By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009 12:00 AM
Anyone who has ever gotten sucked into the intrigue and lickety-split pacing of a top-notch contemporary thriller should thank Alfred Hitchcock. More specifically, they may want to thank Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."
In 1959, the filmmaker who invented, defined and perfected the suspense genre delivered this grand Cary Grant mystery about a New York ad man mistaken for a secret agent, framed for murder and forced to flee directly into the arms of a seductive (and duplicitous) Eva Marie Saint. Many critics and cineastes consider it the quintessential Hitchcock film, so it's no surprise that "North by Northwest" is the director's first motion picture to be released on Blu-ray, courtesy of a new "50th Anniversary Edition" that arrives today in the high-definition format ($34.99) as well as on special-edition DVD ($24.98).
Remastered in 1080p and looking as crisp as one of Grant's immaculate gray suits, "Northwest" sprints through its mistaken-identity storyline in particularly gorgeous fashion on Blu-ray. And don't worry, purists: even with all that technological clean-up, the spectacular finale that finds Grant and Saint dashing across the faces of Mt. Rushmore -- a bit of fakery that involved a massive, painted backdrop -- still looks completely convincing. Let's put it this way: when that out-of-control crop duster from the film's most iconic scene starts zipping straight at Grant's head, the actor may not be the only one compelled to hit the deck.
This recently freshened release comes with a suite of special features, but only two are brand new to DVD. "The Master's Touch: Hitchcock's Signature Style" -- an hour-long documentary that explores the repeating motifs in Hitchcock's work, including his fixations with cool blondes and wrongly accused men -- does a fine job of providing an introduction into the master's work via commentary from fellow filmmakers like Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorsese and Benicio del Toro. The featurette "'North by Northwest: One for the Ages'," on the other hand, is a toss-off, relying on many of the same sources from the "Signature Style" doc to run through the movie's key plot points. Thanks, boys, but the DVD Cliffs Notes really aren't necessary.
Actually, the extra that provides the most detailed information about how the movie was made is "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of 'North by Northwest,'" a 40-minute documentary released back in 2000 that covers everything from the film's budget to Hitchcock's decision to buy the entire wardrobe for Saint's character right off the models at Bergdorf's. (The excellent documentary "Cary Grant: A Class Apart" and a somewhat sleepy commentary from screenwriter Ernest Lehmann also are included in this collection.)
In the end, it's that marvelous, cross-country chase that really matters most, and it's why most fans of "North by Northwest" will be pleased to watch it here, in a repolished format that makes Hitch's masterpiece look as slick and superb it's ever been.