Home > Reviews > NORTH BY NORTHWEST – Bernard Herrmann

NORTH BY NORTHWEST – Bernard Herrmann

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1958 Screenwriter Ernest Lehman approached Alfred Hitchcock with an offer to “make a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” After brainstorming to find common ground, a plot coalesced around North By Northwest, a case of mistaken identity, murder, romance and a cross-country chase, which ends dramatically atop Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock secured a stellar cast, which included Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, Eve Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, and James Mason as Phillip Vandamm. The story concerns a Madison Avenue advertising man, Roger Thornhill, who finds himself thrust into the hidden world of spies and espionage when he is mistaken for a man by the name of George Kaplan. He is pursued and hunted by foreign spy Phillip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard who try to eliminate him. When Thornhill is framed for murder he is forced to flee from the police, boarding a 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago. On board he meets Eve Kendall, a beautiful blond who assists him to evade the authorities. Yet all is not as it seems as he discovers that Eve isn’t the innocent bystander but instead Vandamm’s lover. But in another twist Eve is revealed as a double agent and they fall in love. They then join forces and survive a harrowing dramatic escape from Vandamm on the face of Mt. Rushmore. The film is considered to be Hitchcock’s most stylish thriller and was both a critical and commercial success.

Bernard Herrmann had already collaborated with Hitchcock on four earlier films and was a natural choice for the score in that he understood this eccentric director and how best to enhance his vision. As a composer, Herrmann eschewed emoting with long flowing melodic lines, embracing instead the use of succinct short phrasing, which he modulated throughout the score. The score features four major themes and a motif. The Main Theme underpins the score and supports the film’s action sequences. Its construct lacks any semblance of a melodic line, instead relying on intense churning and competing chromatic harmonic progressions. The second theme is the elegant Love Theme, which consist of a lyrical interplay between an oboe and clarinet, which flow over supportive strings. The third theme is the Suspense Theme, which as its name implies is used to support the tense suspense scenes that fill the film. It bears a fleeting resemblance to the famed Dies Irae, although at a much more rapid tempo. Simple in construct, this theme is emoted with rapidity as a repeating sixteen note line of shifting primary instruments and orchestrations that play over a tritone bass line. Next we have Roger’s Theme, which emotes as a lost, wandering and seemingly random arpeggio figure. This theme is brilliantly conceived in that Herrmann created it to reflect the internal perplexity of Roger. Lastly we have the Suspense Motif, which consists of a recurring two-note cell that emotes as a rising or falling half step.

“Overture/Main Title” plays with dramatic power through the opening titles as well as the opening scenes of the chaotic and congested New York streets. It is a score highlight, a masterpiece cue and enduring testimony to Herrmann’s genius. It is without a doubt one of the most dramatic, complex and powerful openings in the history of film. Completely modernist in construct, it derives its intense kinetic potency from a recurring clash between competing and rhythmically antagonistic motifs that are overlaid a repeating two-measure figure. Most interesting and ingenious is that the first motif is minor modal, the second major modal, with each articulated with different tempi, 3/4 and 6/8 respectively. This cue is just stunning in its complexity and affirms why I love film music. Bravo! In “The Streets” Herrmann introduces his Suspense Theme, which features repeating and at times, competing phrases of rapid-fire woodwinds, horns and strings. The cue was dropped from the film.

“Kidnapped” features Thornhill kidnapped from the hotel bar by two men. It is really an extraordinary tonal cue, which features excellent writing for strings and bassoon. Ominous and dark, we hear a repeating variant of Roger’s Theme, first on strings and later by woodwinds with foreboding bassoon echoes. A disquieting serpentine string line replete with bassoon counters carries this cue to a dark conclusion. “The Door” reveals Roger locked in the library of the Townsend estate uncertain of his fate. It features a plaintive variant of Roger’s Theme with the arpeggio emoted on violins with muted horn counters and a deep bass resonance. At 0:42 we segue into “Cheers” where Roger is forced fed a massive Bourbon drink and then taken to a dark country road for a staged accident. The cue features a menacing violin ostinato countered by harsh bass and horn accents. Additional pizzicato strings textures add to the complexity of this cue..

