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review added: 8/21/99



North by Northwest
1959 (2000) - MGM (Warner Bros.)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD

North by Northwest Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/B-

Specs and Features

136 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 1:27:10 in chapter 30), Snapper case packaging, Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest, isolated soundtrack (DD 5.1), stills gallery, cast and crew bios and filmographies, theatrical trailers (original and re-release), TV spot, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (46 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD mono), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned


This is all that really needs to be said about North by Northwest: it's arguably Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film (in my view, the seminal Hitchcock film, containing all the elements that make his films work as well as they do) and it's now on DVD. I'm a big fan, but to go into the plot of the film, even lightly, would be a disservice to anyone who hasn't seen it yet. Any way that I try to explain it or summarize it, something is given away. So all you really need to know is that the film is simply a classic. It's aged well (aside from some assorted special effects), the story is incredibly fun and Eva Marie Saint plays Hitch's most eager hotty. If you love movies as much as we do, you MUST see North by Northwest.

Must you see this movie on DVD? Yes. Scratch that - hell yeah! Man, this movie looks just gorgeous. It's the cleanest I've ever seen this film look, even given the Criterion laserdisc. Here we have an anamorphic widescreen transfer and it makes all the difference. If I had to say anything bad, it's that the picture looks almost too clean, you know? Like it's unnaturally clean. But believe me, you wouldn't mind that if you held this thing up to previous editions released for home exhibition. I loved watching this movie on DVD. I don't think I can really say too much how great this picture looks. I'm really proud of Warner for this transfer - I hope they maintain this kind of quality on future releases.

Amazingly enough, the sound is just as good. It's a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 track and it's smooth. A lot of the dynamics play across the front of the soundstage, but there is a bit of rear channel ambience. And it's also pretty loud - the incredible Herrmann score really packs a wallop.

The extras, on the other hand, are a bit disappointing. I need to characterize that statement. This special edition is, for the most part, pretty good. We get two trailers (the original Hitchcock trailer and a more traditional re-release trailer), a photo gallery, a TV spot and cast and crew info. We also get Herrmann's score, isolated all by it's lonesome (it's nice, but it doesn't knock my socks off). But there are two other bonus materials that I have mixed feelings about. The first is a commentary track with screenwriter and friend to Hitchcock, Ernest Lehman. He basically sits with us and talks about the film, dropping an incredibly entertaining nugget or two. But mostly he gives us play-by-play and his opinion on things. The track is interesting, and somewhat informative, but it's certainly not the greatest commentary I've ever listened to. In turns of enjoyment, it's kind of fun to sit and watch the film with someone of Lehman's caliber, and it really does come off like he's in the room with you. But I think I would have liked a Hitchcock historian of some sort on top of this track, who could discuss the film more in-depth. But so is life.

The other bonus item is the documentary, Destination Hitchcock. I'm still not sure if I liked it or not. On the one hand, this is a very informative look behind-the-scenes, with commentary from some people that really know their stuff. They should - they were all there. Eva Marie Saint will always be a beautiful and classy lady and, as the host here, she's the best. The talking heads in this piece also let us in on some of the secrets and their perspectives on Hitch, his work and this film in particular. But the production itself is just plain bad. I don't even know where to begin. I feel like this is a documentary about the making of the documentary about the making of North by Northwest. The piece looks cheap, and director/writer/producer Peter Fitzgerald really seems to want to prove to his friends that he made the thing by shooting it in a weird, production-esque style. For example, they're filming on a unfinished soundstage, with grips walking in front of the on-camera talent while they talk. There are shots of the producer interviewing the subjects. We even get an "...and cut." at the end of the documentary. It's very distracting and I didn't care for it. I like the information contained in this documentary, but the way it's given to us is cheesy. It's like going to a five-star restaurant and getting served on paper plates. The substance of this documentary is interesting enough - there's just no need for all the distracting "style" in the presentation.

I also felt that stuff was missing from the disc. For example, in the documentary, we're treated to a few shots of beautiful storyboards for this film, drawn by Hitchcock himself. Where are these and why aren't they available on the disc? They're frickin' cool and I wanted to see more of them - even just a couple of scenes worth would have worked. North by Northwest is too important a film to get this cursory treatment. A more scholarly approach would have been welcomed.

In terms of quality, the film half of this disc is the absolute best it could be. The other half is a pale shadow of what it potentially could have been. I'm glad North by Northwest is on DVD, but I would have liked for this to be the kind of ultimate special edition disc that you show off to your friends. It's really just a pretty standard special edition at this point, and that's a shame. But given that the film itself looks as sweet as a film can look 41 years after its original release, I can't help but recommend it.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD




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