The magic of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), for me, is that bridges an especially odd crossroads in history. In some aspects it harks back to a previous era of paranoia best represented by Hitchcock’s own The Thirty-nine Steps. Except here the enemy is those trading US secrets, presumably to the communists, and not German spies. The movie also came at the point where the studio system was coming to an end, and Grant was one of a disappearing breed of big studio leading men. Cinema hadn’t yet given way to the gritty realism of the sixties, but the signs of transition are evident.
This is a darker tale than most dramas from the previous decade and the sexualities of many characters is intentionally obtuse. What isn’t submersed is the undeniable chemistry between Grant and Eva Marie Saint, something audiences of the era could entirely buy into. This was the most successful film of either, and Grant would only make another six titles after this one before retiring from the silver screen never to return.
So it has a foot in two different mindsets, and part of the edginess of the whole can be attributed to it not being entirely comfortable with either.
That said, what Hitchcock manages to do here is, for most of the movie, is put the viewer in the position of his lead character who only has the slightest notion of what’s going on. Watching it for the first time it’s difficult to follow in places, and convoluted in others, but intriguing all the same.
Of Grant movies, I’d only rate this one below Charade in his finest work, mixing a subtle blend of suave and sophisticated with trademark mild eccentricity. He’s infinitely watchable, almost whatever he’s doing. If you want to see a prime example of him doing very little for great effect, then admire his facial transitions when admiring the crop dusting aircraft that then unexpectedly attacks him. It’s brilliant.
I love Cary Grant in this, and Eva Marie Saint is adorable, but James Mason is far too smarmy for words. We never actually get to see him realise that Roger isn’t the imaginary Caplan and he was telling him the truth all along, disappointingly.
For the most of the 131 minutes running time this is a very good movie, with some superb cinematography and excellent dialogue. However, there are at least a couple of unintentionally hilarious sequences to modern sensibilities. The best, by far, is the end of the movie, which does that odd 50s thing of wrapping up the story at breakneck speed. One minute Roger (Grant) is trying to stop Eve (Eva Marie Saint) from falling to her death from Mount Rushmore and the next he’s pulling her up into a railcar bunk on their honeymoon. They embrace and we’re given an external shot of a train entering a tunnel, for those who like really unsubtle sexual references. For a modern audience if that doesn’t illicit a giggle, I’m not sure what would.
Considering the period this was made and the amount of studio lit set work in it, North By Northwest is actually rather good in places. Where it’s at its best is in the limited outside shots, like the plane chase, which look glorious. Where it fails to meet up to expectations are in a few close-ups that Hitchcock decided he’d not shot tight enough.
There is a really bad one of Martin Landau’s character in the restaurant where Eve shoots Roger, which was clearly enlarged from a long shot and is very badly grained. On DVD these inconsistencies would have been largely absorbed, but in Blu-ray they can be disconcerting.
However, the overall results of the restoration work and print cleaning that’s gone on here are exceptional, and the film has never looked this good to me before. The audio is also a vast improvement over some previous DVD releases, although it isn’t the first six channel interpretation that’s been offered. Originally released in mono for cinema, this is a full Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that adds some real pizzazz to the Bernard Herrmann theme, which is injected with great gusto at appropriate moments of tension.
The bonus selection is very good considering this is a 50 year old movie, but that timescale has also relegated most of it to DVD quality, unfortunately. But there are some really interesting features on Grant, Hitchcock and North By Northwest which represent more than three hours of additional viewing. I especially enjoyed the 2003 TCM documentary Cary Grant: A Class Apart, which is almost 90 minutes long.
There’s an audio commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, and a music-only track that’s worth considering if only to realise how sparingly Hitchcock used musical interludes.
Given how old this is and the limited number of people still alive who worked on the movie, it’s difficult to imagine that the bonus selection could be substantially bettered.
I really enjoyed watching this again, even the train going into the tunnel, because it’s one of those timeless pieces of cinema that will live forever.
North By Northwest is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.