Blu-ray Review: North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition)


There was talk earlier this year that it wasn’t in the studios’ best interest to continue to release classic films on DVD/Blu-ray as the demand for them was dwindling and the cost of restoration was climbing. The article in question even quotes Warner Home Video senior vice president George Feltenstein saying “most of the studios have pretty much said ‘Screw it, we’re out of here, we’re not going to do this.'” Strangely enough, it just so happens Warner Home Video is the home entertainment studio releasing the very first Alfred Hitchcock film on Blu-ray, 50 years after its theatrical release with a restoration price tag I have read cost upwards of $1 million. Perhaps studios are slowing down the release of their classic films, but with Warner’s recent Blu-ray release of The Wizard of Oz, the upcoming release of Gone With the Wind and this release of North by Northwest you’d have a hard time convincing me they are cutting back as this release is as impressive as you could expect.

Described as the quintessential chase film, North by Northwest follows Cary Grant as a smug Manhattan advertising executive suffering from a case of mistaken identity that will have him chasing down answers from Grand Central Station to a Midwest cornfield and finally culminating on the nose of Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore. Grant co-stars with the traditional Hitchcock blonde bombshell, this time played by Eva Marie Saint, as well as James Mason as the suave villain Philip Vandamm with Martin Landau playing his henchman Leonard.

I will admit I wasn’t an instant fan of North by Northwest when I first watched it a few years ago, but that has a lot to do with my upbringing in film, which has always looked at action films with the idea that we need plenty of explosions, car chases and gun fights to get the heart racing. Instead, Hitchcock’s NXNW is dedicated to timing, editing and subtlety for its thrills not to mention absolute outlandish moments such as a crop duster chasing down Grant in a cornfield and a tense battle on the faces of Mount Rushmore. Outlandish or not, it’s Hitchcock’s ability to make you look beyond the absurd and get caught up in the moment that turns this one into so much fun.

Fortunately, time is a film watcher’s best friend. The more films you see the easier it is to separate the greats from the rest. Since my first viewing of NXNW I have now seen the majority of Hitchcock’s feature films as well as seen several more Cary Grant films, and the mystery as to why this film is a celebrated favorite is no longer and Warner Home Video has pieced together a highly impressive package marking the film’s 50th anniversary.

First off, the transfer was created from the original VistaVision negative in 8K resolution and has been cleaned up to perfection. In an excellent explanation offered up by Moises Chiullan at Hollywood Elsewhere, he explains the reasoning behind the difference in the contrast levels with this Blu-ray edition and the previously released special edition DVD saying, “Since DVD works with such limited resolution compared to Blu-ray, a lot of weird adjustments would be made for the sake of it looking right on much lower quality, smaller, and non-HD screens… If they didn’t over-do the brightness on the DVD, you wouldn’t have been able to see Cary Grant in the long shot where’s he’s standing across the road from the guy who gets off the bus. They’d both just be silhouettes.” A visual comparison is available here.

Of course, the picture is the major upgrade here, but Warner has spared no expense in the package’s presentation. Offered in digi-book packaging (a personal favorite) the disc comes with a 43-page booklet including two brief essays, biographical information on Grant, Saint, Mason and, of course, Hitchcock, additional film details and a wealth of artwork and production photos. It’s a slick package to be sure.

The special features are largely all ported over from the previous DVD release including an audio commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 39-minute doc on Hitchcock, followed by a stills gallery and three trailers.

New content begins with an excellent 87-minute Turner Classic Movies 2004 documentary on Cary Grant that goes into considerable detail including interviews with a couple of Grant’s ex-wives and a choice quote from Betsy Drake.*

Next comes the 57 minute Hitchcock lovefest titled “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style” which features a wealth of information on the master of suspense, but does pour it on a bit thick. Of course, it’s nice to hear the likes of Martin Scorsese commenting on Hitchcock, but when it’s nothing but a smattering of hyperbole it gets a little old. The other new feature, “North by Northwest: One for the Ages” is much more entertaining as Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), William Friedkin (French Connection), Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) discuss the film specifically and its impact on the industry.

For my money, I see this as a no-brainer purchase and only hope Warner and other studios follow suit in releasing the rest of Hitch’s catalog on Blu-ray high definition. Then again, I am quite happy with my current collection of Hitchcock titles as the only major omission is last year’s collection from Fox, which just so happens to contain one of my favorites, and no, I’m not talking about Notorious, I’m talking about this one.

* The Cary Grant doc has been available on DVD in the past, but was not part of the previous release of North by Northwest, which is why I mention it as a new feature on this release.

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