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The man in Lincoln's nose
A UK Blu-ray review of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST – 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION:
Movie and partial extras review by Camus, Blu-ray specific extras and summary by Slarek
 
  "I believe the accelerated tempo is used in many pictures to get around a technical difficulty...it's never really satisfactory."
  "You mean that everything happens too quickly."
  "In most pictures, yes."
 
François Truffaut talking to Alfred Hitchcock
proving that today's climate of micro-cutting
would be anathema to two of cinema's greats

 

The further forward we march, the more we are liable to forget. That's not a quote. Well, yes it is but not from a celebrated outside source. I wrote those words very well aware that at the time of writing, we are smack in the middle of poppy-time, a period in which the British people are urged to remember all those who fell and keep falling while defending their and their leaders' notion of British democracy. In some cases, I'm incredibly moved by the sacrifices of others and applaud our culture's (sadly idiosyncratic) readiness to acknowledge the past and maintain a link to the terrible human cost of our historically absurd social comfort. Regrettably, things and people do get lost in the continuous forward shuffle that is the present. Part of my contribution to the site and indeed an aspect of the site itself, is to keep the forgotten remembered. I met someone over 18 a few days ago who had not even heard of Alfred Hitchcock and that pulled me up short. That's scary. If the current generation are standing on the shoulders of giants then it's good, and some may say vitally important, to acknowledge those giants. Hitchcock wrote the suspense guidebook and all we've been doing ever since is riffing off his originals.

Alfred Hitchcock, in his hey day, could be said to be the world's first superstar director, one whose own image sold tickets quite apart from the fact that he often cast the huge stars of the day to draw in crowds to his movies. The irony of Hitchcock's rise to personal fame is the fact of his exposure on American television. His anthology show, 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents...' was an enormous hit and made him the richest working director in Hollywood. His familiar portly profile and that indelibly perfect theme tune, Gounod's 'Funeral March of the Marionette', made Hitch into a global caricature, one he was willing to propagate. As he mentioned, mobbed by admirers while gleefully and extemporaneously signing autographs in a German bookshop, "Why shouldn't I? Foreign sales of my books are worth $100,000 to me alone." Some say that after an attack of uncritical idolatry from the French intelligensia of the 'nouvelle vague' in the 60s, Hitch lost his mojo producing one lesser film after another. It's an argument I can sympathise with if not wholly support. But as a body of mainstream work over many decades, Hitch's is practically unrivalled. If you can say you made Rebecca, Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho and North By Northwest you are a cinematic god by any other name. These are rich, dense works, the finest examples of the art of crowd-pleasing. And they are as close to art as Hollywood might get. And it's my pleasure to talk you into seeing the last on that extraordinary list, the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock Hollywood movie, the sublime The Man In Lincoln's Nose (that really was its original title until the replacement title stuck through familiarity).

Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a New York 'mad man', a leading exponent of spin in the advertising business working on Madison Avenue. Through the most innocent of ill timed gestures, he is mistaken for George Kaplan, a CIA agent who has been dogging traitor James Mason's progress for a while. What no one knows is that Kaplan doesn't exist. He's been made up by the authorities to take the suspicion off the real mole in Mason's organisation. Grant is placed in a car after being forced to drink a bottle of whiskey and driven towards a cliff... Cue another driving cue from the masterful curmudgeon of film score composition, Bernard Herrmann. The score drives this movie forward as surely and relentlessly as Jerry Goldsmith's did for Total Recall. Grant is the anchor which means that North By Northwest is sleek, urbane, handsomely mounted, absurd but thrillingly so in places and so assured there's not one minute you believe the character to be in any real danger. As an audience we know from familiarity and experience that this is a light entertainment and we know Grant will come through in the end. But as ever, it's the journey, both literal and cinematic, that's the fun and there are great shedloads of fun to be had.

If Grant is the anchor then the fire and ice is provided by the über-sexy blonde siren, Eve Kendall, played, not exactly against type, by Eva Marie Saint. In fairness to Hitchcock, Grant and Kendall, I have to acknowledge their dinner car scene on the train (major flirtation, cigarette lighting, the sexual charge) was my introduction to sexual romance. I know it's not exactly 'real life' but I'd never seen a woman be sexually aggressive and it thrilled the pants off me (so to speak). OK, the character was acting like this because she was ordered to by her two bosses (the bad guy and the higher up good guy) and boy, was she good at it. Mason is suitably reptilian as Van Damme and his henchman is played with a soupçon of homosexuality by the very striking Martin Landau.

