|North by Northwest|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 07 September 2004|
'North by Northwest' may not be quite at the top of the Hitchcock list, but it's very high, and one of his most entertaining movies. Ernest Lehman's script is mostly a means of getting Cary Grant from one dangerous situation to another, but the dialog, in the old term, sparkles, the cast is exceptional even by Hitchcock's standards, the locations are gorgeously photographed, and it contains one of the wildest, most suspenseful and spectacular sequences in any Hitchcock movie -- in any movie, in fact. The "crop duster" scene is unforgettable.
Roger O. Thornhill (Grant) is an overworked Madison Avenue advertising executive who, on a typically busy day, is understandably surprised and confused when he's abducted at gunpoint by a pair of mysterious strangers (Adam Williams & Robert Ellenstein). He's hustled out to a beautiful Long Island estate where a sleek, smooth man (James Mason) who seems to be one Lester Townsend calls him George Kaplan.
Thornhill cannot convince the guy that he's NOT Kaplan; when he persists, and won't cooperate (because he doesn't know how), the two thugs and an effete companion, Leonard (Martin Landau) pour liquor down his throat and put him in a sports car on a cliffside road. Thornhill, however, lives through this, but no one, including his sarcastic mother (Jessie Royce Landis, who was a year older than Grant), buys his story. One thing leads to another, and Thornhill winds up accused of murder and fleeing on a train to Chicago, trying to find the man who wasn't Townsend, but is spy Phillip Vandamm.
On the train, Thornhill begins a romance with beautiful, elegant and witty Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), but we -- though not Thornhill -- soon learn she's working with Vandamm and his cronies. She is, in fact, Vandamm's lover.
And when we learn that Vandamm is a spy, we also learn there IS no George Kaplan. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his agents, all working for an unidentified American spy organization, have led Vandamm to think Kaplan is real in order to distract him from the real agent in his midst. Poor Thornhill has fallen into this carefully-woven plot.
He's resourceful, though. Boy, is he ever. As 'North by Northwest' unfolds, Grant goes through one adventure after another, escaping through quick thinking and sheer luck. The climax famously takes place on the presidential faces carved out of the rock of Mt. Rushmore.
This is a must. One of the most entertaining, influential adventure movies ever made (it had a powerful effect on the James Bond movies, which started up a couple of years later), it's been given highly satisfying treatment on this great DVD. Though produced at MGM, the movie was shot in Paramount's patented VistaVision process (and is now owned by Warner Bros. -- go figure), since Hitchcock had liked that so much when he used it for his immediately previous movie, 'Vertigo.' VistaVision negative moves sideways through the camera, allowing a much wider image to be shot on standard 35mm film, without the potential of distortion of anamorphic lenses. And the cinematographer could use his standard lenses as well. Then when it was printed onto 35mm for normal projection, the image was automatically crisper, cleaner, sharper -- and so it is with this DVD. Simply in terms of image alone, the 'North by Northwest' DVD is one of the best releases to date: it looks wonderful which is fine, because the movie's so good.
Cary Grant was like Fred Astaire, only more so: both made what they were doing look easy and natural, but still anyone could see that dancing like Astaire wasn't something an untrained person could do. Grant, however, seemed to be just going about his normal business, only in front of a camera. Instead, he was an artist as accomplished and polished as Astaire; he played similar roles over and over, but doing so wasn't at all easy. His timing, his economy of gesture, his understanding of the camera, his grace, his ability to make his costars look good -- he was better at all this than almost anyone in movie history. Because his extremely hard word and sheer professionalism were hidden so well, during his lifetime he was rarely acknowledged for the master actor he was, and he never won an Oscar.
James Mason was a notch down, but still superb in his smooth, urbane style; he clearly enjoyed acting, and though Vandamm is a fairly standard sleek Continental-style bad guy, Mason plays him with charm and an underlying chill. Eva Marie Saint is also very good, but she's not up to the level of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, Hitchcock's two best leading ladies. (If you don't count Anthony Perkins in 'Psycho.')
The DVD includes a very good recent documentary on the making of 'North by Northwest.' It's hosted by Eva Marie Saint, and features comments by Hitchcock's daughter Patricia, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, production designer Robert Boyle and costar Martin Landau. It's very thorough, very informative, a model of such things, although, oddly, the various interview subjects are not identified on screen by name. It was directed by Peter Fitzgerald, who unwisely chooses the opening title possessory credit: 'A Peter Fitzgerald Film.' Even Hitchcock didn't always do that.
Unfortunately, Ernest Lehman's commentary track is way below par for such things. His voice is droning, even boring, and it takes him a long time to get around to talking about the genesis of the film, and what it was like to work for Hitchcock. At first, he's mostly inclined to describe what we're seeing on screen: "now we're in front of the Plaza Hotel, side entrance," as we see Grant arrive at the side entrance of the Plaza Hotel. Furthermore, virtually everything Lehman says is also included in the documentary. He does warm up after a while, but it's a long haul getting there.
There's also a good collection of stills, two trailers, one of which features Hitchcock himself in his droll "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" style. And there's a music-only track, particularly good here, since the score by Bernard Herrman is outstanding. So is this DVD, a fine job all the way around.