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North By Northwest

Sometimes Alfred Hitchcock could get away with murder. After all, directors past and present are often criticized for their repetitiveness, their inability to create new, interesting films, content rather to fall back on the same genres and plot structures as if they are admitting movies are merely consumer products rather than works of art. But Hitchcock arguably was the greatest practitioner in the history of cinema despite these ready faults. After all, he only utilized one genre, the suspense-thriller; he was renowned for working on a one-film-per-year schedule that ran like clockwork for nearly 50 years; and he often returned to his favorite yarn over and over again — the innocent man, accused of a crime and on the run from the authorities, who must prove his innocence before the bad guys whack him unawares. Even more telling is a quick comparison between Hitch's 1935 The 39 Steps — perhaps the crown jewel of his British period — and 1959's crowd-pleasing North By Northwest, as both concern a handsome, carefree bachelor who is caught up in a web of conspiracy. In both films, the initial crime involves a murder by knife, and the circumstantial evidence is damning. Pursing fragments of clues, the hero ducks out of town, taking a cross-country journey by train with uncertain goals. On the train, the hero meets a statuesque blonde who may or may not be an ally to his cause. Eventually the hero meets the head of the conspiracy and determines (or is informed) that valuable government secrets are being taking out of the country. And when it appears all hope is lost, a final confrontation at a very public place (The London Palladium, Mt. Rushmore) brings the story to an abrupt close. Need more? The sleeping car that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint share on the 20th Century Limited in North By Northwest is number 3901. If another director did it, it would be considered an homage. The hubris of Alfred Hitchcock is that North By Northwest is both a re-working of one of his most successful films and an homage to himself at the same time. But everyone is quite willing to overlook a shameless remake when it's good, and North By Northwest is more than that — it's one of the best films from the Hitchcockian oeuvre, and as such that makes it one of the best American films of the past 100 years (#40, according to the AFI list).

Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, a Manhattan advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a ring of spies. Hustled off to a remote house outside the city, he meets James Mason, a charming, soft-spoken man who would be very likable if he didn't want to kill his guest. After a harried escape from his captors (via some drunk driving), Thornhill tracks his nefarious host to the United Nations, but a sudden murder has him on the run to Chicago, meeting the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the overnight train. But soon he's attacked by a cropduster in an Illinois cornfield, and it's only when he follows more clues to South Dakota that he finally learns why he's been marked for death. There's a neat Frank Lloyd Wright house that serves as Bad Guy HQ, a cliffhanger to end them all on Mt. Rushmore, and then a train goes into a tunnel in a manner that would make Freud blush. The End.

*          *          *

Of course, nobody can say that it's easy to make an entertaining action-adventure, but what has always elevated Hitchcock's liveliest tales beyond such fare as the James Bond films, cop-buddy pictures, or even The Matrix, is the careful, detailed touches that flesh out the story, often in humorous terms. Many writers could fashion an espionage ring and even a Wrong Man scenario, but Hitch and screenwriter Ernest Lehman take special delight in the first part of North By Northwest to make Thornhill's sole ally his disapproving mother (Jessie Royce Landis), who thinks her son is making up stories about evil henchmen in order to escape a drunk-driving charge. Hitch and Lehman also are willing to slow up the story at points for the sake of humor, in particular Grant's amusing drunk scene at the police precinct ("Let me see your tongue," a doctor instructs Grant. "You'd better stand back," he mumbles), and a later sequence between Grant and Saint offers the world-famous Hitchcock embrace, as the camera pans around an impassioned couple (or in this case, they pivot for it). Small clues and leitmotifs turn up everywhere, as when Grant shows his monogrammed matchbook to Saint, which simply says "R.O.T." — "What's the 'O' stand for?" she asks. "Nothing," he says. But for all his innocence, the meanings are several, as Thornhill has become a nobody, a stranger with nebulous identity on the run in strange lands. It is scenes like these that define a Hitchcock masterpiece, which finds its greatest moments not only in the movie-poster set-pieces, but also in the small bits of comedy and dialogue that reveal, or betray, the essential humanity of his protagonists. Also starring Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll.

Warner's DVD edition of North By Northwest is a definitive item, with a restored print that is free of defects and a marvelous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). Audio is in a new DD 5.1 mix, and also on board is the 40-minute documentary "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North By Northwest," hosted by Saint; a commentary by scenarist Lehman (that is informative, if a little sparse); both the theatrical trailer and the traditionally droll Hitchcock teaser, as well as a 60-second TV spot (all three anamorphic); a stills gallery; and Bernard Hermann's unmistakable score on a isolated track. If you've already put such great special edition DVDs as Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds in your collection, North By Northwest deserves a place alongside them.
—Robert Wederquist

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