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Masterpiece is a word that is associated with a large number of the movies directed by the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. NORTH BY NORTHWEST ($25) is without a doubt one of Hitchcockís greatest masterpieces. This film is the pinnacle of the glamorous, romantic, Technicolor style that Hitchcock had adopted during the 1950s for thrillers like REAR WINDOW, THE MAN WHO KNOW TOO MUCH and TO CATCH A THIEF. Helping to make NORTH BY NORTHWEST the acknowledged masterpiece that it is, is Ernest Lehman rock solid screenplay, the ultimate Hitchcock leading man- namely Cary Grant, one of Bernard Herrmannís greatest musical scores, the legendary crop duster sequence and an amazing climax on the face of Mount Rushmore.

The plot of NORTH BY NORTHWEST concerns Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a Madison Avenue advertising man mistaken for a government agent named George Kaplan by the henchman of Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), a shady individual who has been selling secrets to the other side. When Thornhill denies that he is Kaplan, Vandamm and his associates try to eliminate him by first intoxicating him and then placing him in a car that is heading for a cliff. Fortunately, Thornhill has enough experience behind the wheel and with the bottle to save himself from a watery fate. Reporting the incident to the police does Thornhill little good and when he tries to confront the man he believes abducted him, Thornhill ends up being accused of a murder he did not commit. Figuring the only way he can clear his name is to catch up with the real George Kaplan, Thornhill sneaks onto a train heading for Chicago. Although the police are looking everywhere for him, Thornhill is able to hide himself on the train with the aid of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a beautiful and amorous whom he meets on board. As Thornhill travels in a northerly direction across the country, he finds that in his predicament, nothing is what it seems and that peopleís loyalties are continually compromised.

Cary Grant is debonair and charming as the filmís hero, a man who finds himself befuddled by his circumstances on more than one occasion. Additionally, Grantís years as an acrobat is put to good use during the filmís climatic sequences, which made him the ideal choice for the role of Roger Thornhill. I donít think Eva Marie Saint has ever been sexier than she appears in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. How some of her lines, laced with sexual innuendo, ever made it to the screen in 1959 is beyond me (not that Iím complaining). James Mason as Vandamm proves to be one of the most sophisticated screen villains of all time, I doubt that villainy wore such a sophisticated face again, until Masonís turn in SALEMíS LOT several decades later. Not to be slighted, Martin Landauís pivotal portrayal of Vandammís right hand man, Leonard, makes for another unforgettable screen villain. The cast of NORTH BY NORTHWEST also features the incomparable Jessie Royce Landis and Leo G. Carroll, as well as Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Adam Williams, Edward Platt, Robert Ellenstein, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Patrick McVey, Ed Binns and Ken Lynch.

I donít think that Warner Home Video can be praised highly enough for the absolutely phenomenal job they have done with their DVD release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is transferred from a pristine film element that demonstrates why VistaVision was called Motion Picture High Fidelity- the image on this DVD is stunning. Let me put it to you this way, I popped the DVD into my player and my jaw hung open for over two hours as I watched an unbelievable beautiful transfer. I have never seen a movie that is over forty years old look this good, nor have I ever seen NORTH BY NORTHWEST look this good. I doubt that there ever was anything that could hold a candle to this presentation, except for brand new release prints issued to theaters back in 1959. For this presentation, NORTH BY NORTHWEST has been framed at 1.85:1 and the DVD features the anamorphic enhancement for playback on 16:9 displays. The image is crisp, fully detailed and demonstrates an almost 3D like quality. Colors are flawlessly rendered here, with a natural level of saturation and very healthy looking flesh tones. Reds tend to stand out from the other colors during the presentation; especially on the dress Eva Marie Saint wears during the hotel room and auction sequences. Blacks are perfectly reproduced and this 1959 release displays an amazing level of shadow detail. Film grain is completely absent from the presentation, and when I said that the film element used for this transfer was pristine, I wasnít kidding. There isnít a blemish, scratch, mark or bit of dust to be seen anywhere. The smartly authored dual layer DVD is completely free from visible traces of digital compression artifacts. 

Enhancing this DVD release still further is a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack. Considering the filmís age and recording technology available at the time, Warner has done a tremendous job with the sound. The soundtrack is far cleaner than I remember hearing it in the past (anyone remember the Criterion Laserdisc that sounded like bacon was frying on the track during the filmís entire running time?), plus the sound has a quite a bit more presence, thanks to the new re-mix. Of course, there are frequency limitations, which are primarily noticeable in relation to Bernard Herrmannís brilliant score. However, the original music recordings never sounded better on any other video release than they do here. In fact, the music greatly benefits from being spread out across the discrete channels by sounding fuller than I ever remember hearing it. Dialogue is locked into the center channel and is very cleanly reproduced. Directional sound effects are introduced into the remix by panning the original monaural effects across the soundstage. These new directional effects donít sound as if they are being faked and are especially effective during the filmís crop duster sequence. A French monaural soundtrack is also encoded onto the DVD, as are English and French subtitles.

The interactive menus are nicely animated and include sound. Through the menus one has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a very nice array of supplemental features. Created for this release, is a brand new documentary entitled Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest. Hosted by Eva Marie Saint, the this highly entertaining 40-minute documentary includes new interviews with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, production designer Robert Boyle, actor Martin Landau and Hitchcockís daughter Patricia. Also included on the DVD is a running commentary with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a production stills gallery and my favorite feature- an isolated stereo soundtrack containing Bernard Herrmannís immortal score.

On all counts, Warner Home Video has produced a winner with their DVD release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Not only do you get a miraculous looking and superb sounding presentation, Warner has tacked on a lot of choice supplements certain to appeal to Hitchcock fans. Without a doubt NORTH BY NORTHWEST is one of the best DVD releases of 2000. Do yourself a big favor- buy this DVD! Absolutely recommended.


North by Northwest


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2000 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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