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North by Northwest - Bernard Herrmann - Soundtrack Review

This week, I want to talk about „North by Northwest“ by Bernard Herrmann. Some people think that this score is the best movie soundtrack ever. Why is this so? Let’s try to give some answers.

The movie

Alfred Hitchcock created with “North by Northwest” his ultimate thriller movie about his main tale of mistaken identity. This movie is perfectly balanced between action, romantic and comedy. Interesting to mention is also that after this movie Hitchcock directed “Psycho”, a movie totally opposite in the storytelling and one of the first slasher movies. Without “Psycho”, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” would never be possible, but I will discuss “Psycho” in a few weeks.

“North by Northwest” screenwriter Ernest Lehman who wrote also the screenplay to Hitchcock’s last movie “Family Plot” wanted to write the “Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, and if you compare “North by Northwest” with “Psycho”, I think he reached his goal.

Here is the trailer:

Some people think that the title “North by Northwest” refers to a compass direction that does not really exist, but the title is also symptomatic for the whole picture. In the scene when Leo G. Carroll explains Cary Grant what is the plot all about, Hitchcock put some airplane noise over the scene, so you have no clue why James Mason is hunting Cary Grant all the time. Later in the movie, it says “government secrets” without giving exact information.

There are hundreds of articles written about “North by Northwest”, so it is nearly impossible to mention all the interesting facts about it. For me, this movie is timeless and has a few scenes that are just astonishing. I am not only referring to the showdown on Mount Rushmore, I love especially the crop duster sequence. Hitchcock’s intention was to create a new attack scene which is the totally opposite of the cliché so far. Therefore, Cary Grant is not attacked at night in a dark street, here is attacked on a sunny day in an open field.

When I as a teenager saw this movie for the first time, I was too innocent to understand the last scene. Hitchcock always had trouble with censors. In “North by Northwest, one of Eva Marie Saint's line in the dining-car seduction scene has to be redubbed. She originally said "I never make love on an empty stomach", but it was changed in post-production to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach" because the censors considered the original version too risqué. So, what did Hitch do in the last scene? Grant and Saint are kissing, and you see a train entering with high speed a tunnel. This is just gorgeous!

The music

Bernard Herrmann collaborated with Hitchcock on four movies before. For me Bernard Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock are “North by Northwest”, “Vertigo” and “Psycho”, my favourite is “Vertigo” because this is most balanced one. For “North by Northwest” Herrmann composed three types of music: chase, suspense and love music. Especially the romantic music has its origin in the typical romantic music of the late nineteenth century.

What Herrmann added, and this makes this score special, is the high amount of percussion instruments. Herrmann used as a base a Fandango, a Spanish couple dance that is usually in triple metre, traditionally accompanied by guitars, castanets, or hand-clapping. This energetic track sets the tone for the whole music and the movie. Here is the main title, some people say it is also a musical expression of the chaotic life in New York:

And I found an amazing live performance. Some people think it is too fast, but if you remember that Herrmann was constantly complaining that other people conducts his music too slow, I think this performance is quite right. You can especially see how difficult to play this track is because of its unusual tempi and its constant change of rhythm.

The love theme is one of Herrmann’s best, and you hear this lyrical theme first in the train dining sequence. I have to say I am not a big fan of Eva Maria Saint. I think Grace Kelly was the perfect Hitchcock actress. Herrmann’s love theme consists of an interplay between the oboe and the clarinet, and this inter gets supported by strings. The rhythm transforms the movement of a train into musical. Great work, Mr Herrmann!

For a long time, fans of the score were just able to get it in a version conducted by Laurie Johnson, but if you compare this recording with Herrmann’s original one, you realize how important it is to buy always a score conducted by Herrmann himself. Intrada finally released a CD with 69 music of the score (a lot you can skip), but with 69 minutes you finally have the whole score in an astonishing recording and with the right tempi.

I just want to mention the last tracks for the showdown. Herrmann uses again the full power of the orchestra to build up suspense, especially in the scene when Martin Landau comes closer and steps on Grant’s hand. The percussion is perfectly used to increase the suspense in this scene, a highly effective way to get the audience emotionally involved.

Overall, you can say that “North by Northwest” is a classic film music score and like a good score should be: astonishing in supporting the emotions of the movie, timeless in its musical approach and composing style, and with a main theme that you will never forget when you hear it. Really amazing movie music! It is so regrettable that both Hitchcock and Herrmann had such a big ego preventing their fruitful collaboration lasting for a longer period of time. I will discuss their fight on the music for “Torn Curtain” that results in the break-up another time on my website. Now, just enjoy “North by Northwest”.

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2017, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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