The beauty of Lehman's screenplay is its structural integrity. Aside from one overtly famous scene, everything makes perfect sense and the characters' motivations and fears are right there in the open. The real joy of the movie (apart from the myriad of Hitch's incidental touches) is that it's a chase movie with a real heart, a real romance and a sense that the dark reality that a story like this might possess would surely drag it down. North By Northwest is as light as a feather balloon and yet elicits enormous pleasure by being so well made, so well performed and with a music score that is actually hummable.

Let's take a look at its most famous scene and to my mind it's this scene that proves to the world why Hitch is Hitch. Perhaps the fame and reputation of a great craftsman/artist (delete inapplicable) can precede his/her work and thereby taint the audience's impressions of the piece. The perfect example of this is the crop dusting scene, a scene that in every sense is utterly, utterly ludicrous. When I saw it as a child, I accepted it, was thrilled by it and also knew I was watching something special because it was so unusual. But if we look at the action, it's very silly and worse makes no logical sense at all. The movie was skipping along very nicely until the whole movie stops to indulge a Hitchcock whim. When you hear the story that Hitch stopped shooting for a day because he couldn't work out how Martin Landau would have obtained the public telephone number to call Eva Marie Saint, you wonder about his rigid sense of correctness regarding the crop dusting scene. Was he just mesmerized by the potential spectacle and challenge of creating it?

You are a sophisticated, traitorous international super villain. You have the sexiest woman alive on your arm (who also does your nefarious bidding). You have at your mercy in every way possible a man who is in your way and you have men meaner than sunburned scorpions willing to do your bidding. So this is what you do. You have him plan to meet the fictitious CIA agent at a remote crossroads in the middle of nowhere. You hire an extra assassin/pilot to gun down the man (hoping to make it look like an accident, huh?) There are quite a few things logically troubling here. What makes it worse is the behaviour of the gun-toting pilot him/herself. Hitch must have felt very strongly that the end of the sequence needed to be a visual climax and what better way than explode your way out of it. So, not only does the pilot have a gun with which to stage an accidental death (!), he/she is also ridiculously suicidal. There is no earthly reason for the pilot to hit the gasoline truck (it's all done with three cuts anyway). After all this illogic, this tortuous way to despatch someone, why is the scene so bloody compelling? Two words: Alfred and Hitchcock.

And Hitch has a coup de grace that tops the crop dusting scene. Again, like the Cruise Mission Impossibles of today, North By Northwest was built from a number of desired sequences the director wanted to shoot. Ernest Lehman was hired to string them along with a plot, a feat he achieved admirably. The movie never feels like a slave to the set-pieces however fine the set-pieces are themselves. But there is nothing in cinema quite like the finest feature of the feature – its ending. There is no finer, more satisfying ending to be found in mainstream Hollywood. Yes, the Mount Rushmore sequence is wonderful (considering it was a set, Robert Boyle's work is outstanding. The only effects that date the picture are the process shots – the moving screens behind taxi cabs and train windows). But it's the ending that's the jaw dropper and in order for me to discuss it, I'm going to have to spoil it. So skip to the last paragraph if you've not seen North By Northwest. If you have seen it, this is why I think the ending is a stunner.

On the perilous slopes of Mount Rushmore, the hero is hanging on to the heroine, his other hand holding a ledge with his fingertips. The villain's henchman stands above crushing the hero's fingers. Our hero's in a dilly of a pickle. Six things have to happen, six revelations before the movie's over. This is what has to happen in this order:

    1. The henchman must be stopped from crushing the hero's fingers.
    2. We need to find out where the microfilm was hidden.
    3. The chief villain has to be caught.
    4. The hero has to rescue the heroine.
    5. The hero marries the heroine.
    6. The married couple have sex on a train.

Here's the fun part... All those plot points are resolved and tidied up in 49 seconds with 16 cuts, possibly the neatest ending of any movie. I still smile when I see it. 49 seconds!

