There is one defining line of dialogue in North by Northwest that sums up the feelings of the film better than any other. Stated by an unnamed bureaucrat speaking on the situation Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has found himself in, he states, “So horribly sad. How is it I feel like laughing?”
Despite the level of intensity and expected thrills Alfred Hitchcock is able to provide, there is a lighter side to North by Northwest. Grant is able to physically perform a rather demanding role, dodging crop dusting planes, scale Mount Rushmore, and do quite a bit of running. Through all of it, he is able to make the audience smile and relate to his situation, a critical characteristic.
Many of the modern wisecracking summer blockbuster characters, those thrust into increasingly ridiculous scenarios, owe a lot to this performance. One-liners, sarcastic responses, and the ability to remarkably remain calm under rising pressure are the hallmarks audiences remember from their first introduction to Thornhill.
He is also a romantic, caught up in a flash relationship with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who immediately accepts him despite knowing he is running from a potential murder conviction. Their conversations are brilliantly drafted, each exchanging their own witty responses as they continue to fall for each other.
Of course, North by Northwest is remembered for its scene depicting Cary Grant running from a small crop dusting plane, and while the action tends to get the attention, it is the build-up that makes it so memorable.
Thornhill stands on an open plain, surrounded by farmland. He is waiting to meet someone, possibly putting an end to this case of mistaken identity. One car passes by, then a truck, and then another car. Finally, someone shows up across the street. A masterful shot from the ground puts the two men on opposite sides of the frame, the depth of the farmland a perfect backdrop.
All the while, the crop duster sort of ominously sits in the background, flying around almost aimlessly. Thornhill approaches the stranger and asks who he is. As it turns out, it is only a man waiting for the bus, who then points out the plane is not dusting crops at all. That’s when the scene triggers a sense of fear, and when it does, that tension is wound as tightly as possible.
Sure, there are easier ways to kill someone than trying to pick them off in a small plane or dumping chemicals on them in a cornfield, but at this point in the film, those thoughts never enter your mind. The attack has begun, and iconic film history has occurred. Nothing can take away from that.
Warner’s VC-1 effort for this Hitchcock classic is generally stunning. There is one complaint and it will be addressed before lavishing praise on this effort, and that is the occasionally processed look. It seems to dominate the early half or so of this transfer. Cary Grant’s deep tan still carries a natural flesh tone look, but the smooth, almost glazed-looking skin does not. Look at his face around 27:40, where colors are poorly separated, whites are solid blotches, and some smearing is evident. It almost looks colorized, or at least digital in some manner.
Shot in Paramount’s VistaVision process with Technicolor, saturation can be rich and bold. Reds are especially vibrant, but the deep, cold blues of suits worn by nearly all male characters are also stunning. Black levels are wonderfully calibrated, delivering depth and dimension. The grain structure is unobtrusive and free of notable artifacting problems.
While facial detail is generally at a premium, everything else showcases wonderfully delineated texture. Clothing offers visible stitching or patterns. Environments are remarkable, from the opening shots of the Townsend home delivering flawless foliage, to the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. There, you can make out the wood pattern on the tables and the marble design on the countertops. The cornfield during the crop dusting is spectacular, as is the ground before the assault, even at a distance. Individual clumps of dirt can be made out cleanly.
Many scenes also carry a filtered look, intentional to make Grant appear younger and Saint to appear more radiant. These shots are easy to pick out, and anyone should be able to identify their intent as to not intrude on any videophile’s viewing experience. Likewise, the restoration has removed nearly all specks or scratches without any ill effect.
Warner’s TrueHD 5.1 mix chooses to hold out for the scene most people are going to look forward to: the crop duster. Scenes prior either hold the clean, surprisingly crisp dialogue firmly in the center, or split the front soundstage to deliver the unmistakable Bernard Herrmann score without distortion. The latter undoubtedly benefits the most from this uncompressed affair, despite a lack of bleed into surrounds.
Back to the crop duster, the plane swoops down over Grant’s head as smoothly as it does the viewers. It is the only scene to utilize the rear channels, yet it does effectively to create another dimension to the scene. It is amazing to think this was pulled from optical mono source. The eventual explosion actually catches on the low end slightly as well.
Warner also offers an isolated score track, but compressed in Dolby Digital form.
A commentary kicks off a wonderful set of extras, the speaking track provided by writer Ernest Lehman prior to his 2005 death. Cary Grant: A Class Apart is a 90-minute look at the actor’s career, and a fine documentary. The Master’s Touch is close to an hour, focusing on Hitchcock’s style. Destination Hitchcock runs for 40-minutes, detailing the making of North by Northwest.
One For the Ages has various directors speaking on the film and how it affected their lives. That runs 26-minutes. Trailers remain. Warner releases the film inside their DigiBook packaging, which contains some fine notes on the film as well.