“The Wild Ride” is one hell of a ride – pun intended! A drunken Roger manages to escape his captors who hotly pursue his car along a treacherous sea cliff road. It opens on timpani that introduce an extended expression of the Main Theme, which propels the pursuit and is rendered with all the stunning and clashing staccato complexity of the Overture. We conclude the cue with “Car Crash”, where the chase ends in a crash with a pursuing police car. The cue features a clash of dark repeating bass phrases countered by tuba and kindred low register horns. Herrmann accomplishes so much with simplicity! “The Return” reveals Roger and detectives returning to the Townsend estate at a judge’s order to verify the veracity of his story. It features a most interesting variant of Roger’s Theme with a descending arpeggio of mid register strings countered by bass with harp accents. At 0:25 we segue into “Two Dollars”, where a discredited Roger is advised to pay the fine and end his charade. We hear a quirky variant of the B Motif of the Main Theme. At first woodwinds carry the phrasing but the transfer to strings and horns at 0:51 create a more menacing mood.

“The Elevator” features Roger fleeing from his pursuers in an elevator. Interplay by woodwinds and strings of the B Motif of the Main Theme slowly transforms into an ascending arpeggio, mirroring the tenseness of the moment. “The U.N.”
is a tense cue that reveals Roger taking a taxi to the U.N. to confront Townsend with his henchmen in pursuit. It features a repeating ascending mid register string phrase with bass counter. At 0:28 we segue into “Information Desk” where Roger inquires about Townsend and his pursuers close in. We hear Roger’s Theme, now rendered as a descending arpeggio of strings with bass counters and horn accents. His theme continues relentlessly until an interlude of plaintive woodwinds interrupts and then takes up the phrasing themselves. This is a fine example again of how Herrmann sows tension.

“The Knife” is a dynamic tension cue with some fierce writing! We see the real Lester Townsend killed by a henchman and Roger framed when he grabs the falling body and knife. We open with a phrase of blaring horns evoking horror, which is then repeated three additional times by alternating woodwinds and horns. As Roger flees we then launch into flight music atop strings agitato with horn counters, which usher in a fierce variant of the swirling Main Theme that propels the music forward. Yet the cue does not culminate, instead dissipating as a bleak diminuendo. There is amazing potency and skill packed into this short cue! In “Interlude” we see Roger and Eve share a romantic moment in her room. Herrmann introduces the gentile yet rhythmic Love Theme, which weaves a wondrous woodwind infused pastoral ambiance carried by a lyrical duet for oboe and clarinet. Of note is that he reprises the woodwind bridge first heard in the Nocturne of “White Witch Doctor” (1953) this time expanding it fully into a theme.

is a suspense cue that was edited out of the film. It offers a mid register string ostinato with descending bass counters. At 0:27 we shift gears and change scenes to the dining car where Eve flirts with Roger in “Conversation Piece”. We hear the idyllic Love Theme borne wondrously by solo oboe, which is joined by clarinet before yielding to sumptuous strings. Within its layers I detect a tinge of sadness that permeates, a bitter sweetness to this piece. At 3:31 we segue into “Duo” that reprises the Love Theme on oboe, kindred woodwinds and finally strings. This was a most pleasant cue and a nice respite. “The Station” plays as Roger and Eve arrive at the train station. We hear the subtle ambiance of a now understated Love Theme. As police franticly search for Roger we hear at 0:16 a frenetic interplay of the Suspense Theme and B Motif of the Main Theme. At 0:53 we segue into “The Phone Booth where we see Eve talking to Leonard. The music displays a steady ominous pizzicato string pulse against which play alternating counter phrases by woodwinds and then horns. At 2:06 we see a conflicted Eve bid Roger goodbye in “Farewell”, as a plaintive variant of the Love Theme returns.

