Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > NORTH BY NORTHWEST – Bernard Herrmann

NORTH BY NORTHWEST – Bernard Herrmann


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 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), 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.

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.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score I have embedded a Youtube link to a wonderful suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jp5grlQklb8

A more comprehensive review of the score may be found at: https://moviemusicuk.us/2012/11/22/north-by-northwest-bernard-herrmann/

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.

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