If you’re reading this review, you must surely already know what the movie is about. We’re talking, after all, about what must surely be the single most celebrated case of mistaken identity in the history of film. Cary Grant stands up in a lounge at just the wrong moment and is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist. That utterly perverse mix of chance and paradox, leading to ever more dangerous situations for Grant, in an ever more complicated tangle of battling conspiracies, is so utterly Hitchcockian, it might just as well be trademarked.
The film is also very funny, as so much of Hitchcock’s work is. Of course, much of his humour is black as pitch, and that mordant wit is certainly still present here, but there is also a joviality to the proceedings, due in no small measure to the presence of Cary Grant. Unlike the Jimmy Stewart of Vertigo and Rear Window, whose screen image of fundamental decency makes the deeply flawed, pathological aspects of his characters even more painful and weighty, Grant here keeps things light, as his character is just as aware of the absurdity of his perils as we are, and is just as likely to be amused. But if this is Hitchcock working in a lighter vein, that astounding perversity keeps poking through. What are we to make, for instance, of that creepily close relationship Grant has with his mother?
This is, of course, a film worth seeing again and again, and it is a reminder of just how rare and irreplaceable an artist Hitchcock was. Here is a director who was thoroughly commercial, as consummate a mass entertainer as Steven Spielberg, but who also was systematically and astoundingly perverse (there’s that word again). What a rare gift, and what a rare treasure.
The picture, the case boasts, has been remastered, and it certainly looks gorgeous. The colours are deep, rich and stable. There is essentially no grain, and not a trace of damage. Contrasts, blacks and flesh tones are all excellent. The film looks ready for its premiere, not like it just celebrated its golden anniversary. The VistaVision aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is, according to the case, respected. But its anamorphic enhancement for widescreen TVs means that it displays at 1.78:1.
The only option offered is 5.1, which, for a 1959 film, is a gutsy move. Fortunately, the flaws that often attend these sorts of audio conversions are not in evidence here – there are no wraparound effects of the dialogue, for instance. The surround elements are present enough to be pleasing (check out the crowd scenes, or most particularly the train effects), the dialogue is undistorted, and the music has a terrific, rich tone.
Commentary Track: Screenwriter Ernest Lehman does the honours here. It’s a treat to hear from such a key player in the film, and though his discussion at times disappoints by pointing out the obvious, at other times it delights as he recounts revealing anecdotes about the film’s origins.
Isolated Music Track: Bernard Hermann’s score is nicely served here, and that 5.1 mix really does the composer proud.
All of the following are on Disc 2.
Cary Grant: A Class Apart (87:06): Not a feature specifically dealing with the film at hand, but rather an excellent bio of Grant, covering his entire career.
The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57:28): Hitchcock’s recurring themes and techniques (suspense, corrupted innocence, etc.) are examined here, in a piece that rightly ranges across his career.
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest (39:25): The title says it all, really, and Eva Marie Saint narrates. A solid, in-depth feature.
North by Northwest: One for the Ages (25:29): Guillermo Del Toro, William Friedkin, Curtis Harrington, Christopher McQuarrie (screenwriter of The Usual Suspects) and Francis Lawrence (director of Constantine and I Am Legend, and thus whose inclusion in this company is a serious WTF) contribute their thoughts to the film. These guys are also among those who show up in the other features.
Trailers and TV Spots: Including the long “A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock” trailer.
Infinitely superior to the earlier, bare-bones release, this is a no-brainer purchase for the collector of classic films.