Combustible Celluloid
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With: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau, Adam Williams, Edward Platt, Robert Ellenstein, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Patrick McVey, Edward Binns, Ken Lynch
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 136
Date: 16/07/1959

North by Northwest (1959)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Compass Points

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest has gained a reputation as one of his greatest achievements. It's certainly a highly enjoyable movie, and it should be a template for most thrillers, but coming as it does after Hitchcock's darkest and best movie Vertigo (1958), and before his most revolutionary, Psycho (1960), makes it seem minor in comparison.

Indeed, North By Northwest may have been the very kind of film Hitchcock was trying to get away from when he scaled down in size and budget to the smaller, more imaginative Psycho.

On the plus side North By Northwest marks one of the few times that Hitchcock worked from an original screenplay. Ernest Lehmann (who went on to write Family Plot) had in mind certain spectacular scenes, in the UN Building, on Mount Rushmore, etc. and the problem was that he needed to connect them into a workable plot, which he did. If you consider that Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) did essentially the same thing with his second movie, Killer's Kiss, Lehmann's accomplishment seems extraordinary. That he managed to tie together all his disparate locations in a logical manner ought to be commended.

In North by Northwest Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a businessman who is mistaken for a government spy who, in fact, does not exist. ("What does the O. stand for? Nothing.") He is put through the ringer and is soon hunted by police. A woman on a train (Eva Marie Saint) gives him a hand, but she too is not what she appears to be. The climax takes place on Mount Rushmore and is very exciting.

James Mason stars as the villain and a young Martin Landau stars as one of his thugs. The great music is by Bernard Herrmann (who also scored Vertigo and Psycho). Hitchcock's cameo is unmissable -- he shows up around the same time as his "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" title card, running for a bus and just missing it. North By Northwest is still a classic, coming as it does during Hitchcock's most creative period, but it lacks that extra little taste to make it truly great.

DVD Details: I have come to appreciate this movie more and more as a cheerful exercise in style; the movie is as weightless as can be, not to mention rambly and lengthy, but exquisitely directed with the utmost skill so that it appears tightly wound and excitingly crucial. Warner Home Video had already released a great DVD back in 2000, complete with a commentary track by the late, great writer Lehman (who passed away in 2005).

Now they have released a two-disc set. The film itself has been remastered and given its own disc, while all the extras have been shuttled to a second disc. The same making-of documentary is here, plus stills and trailers, and there are now two new documentaries: The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style and Cary Grant: A Class Apart. Probably my favorite thing, however, is the isolated audio track that allows viewers to enjoy Bernard Herrmann's great score.

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