Sunday, October 18, 2009

On it's 50th anniversary, Hitchcock's North by Northwest reborn

The Chicago International Film Festival on Sunday screened a new print of a newly restored Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, 1959's North by Northwest, which is not only one of the director's best, but in the minds of many, one of the most entertaining films ever made, a witty travelogue with menace, suspense and sex that starts in midtown Manhattan and ends atop Mount Rushmore, with intermediate stops in Chicago and a now immortal Indiana cornfield. The perfect cast included Cary Grant as an ad executive mistaken for a spy, James Mason as the suave villain, with a darkly ominous Martin Landau in his first major screen role as his henchman, and Eva Marie Saint as, Grace Kelly notwithstanding, the sexiest and most intelligent of Hitchcock's blond femme fatales. The film had it's world premiere at Chicago's United Artists theater, leveled to create Block 37.
The restoration involved an 8K scan of the original VistaVision elements. While the film was nowhere in as bad a shape as Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo, meticulously restored by Robert Harris in 1996, all the prints I've seen have had a bad case of the fuzzies, colors bleeding at the edges.

This new version was remastered for a November 3rd video re-issue that will make NbN the first Hitchcock film to be released on Blu-Ray. Seen in the theater, the images are, with some exceptions, razor sharp, giving new weight to interplay of the characters and the backdrops in which they move, and revealing details perhaps never before seen, like the buildings at the far horizon of that Indiana cornfield. More to the point, you can't really experience NbN without seeing it on the big screen. So much of the film, when you come right down to it, is about people who fall into things much larger than themselves, expressed symbolically in such oversized settings as the United Nations, train stations teeming with people - any one of them who could be the one to recognize Cary Grant and betray him to the police - in New York (Grand Central) and Chicago (the late LaSalle), as well as the aforementioned festival of giant President heads in South Dakota. On a small screen, even a 50 inch HDTV, you simply don't get the same visceral sense of existential drama.
No one from Warner Brothers' technical team was at the Chicago Film Festival screening, but there was Hitchcock historian and biographer John Russel Taylor and, most importantly, Martin Landau who, in this clip from Sunday, discusses how he got the role:

Landau also talked about how he arrived at his conception of his character of Leonard. "When I read the script," he said on Sunday, "coming from the Actors Studio, I said this character wants to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance that it would be interesting if he were gay. Now we shot it 51 years ago, and I choose to do that. I thought it would be very subtle and Hitch liked it, obviously, because he didn't tell me not to do it, he encouraged me. And by saying encouragement, I'd ask him once in a while, because he would whisper something to Cary Grant or James or Eva Marie and he'd walk past me. So, coming from the theater, I asked him, "Is there anything you want to tell me?" "Martin, I'll only tell you if I don't like what you're doing."

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman actually picked up on Landau's concept after he watched the early filming, and added a famous line from late in the film when James Mason asks Landau's Leonard for the source of his suspicions about Saint's character, Eve Kendall. "Call it my women's intuition, if you will," says Leonard, "but I've never trusted neatness." James Mason dismisses Leonard's newly revealed crush on his boss. "Why Leonard, I do believe you're jealous! I'm actually very flattered." Pretty daring for 1959. If it were a film about being gay I'm sure it would never have passed the censors. Being just another Hitchcock potboiler probably gave it cover.

We usually think of films like War of the Worlds or X-Men when we think of special effects, but in his films, Hitchcock often showed an advanced mastery of the art. In NbN, this included the incredible, "trapped insect" shot, from the top of the UN Building, which was actually a painting on glass, showing Cary Grant as a small spec making his escape far below, to the climatic chase on a Mount Rushmore entirely reconstructed, complete with footholds that apparently don't exist on the real version, on MGM soundstages.

Add in Robert Burk's photography, the great Saul Bass title sequence, and another iconic score by Bernard Hermann, and you have one of greatest films of all time. Taylor told a story of how critics at the French film journal Positif. taking a cue from the way the title Northwest by Northwest cribs on a line from Hamlet, actually concluded the film was a retelling of Hamlet, with Jessie Royce Landis as Gertrude, etc. But NbN is no Shakespeare retread, nor was it ever meant to be. It's all American (with a British accent, to be sure), with a lot of very interesting ideas going on beneath it's shimmering surface.

Sunday was the only showing at the Chicago International Film Festival, which runs through October 22, but here's hoping there'll be a local theatrical booking to let people see this amazing film the way it was meant to be experienced.

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