“The Crash” packs quite a wallop as it explodes powerfully on the screen. A potent rendering of the Main Theme animates this tense scene where we see a crop duster, who has been trying to kill Roger, crash his plane into a fuel truck. At 1:00 as Roger enters the hotel we segue into “Hotel Lobby”, which is infused with darkness and tension by the woodwind dominated Suspense Motif. This cue was edited out of the film. “The Reunion”
features Roger reuniting with Eve in her hotel room and is scored to a lovely rendering of the Love Theme on strings. At 0:53 as Eve tells Roger to leave and not come back in “Goodbye”
we again hear the Love Theme, this time emoted by three clarinets and three bass clarinets. At 1:44 in “The Question” we transition to a series of alternating string and woodwind phrases, which slowly fade to nothingness as Roger asks Eve about her past.

In “The Pad & Pencil”
as Roger discerns an address Eve had written we hear the Suspense Motif on strings with pizzicato string counters. This phrasing continues into the “The Auction”
 where we see Roger, Eve, Vandamm and Leonard participating in an auction. “The Police”
features a repeating and most interesting play of the Suspense Theme. Herrmann evokes unease and tension as a desperate Roger who is surrounded by Vandamm’s henchmen provokes a fight that brings him to safety as police arrest him. With “The Airport”, the police are ordered to take Roger to the airport where the FBI advises him of Eve being a double agent. He is asked to continue his charade for national security. We continue thematically with the Suspense Theme, which is emoted at a much slower tempo, first by four horns, then by four clarinets, before concluding on strings. This is a most interesting demonstration on how Herrmann sustains a scene’s pacing by simply alternating the theme’s phrasing among the instruments.

“The Cafeteria”
is a tense cue where Roger confronts Phillip and Eve in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. It features Roger’s Theme, which returns on celli that are soon joined by woodwinds and pizzicato strings. At 1:14 we shift sharply into “The Shooting”
where Eve shoots Roger with blanks and he feigns death. Herrmann uses blaring horns and timpani to emote as a repeating set of dark phrases to score the scene. Tense horns bursts with woodwind counters bring the cue to conclusion as Eve flees. An ambulance takes Roger to a rendezvous with Eve in “The Forest”, which opens on lush strings that bear a beautiful rendering of the Love Theme as they share a tender moment. The following two cues are kindred in that they employ a versatile and more organic approach to film scoring. In “The Flight/The Ledge” we hear Herrmann emoting his Suspense Theme by utilizing a wide array of various shift string rhythms, effects and techniques as Roger escapes his captivity to go to Eve. He continues and greatly expands upon this approach as Eve returns to Vandamm in “The House”, a tense cue where strings interplay with both chirping and fluttering woodwinds as well as harp accents. These cues just fascinate me with their remarkable innovation.

The following five cues are also kindred in that they feature the Suspense Theme, which Herrmann expresses with a variety of instruments and tempi. As Roger approaches the house in “The Balcony” various woodwinds carry the primary statement over a heavy deep bass resonance. With “The Match Box”, as Roger tries to alert Eve that Vandamm is on to her, the motif is expressed primarily as a string ostinato and with more intensity and energy. For “The Message” as Roger alerts Eve that Vandamm plans to murder her, Herrmann provides a pulsatile percussive beat with discordant woodwind echoes. While in “The T.V.” as the maid see’s Roger’s reflection on the TV we hear bass with percussive counters. Lastly, in “The Airplane” as Eve walks to her doom a most intricate expression of the motif is provided, beginning upon the strings with counters by kindred strings and woodwinds, later shifting the phrasing to the woodwinds with the strings countering. Again Herrmann expresses the short phrasing of the Suspense Motif to sow tension yet keeps it fresh by varying his instrument mix and tempo. This is just exceptional writing.

