During its brief lifespan, Blu-ray has been helped along by the usual early adopters, but now that the format has beaten out HD DVD for next-gen dominance, if it’s really going to assert itself as a genuine successor for DVD, it’ll have to appeal to the market that really matters. I’m talking about film buffs — the folks who feel the sting of shame every time a movie is given the deluxe reissue treatment because, even though they’ve already paid to own it on at least one format, they can’t help wanting to own it all over again. If you’re one of those people, you’ve hated yourself a little for owning more than one copy of Spinal Tap, or Terminator 2, or The Wizard of Oz — and now you can add North by Northwest to the list, because as part of its 50th birthday celebration, Warners is rolling out a newly remastered version of the Hitchcock classic to replace the one it released less than a decade ago.
And you know what? From where I’m sitting, it’s actually worth buying again — at least on Blu-ray, where Northwest is the first of Hitchcock’s films to receive the hi-def upgrade. Warner Bros., which has been busily schooling its competitors with lovingly assembled Blu-ray transfers for months, has come close to outdoing itself here; I think only its Wizard of Oz reissue is better, and that’s at least partly due to the fact that the Oz Blu-ray comes in a giant box with reams of bonus material and a watch my daughter is wearing right now.
Warners invested heavily in the refreshed Northwest — supposedly $1 million went into the studio’s painstaking 8K transfer — and every penny shows. Conventional wisdom says that the older the movie, the worse it’s going to look in 1080p, but it ain’t necessarily so; to date, I think the crappiest-looking Blu-ray I’ve seen is the Indecent Proposal reissue, and that only came out in 1993. It’s all about the time and effort that goes into cleaning up the film, and in this case, a wonderful movie has gotten its due.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with North by Northwest, here’s the synopsis: Cary Grant (as the ultimate man-on-the-run in his fourth Hitchcock teaming) gives a superlative performance while Eva Marie Saint (perfect Hitchcock heroine Eve Kendall) is at her sultry and sexy best in this heart-pounding thriller. Grant plays Manhattan adman Roger Thornhill, who is at once plunged into the world of spies and counterspies, abducted, framed for murder, chased, and (in the signature set-piece) crop-dusted. At the films’ end, he hangs on for dear life from the facial features of Mount Rushmore’s Presidents. If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s kind of a stupid way to set up one of the classics from Hitchcock’s torrid late ’50s-early ’60s run, but you get the gist — some shenanigans are going on, the wrong man is wanted for the crime, he’s got to find a way to clear his name, and you’ll watch him get there in singular style. Besides, how much do you really need to know about the plot? It’s Hitchcock and Cary freaking Grant. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to. The end.
What you’ll want to know if you’re a film buff — besides how spectacular the transfer looks — is what kind of extras Warner Bros. has decided to stuff into this handsomely bound package. Aside from the collection of essays that comes standard with every Warners digibook, North by Northwest comes with an impressive stack of bonus content. Most 50-year-old movies don’t have many extra parts lying around the vaults, and Northwest is no exception, but the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray makes up for it by packing in a tall stack of featurettes. Some of them are previously released, like the enthralling, nearly 90-minute Cary Grant: A Class Apart documentary that aired in 2003 on TCM, and the making-of doc, hosted by Eva Marie Saint, that was included in the last reissue. They still belong with this package, though, and you do get a pair of brand new features: the nearly hourlong The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style, which looks (duh) at Hitchcock’s directorial style and includes interviews with modern directors such as Guillermo del Toro and Scorsese, and the 25-minute North by Northwest: One for the Ages, which takes a similar approach, but focuses on the film instead of Hitchcock himself.
Also included (and ported over from the DVD reissue) are a (somewhat sleepy, but still very interesting) commentary track from screenwriter Ernest Lehman, an audio track devoted to Bernard Herrmann’s score, a stills gallery, and vintage trailers. And the whole kit and caboodle is selling for less than $21 at Amazon as I type this. It’s easy to be cynical about reissues — and about technology in general, given that most of us were just buying DVD players 10 years ago, and the movie industry is already looking for the next best thing — but Blu-ray has a lot of wonderful possibilities for film lovers, and packages like this one are a great example of why the format is the best way to get your movie fix. Unless Warners finds a way to celebrate Northwest‘s 60th birthday by plopping Cary Grant onto your couch while you watch the film, I can’t imagine how we’re going to see a better version anytime soon.
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