And as this is the last paragraph you may have jumped to not wanting the ending spoiled, all I have left to say is that this is one of the greatest directors' very best movies so what more of a recommendation do you need?

sound and vision

Our expectations were high for this new Blu-ray transfer, largely on the basis of how striking the one was on Warner's 2001 DVD, a real standard-bearer for quality transfers of 50s and 60s Technicolor Hollywood movies. In some ways the Blu-ray lives up to expectations, with an even crisper level of detail and rich colours, but sit the two transfers side-by-side and the increased contrast and slight drop in brightness gives the picture on the Blu-ray a slightly coarser feel than it's brighter and warmer DVD predecessor. It's a shame, because this takes the edge off of what otherwise would be a very nice job. The colour timing also differs from the DVD version, probably most obvious during Saul Bass's title sequence. The framing is 1.78:1, cropped slightly from the 1.85:1 original so it fills the 16:9 screen, another slightly irritating recent trend.

The Title screen of the Blu-ray (left) and the DVD (right). Note the colour difference.

There's a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track if you have an HD amp (which I don't at present), but if not then a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track automatically stands in. All six speaker icons may light up on the amp, but this is effectively a mono track that sits front and centre sprinkles a few elements quietly around the sound stage. Just occasionally there's some distinct stereo separation of sound effects, and the clarity and range are better than you might expect for a work from the late 50s.

extra features

Extras common to 2001 DVD and 2009 Blu-Ray release.

Destination Hitchcock (39:29)
This is a real 'making of' documentary in terms of it taking us through the call sheets (with requisite cheesy page turn transitions no less) chronicling a complete shoot with information on locations, effects, problems encountered and a sprinkling of gems along the way. Hosted and narrated by the undimmed Eva Marie Saint, the documentary's spine is based around two men's recollections, art director Robert Boyle and screenwriter Ernest Lehman. It's a fascinating trip for any fan of the movie. If it has a fault, it's a little stagey but it features scores of production stills and if like me, you feel oddly pleased to see slightly different images of scenes you know well, you'll get a big kick out of it. Highlights include writer Ernest Lehman on the phallic symbol end shot; "There's no way I can take credit for that, damn it!" There's a lovely story regarding Eve Marie Saint's speeding ticket while riding on a bicycle and Martin Landau does a bloody marvelous Hitchcock impression. And a howling blooper is revealed that Hitch and editor George Tomasini must have seen and included and it's a real classic. Just before Marie Saint shoots Grant (if you've not seen the film I won't give away the context) a young boy extra in the background puts his fingers in his ears... He'd been there for many takes and knew what was coming. Wonderful.

Soundtracks:

There are several options including English, French, German, Italian, Castilian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and...

Ernest Lehman Commentary*
Title designer Saul Bass gets a mention early as the then (in the year 2000) elderly Lehman playfully calls attention to his own credit. Lehman's commentary is sparse and there are many repetitions and a few mis-steps. He talks about Grant seeing the name 'Townsend' on the garden sign the kidnapper's car passes; moments later Cary Grant picks up a small parcel with the same name on it and Lehman says a little confusingly, "This is where Cary sees the name Townsend for the first time..." Lehman died in 2005 and was 85 when he made the recording and I must emphasise how much I appreciate his original and then current contribution to North By Northwest. I also think it's necessary to point out performance whether it's affected by age-related lapses or not as insensitive as that may seem to some. Lehman tells the story of how he met Hitchcock via Bernard Hermann which is fascinating (the Hollywood interconnections should never surprise but they always do). He also repeats fully told stories which is really unnerving. I have to check to see if I've accidentally gone back a chapter or two. If I were in charge I would have preferred an even more sparse commentary without the repetition. It doesn't help that a lot of stories (good as they are) are direct repeats from Lehman's interview material in the documentary. Is editing a full-length commentary DVD blasphemy?

Having worked my way through the commentary I have to explain the repetition of a lot of the stories from the documentary. This commentary is edited from the interviews with Lehman – or at least large swathes of it are. Word for word. Take that as inevitable, correct or a bit of a cheap trick.

*Postscript: This commentary began with scene specific comments and then at some point segued into an edited interview masquerading as scene specific commentary. Could it have been that Lehman only did the first 30 minutes or so to picture? I would like to be enlightened (some Blu-Ray reviews are scathing) because I'm genuinely interested. You get the man who essentially created North By Northwest doing a commentary. That's a plus whichever way you slice it.

