BluRay/DVD Reviews

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Blu-Ray)

By • Nov 10th, 2009 •

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This is not just one of the ten best films of 1959. Nor is it just the best film of 1959. It is one of the best films ever made. Though I had a friend named Al Kilgore who disliked NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Felt the famous crop duster sequence, where Cary Grant hides out among the corn-stalks, with their surreal yellowish husks and obvious studio presence, suddenly turned the film into THE WIZARD OF OZ. But Al was an anglophile. He worshipped Hitchcock’s B & W British period and never could embrace any of the Technicolor work. Me, I’m thankful to this day that I got to see it at Radio City Music Hall, sitting in the company of several thousand other euphoric movie-goers, enthralled beyond description by the greatest romantic/comedy/thriller of all time.

For reasons utterly incomprehensible to me, Laser Disc and DVD never got it quite right. I had a Technicolor16mm print once, eons ago, which was on the money. But the proper color balance and sharpness continued to elude the film throughout its many home theater versions.

The BluRay is a 50th Anniversary edition, packaged like a little book, with a matte-textured cover portraying Grant, pursued by the plane, running toward us on a geometric designed surface. Behind this image, soft and indistinct at first, are the Mt. Rushmore heads. Inside there is a single disc, and an attached booklet with reasonably good information and several choice stills from the archives, but no information about chapters or supplementals.

Now for the comparisons with the recent Warner Bros DVD release, also featuring the crop duster shot on the cover, but less a design than a cropped photo.

NBNW was a sumptuous, stylish piece of art design. Grant’s silver-gray suit and tie were complimented by the silver in his hair, then given a little balance by his year-round tan. The next time I saw such stunning grays and silvers was in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, I presume intentionally, as homage. Anyway, the image feels right, if a bit studio over-lit, on the DVD. The BluRay is considerably more contrasty. Even the opening Green MGM lion is deeper and soggier, like paint, as opposed to the sharp, key lime green of the DVD.

Contrary to what one might expect, there is not more information on the BluRay, in fact at times there seems to be even less detail than on the DVD. The BluRay’s contrasty look feels almost as if the film were run through a B&W negative in addition to the standard matrices, as in John Huston’s MOBY DICK or David Fincher’s SE7EN. Scenes such as the Grand Central Station establishing shots, or Grant’s arrival by taxi at the Frank Lloyd Wright home occupied by James Mason and his Nazi cohorts in the third act, are too dark, obscuring important background details. (And Grant’s tan is darker throughout.)

Dialogue, too, is slightly muddy on the BluRay. But not the score. From the start, Bernard Hermann’s music feels like a different, more complex recording. There are nuances I hadn’t heard before, and they actually smooth out a few passages I’d always found to be foolish and off-putting. Both releases give you the option of isolating the score, by the way.

Looking at the classic Crop Duster sequence, I noticed that the sides of the frame were slightly ‘cropped’ on the BluRay. There’s an extra fence post clearly visible to Grant’s camera left on the DVD as he malingers at the side of the road, which is pushed all the way to the side of the frame on the BluRay (depending on the scanning of your monitor tube, you might not even see it). And when the plane is making its first curve and heading straight for him, it practically flies out of frame on the BluRay. Not so on the DVD. And that occurs on camera right, so the narrowed framing occurs on both sides. Also, since brown tones are favored, the WIZARD OF OZ curse is dramatically reduced here. Al would have been happy, though I realize now that I kinda liked the curse…

Interestingly, Eva Marie’s face shows less diffusion in the BluRay’s dining car scene. And attention is drawn to her hands when she puts them around Grant’s neck later in the sleeping car, distracting in that they have the appearance of an older woman’s fingers and skin. This may not only be because the BluRay is more contrasty, but because it also favors those brown tones more than the DVD does. On the DVD mastering, her hands look fine.

Supplement-wise, the BluRay has a few more goodies, in particular a nice bio piece on Grant, with interviews from a former wife, from historians Jeannine Bassinger and Peter Bogdanovich, as well as archival footage from the likes of George Cukor, not to mention George Stevens’ color home movies on the set of GUNGA DIN.

So…what does one do? Some scenes in the DVD are too light, some scenes in the BluRay are too dark. Both releases have things to recommend them, and things to dislike. Does one keep them both? Sure, you can do that. But you can’t double-bill them for guests, so eventually you’re going to have to choose one or the other based on…what?

Tricky situation.

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One Response »

  1. Seems like BluRay is still going to have to go through a peroid of adjustment before it gets fully right. On older movies, I have heard similar comments from collectors.

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