Initially I planned to make North by Northwest a title revisited in my "Shelf Life" column, but I decided against it when I realized that most folks just love that movie to death, including myself, so seeing whether it's still good would be purely redundant. But the new Blu-ray released by Warner Brothers also didn't seem like it warranted a question of whether or not it was superior to its predecessors thanks to a wealth of bonus content – that is, until I discovered that in fact some of it was on previous versions, no doubt leaving longtime fans with a quandary whether or not to shell out a few more shekels to see one of their favorite Alfred Hitchcock films in high-definition.
As such, North by Northwest is the overdue subject of this week's "Making The (Up) Grade," and I spare no effort examining the past, present and future of this film's home video incarnations.
What's Already Available:
MGM Home Video released a DVD of North by Northwest in September of 2004 that featured an impressive slate of extras, including a commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a music-only track showcasing Bernard Herrman's score, still photo and trailer galleries, and "Destination Hitchcock," a feature-length documentary about the making of the film. Oh, and it also featured MGM's classic widescreen-versus-pan-and-scan option for folks afraid of black bars at the top and bottom of the screen (of which there were actually none since the film was shot in a 1.66:1 aspect ration).
What's In The New Set: In addition to the commentary by Ernest Lehman, "Destination Hitchcock" documentary, the music-only audio track, and the gallery of stills, trailers and TV spots, the new set features all-new restored picture and sound, three new documentaries, and Warner's trademark booklet packaging which features essays and additional background information about the film.
What's The Difference In The Movie Itself: The closest qualitative comparison one can make to the quality of the transfer on this disc is the stunning work that was done for the re-release of Hitchcock's Vertigo in 1996: using the VistaVision source material, the DVD producers meticulously cleaned up and preserved the original images in a way that feels completely authentic to the time period in which they were created, but still satisfies the demands of contemporary audiences. The colors are sharp and vivid, focus is crisp, and overall the film looks as clean as if it were taken straight from an '09 (rather than '59) intermediate.
In terms of the sound, the score is mixed into the surround channels, expanding the original 5.1 mix that was produced for earlier DVD iterations of the film, creating a richer, more immersive experience. Meanwhile, the dialogue and sound effects are presented clearly and cleanly without a lot of revisionist augmentation – which also means that thrown punches don't quite have the same 'oof' that they might in a newer movie. But there's nothing to complain about in the presentation – quite the opposite, in fact, making this a worthwhile buy even without what's in its encyclopedia of extras.
What's The Difference In Everything Else: The original extras are by themselves terrific, particularly the "Destination Hitchcock" documentary, which takes a complete and more or less chronological look at the making of the film, and Lehman's commentary, which offers a wealth of understated but fascinating insights into his collaboration with Hitchcock.
Meanwhile "The Master's Touch," one of the new documentaries on the Blu-ray delves into Hitchcock's visual style, looking at the structure, technique and impact of the director's work, complete with testimonials by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and William Friedkin. Their collective gushing notwithstanding, it reveals many of the hallmarks of the filmmaker's style that since became boilerplate storytelling techniques for any purveyor of suspense.
On the other hand, "A Class Apart" offers a biography of the film's star, Cary Grant, exploring his early days as an actor and his rise to fame as an enigmatic but irresistible leading man. Again featuring comments and interviews with folks close to the man, this time members of Grant's family (including two ex-wives), the 90-minute TCM documentary gives as complete a portrait of Grant as one imagines possible, celebrating his life and work as one of Hollywood's most iconic screen presences.
Finally, there's "One For the Ages," a 25-minute featurette in which directors like Francis Lawrence, Curtis Hanson and Christopher McQuarrie examine and discuss their interpretations of the form and content in North by Northwest. Like the other material, this is a fascinating study both of the style that Hitchcock used to tell the story, and what these seasoned filmmakers ultimately feel like the film is about.
What's The Final Grade: A. Hitchcock made an impressive number of masterpieces, and North by Northwest is one of them. Thankfully, this Blu-ray more than supports its legacy with terrific presentation and a collection of bonus content that fortifies and reaffirms both its importance and influence.