Music-only track
A fascinating inclusion for completists only. It is so rare to have a complete score available on CD. And the quality is full throated – gorgeous. Music, like pictures, is edited heavily in some post productions which is why composers always hire good friends as music editors. This may be a good time to mention that my favourite musical phrase in John William's matchless score for Jaws is not even in the movie itself.

Trailer (2:10)
Not the original Hitchcock trailer (glimpsed in part in the documentary and included on the Blu-ray only) but the re-release one consisting of edited clips. Yes, movies used to come out more than once in the old days. "Every staggering sight and sound is real!" says the banner and nothing could be further than the truth but it's still fun to see it written in such big letters.

TV Spot (1:02)
A black-and-white TV trailer with the sort of urgent voice-over that was popular back at the time of the film's release and in surprisingly good condition.

Stills Gallery (5:52)
A rolling collection of production stills themselves provide a useful peek behind the scenes, but which have not been given a high-def upgrade and still only occupy about a quarter of the screen.

Extras exclusive to the Blu-ray release:

A Guided Tour with Alfred Hitchcock (3:14)
Ah, now here's the Hitchcock trailer that was missing from the DVD, and though 480p it's in lovely shape and a good deal of fun, while the graphics assure us that the film was shot in "the magnitude of VistaVision." Splendid.

Cary Grant: A Class Apart (87:12)
A feature-length 2004 TV documentary exploring the life and career of one of the most debonair actors ever to grace the screen. Directed by Robert Trachtenberg, narrated by Helen Mirren and with extracts from Grant's memoirs read by Jeremy Northam, the programme is constructed from interviews with family, friends and associates, extracts from Grant's films and archive photographs and footage. Very neatly and most engagingly assembled, it covers a lot of ground and has its fair share of memorable moments, including Peter Bogdanovich's Cary Grant impression (no mention of the one Tony Curtis employed in Some Like it Hot, however, or Jack Lemon's amusing retort that "Nobody talks like that!"), a brief snippet of Grant's own home movies, and his friend Roderick Mann's intriguing description of him as "a work in progress." Worried parents might like to know that a single word used here by Grant's widow Barbara Harris might just stretch the disc's 12 rating.

The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style (57:32)
A bevy of successful filmmakers and Hitchcock profilers enthusiastically outline just what it is that makes a Hitchcock picture so uniquely and instantly identifiable, and celebrate the work of a man they all look up and have learned from. Contributors include William Friedkin, Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Curtis Hanson, Chris McQuarrie and Martin Scorsese, amongst others, and subjects covered include the director's approach to suspense creation, his use of specific shots and editing, the darker elements of his films, his cameo appearances, and, of course, the MacGuffin. Includes a sprinkling of typically engaging archive interviews with the man himself. An entertaining and reasonably comprehensive introduction to the director's work, great for newcomers, but an enjoyable trot through familiar territory even for those well versed in the Master and his movies. 

summary

Still one of Hitch's most gorgeously realised works, built around a fabulous Ernest Lehman script and boasting an absolutely spot-on cast, including Grant at his suavely entertaining peak. It's the first Hitchcock film to get the high-def treatment, but despite the increased detail, the contrast and brightness do not feel as finely tuned as on the DVD. Great set of extras, though.

North by Northwest

USA 1959
136 mins
director
Alfred Hitchcock
starring
Cary Grant
Eva Marie Saint
James Mason
Jessie Royce Landis
Leo G. Carroll
Martin Landau

Blu-ray details
code unspecified
video
1.78:1
sound

Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround

Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby mono 1.0 (alternative languages)
languages
English
French
German
Italian
Castilian Spanish
Brazilian Portuguese
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
French
German for the hearign impaired
Italian
Italian for the hearing impaired
Castilian Spanish
Spanish
Brazilian Portuguese
Danish
Finnish
Norwegian
Swiss
extras
Destination Hitchcock documentary
Ernest Lehman commentary
Music-only track
Trailers and TV spot
Cary Grant: A Class Apart documentary
The Master's Touch documentary
distributor
Warner Brothers
release date
16 November 2009
review posted
2 December 2009

related review
Lifeboat

See all of Camus's reviews