no noticeable background noise interfering with the overall effect.

Features ***

The disc contains a commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a behind-the-scenes documentary hosted by Eva Marie Saint, a music-only audio track, two trailers (including the famous Hitchcock tour guide one), a TV spot, stills gallery, and talent files.

Summary:

North by Northwest is a smashing, funny, and thoroughly entertaining thrill ride.  It's no wonder this one is always named as one of Hitchcock's best.  With this superb looking and well packaged DVD, this is a title no film fan should be without.

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