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Alfred Hitchcock has become an iconic and somewhat mythological figure in the history of cinema. Mystique, sexuality, and shock are synonymous with his epic films which span nearly a fifty year time period. His style and techniques have been emulated by film makers over the past three decades. Having passed away more than twenty years ago, Alfred Hitchcock’s presence is felt more often than not in films today.

That being said, Hitchcock films were generally thrillers often involving mysterious plots, shady figures (to both the characters and the audience) and shocking twists. There was always a dashing leading man and a ravishing leading lady to compliment him. Taking that into account, North by Northwest is heavily considered to be the quintessential Hitchcock film. Released originally in the summer of 1959 by MGM, North by Northwest encapsulated all of the filmmaker's most famous trademarks while still keeping things fresh. Starring an established Cary Grant and young-talented actress Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest had all the ingredients for success. But what sets this picture above the rest of Mr. Hitchcock’s already respected library of work? And more importantly, who is George Kaplan?

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Movie
North by Northwest opens with a first impression of the sensational score written by Bernard Hermmann (an academy award winning composer, whose other credits include Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver). The busy and raucous score is a reflection of the streets of New York City, which is where we are transported to during the opening credits. We are immediately introduced to Grant’s character Roger Thornhill, an advertising consultant. Thornhill, much like Grant, is suave and calculating; his charm is almost oozing from the screen. After taking a cab to a restaurant at about six minutes into the picture, we are immediately thrown into the meat of the plot; Thornhill is mistaken for a man by the name of George Kaplan and is kidnapped by two men (one named Leonard, played by a young Martin Landau). He is taken to a mansion where he is briefly interrogated by the chilling Vandamm, played by James Mason. Pleading ignorance to the situation, Thornhill is unable to cooperate. Coyly, Thornhill is drugged by the men and framed for a drunken driving charge. While investigating the plot against George Kaplan and what the identity of George Kaplan is, he is led back to the mansion, which has completely changed from the previous night. We are then sent on a whirlwind when Thornhill is then lead to the United Nations where he is again framed as murdering a member of the U.N. The chase across the country for Roger Thornhill/George Kaplan, begins here.

Pictured on every paper in the country, Thornhill must go into hiding. It is at this time where we are transported to a meeting between U.S. intelligence officials. It is revealed, only to the audience, that George Kaplan is a decoy name that was set to throw off espionage spy Vandamm. There is no George Kaplan and neither Thornhill nor Vandamm are aware of it. Back to Thornhill now, who has been chased onto a train heading towards Chicago, we are all introduced to the sultry Eve Kendal played by Eva Marie Saint (who won an Academy Award for her work as a supporting actress aside Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront). The two hit it off immediately while having a meal together and eventually find themselves in Miss Kendal’s train car. During this time Miss Kendal manages to slip a note to Vandamm (who is also secretly on board) that she has George Kaplan. While in Chicago Kendal lures Thornhill to a crop field, claiming Kaplan will be waiting there for him. In the film’s most famous scene, Thornhill must evade a crop plane which is attempting to shoot him down.

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So, why is this considered to be the quintessential Hitchcock film? The chemistry between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint deserves much of the credit. Here you have one of the most charismatic and dashing actors of his era who is humbled by the strong and sensual Eva Marie Saint. They work well together in romantic scenes, which come off even better because of their comedic touches here and there. They are intoxicating in their dramatic and action scenes as well. This allows the audience to care not only for them as singular characters, but also their relationship as a whole. The successful character development is largely in debt to the wonderful screenplay by Ernest Lehman, whose credits include West Side Story and The Sound of Music. His clever and invigorating dialogue is able to shift modes quickly, which keeps the audience attached. Again, I cannot stress enough how the brilliant score of Bernard Hermmann is vital to the flow and tone of the film; it is the pulse of North by Northwest.

Hitchcock is able to insert all of the finishing touches to separate this film from a cheesy spy flick to a masterpiece. As always, he has his cameo. He is also able to have comedic moments to break the tension and give the audience a chance to breathe. Hitchcock suspends the belief of the audience by taking his characters to exotic locations and creating suspense like only he can, also pushing the envelope with sexual innuendo, most obviously noted in the final shot of the picture, and during the dinner scene between Grant and Saint.

Unfortunately, the film can easily come off as being very dated today. This is in thanks due in part to the James Bond films and the Austin Powers series. The charming Cary Grant can be overlooked as just another British actor trying to woo a beautiful woman, while the plot can be mistaken as just another spy flick. In the eyes of some younger viewers, this flick can easily come off that way, though to more seasoned film-goers and hopefully to many others this will come off simply as a wonderful motion picture.

Video
North by Northwest is the first film taken on by Lowry Digital. Most recently, Lowry Digital has tackled such projects as The Indiana Jones Trilogy and The Star Wars Trilogy. What the company does is scan the negatives into a computer at a high resolution and restores a film frame by frame; computers and technicians remove dirt particles, adjust the color timing, repair film defects, and even enhance some special effects when needed. Presented on the disc in 1.78:1 widescreen (it was originally filmed in 1.66:1 VistaVision Technicolor), North by Northwest looks stunning with the colors vibrant and the transfer, for 95% of the movie, being quite breathtaking. There are a couple compression issues here and there in darker scenes, but generally Lowry did a masterful job here. If this is a movie you haven’t seen in a while, you will be blown away. If you’re new to it, you will respect and admire the job that Lowry did on restoring a 40+ year movie.

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Audio
Recorded initially in Mono, the soundtrack for this DVD has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital. With the exception of the crop field scene, the soundtrack doesn’t exactly explore the surround sound element often. The score does come off extremely clear, and the sound is never muddled. Considering the score is such an important element of the film, it’s hard to down grade the audio just because it doesn’t feature enough scenes to experience it. English and French language options with subtitles are available.

Extras
Warner Bros have really jam-packed this disc with extras. First and foremost, we are treated to a music only option of the movie. Herrmann’s score gets its rightful showcase here. If you like the movie, I highly recommend taking advantage of this extra. We are also treated to trailers and TV spots, so if you’re in for a hoot watch Hitchcock’s trailers on ANY of his movies; they’re hysterical. Production stills are also included, which give a nice look at the making of the film. The real meat is the documentary Destination Hitchcock: Behind the Making of North by Northwest. The documentary is hosted by film star Eva Marie Saint and is a very informative look at the making of the film from its conception through to its theatrical run. It’s a very well done documentary that includes a look at story boards, interviews, and the screenplay process. The piece runs at roughly a half hour and is definitely worth checking out. I only wish we had more making of footage and an in-depth look at the screenwriter. A film historian commentary could have been nice as well to compliment the screenwriter commentary.

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Overall
North by Northwest is highly regarded by many as Hitchcock’s greatest film; it ranks number 40 on the American Film Institutes all time top 100 list. It didn’t win any awards, but was and is a favorite of movie-goers. The disc has a stunning video transfer, a wealth of extras, and most importantly a damn good movie. The biggest issue is perhaps the packaging; the disc comes in a Snapper case! Thankfully, WB has since released it in a traditional keep case. Do yourself a favor; grab a bunch of Hitchcock films and be sure North by Northwest is in that pile. You’ll see elements of many of your favorite movies right in front of you, made over forty years ago.


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