As Eve and Roger escape in a car and then on foot in “The Gates” Herrmann begins the onslaught of the finale where his dynamic action scoring is on grand display. We hear sharp horns and a staccato-like percussive dominated interplay of the Suspense Theme and B Motif of the Main Theme. At 0:46 in “The Stone Faces” a shattering orchestral blast sounds at as they reach a clearing atop the monument. Their descent escape down the faces of the monument features a powerful and percussive laden rendering of the Main Theme. We segue at 2:16 into “The Ridge” as Eve and Roger continue their desperate escape. We hear the cyclic Suspense Theme emoted by mid and upper register strings with a bass counter, which interplays with the Suspense Motif on strings and woodwinds. At 4:12 we segue into “On the Rocks” where we see Eve, Roger, Phillip and Leonard all in perilous danger on the rock face. Herrmann again emotes his Main Theme to drive the action and underscore the peril. At 6:27 we segue into “Cliff” where a henchman jumps on Roger with a knife only to be thrown over the cliff. Harsh horns, woodwinds and snare drums emote the struggle. Leonard then throws Eve down the cliff face where she hangs on for dear life. As police shoot Leonard, Roger lifts her to safety. Sharp horn blasts and percussion sound to support her dramatic rescue. At 8:32 we segue into “Finale” where we see Eve and Roger kiss in their train suite. Herrmann concludes with a fleeting reference to the Love Theme, which yields to a grand orchestral flourish to end our journey.

The following four cues are all nicely attenuated source music cues that create the appropriate scene ambiance. “It’s a Most Unusual Day” is portentous and plays on solo violin and piano as Thornhill walks through the hotel lobby, a walk which initiates an amazing chain of events. “Rosalie” and “In the Still of the Night” are two Cole Porter pieces arranged for solo violin and piano that also play in the setting of the hotel. Lastly we have “Fashion Show”, a soft dance-like piece, which supports the ambiance of the train’s dinning car.

I offer my sincere thanks to Neil S. Bulk, Lukas Kendall and Intrada for a most welcome and stunning reissue of the complete score Bernard Herrmann’s 1959 masterpiece. Thanks to Warner Brothers, new stereo mixes became available for the first time ever. Entrusted to the proven expertise of Doug Schwartz, we have been provided in my view, with the best version and quality sound of this amazing score. And who best to direct this score than Herrmann himself! This score is just extraordinary in its thematic construct, phrasing and interplay. It displays the genius of Herrmann’s singular style, is perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery and brilliantly supports the story’s narrative. Brash, bold, dramatic and yet at times tender, this score has it all. I consider this CD to be an essential member of any collector’s collection and highly recommend it for purchase.

Rating: *****

Buy the North By Northwest soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overture/Main Title (2:19)
  • The Streets (1:07)
  • Kidnapped (2:18)
  • The Door/Cheers (1:26)
  • The Wild Ride/Car Crash (3:14)
  • The Return/Two Dollars (1:15)
  • The Elevator (0:49)
  • The U.N./Information Desk (1:55)
  • The Knife (1:51)
  • Interlude (1:18)
  • Detectives/Conversation Piece/Duo (4:42)
  • The Station/The Phone Booth/Farewell (2:55)
  • The Crash/Hotel Lobby (3:15)
  • The Reunion/Goodbye/The Question (2:34)
  • The Pad & Pencil/The Auction/The Police (2:35)
  • The Airport (1:02)
  • The Cafeteria/The Shooting (2:24)
  • The Forest (1:25)
  • The Flight/The Ledge (1:30)
  • The House (3:14)
  • The Balcony/The Match Box (2:45)
  • The Message/The T.V./The Airplane (2:39)
  • The Gates/The Stone Faces/The Ridge/On the Rocks/The Cliff/Finale (8:57)
  • It’s a Most Unusual Day (Source) (1:17)
  • Rosalie (Source) (1:36)
  • In the Still of the Night (Source) (2:26)
  • Fashion Show (Source) (5:23)
  • The Crash (Alternate) (1:53)

Running Time: 69 minutes 17 seconds

Intrada INTISC-207 (1959/2012)

Music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann. Orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Neil S. Bulk and Lukas Kendall.

  1. December 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Another great review Craig. I’m curious how you feel this compares to the rerecording that Joel McNeely did for Varese. Should a collector of Herrmann seek out both?

  1. July 22, 2013 at 1:45 am
  2. July 24, 2017 at 10:02 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: