New York-born composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) wrote for every medium of his time: radio, television, movies, opera, stage and concert hall. But he became best known for his film scores — 50 of them, for some of the 20th century’s greatest directors, including Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”), Francois Truffaut (“Fahrenheit 451”), Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”) … and Alfred Hitchcock.
Herrmann’s seven scores for the director known as the “Master of Suspense” (eight if we include “Torn Curtain,” which Hitchcock discarded), composed over a 10-year period beginning in 1955, are considered among the greatest in cinema history. Between the anxious, romantic “Vertigo” (1958) and the terrifying, all-strings “Psycho” (1960), came the dynamic music for “North by Northwest” (1959): “Hitchcock’s most entertaining blend of sophisticated humor and suspense, with a crackling Herrmann score,” notes the composer’s biographer Steven Smith. (As part of the CSO at the Movies series, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Kaufman, will perform a live-to-picture presentation of “North by Northwest” on Feb. 15.)
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman — whom Herrmann had introduced to Hitchcock a year or so earlier — wrote a clever and twist-filled script that was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award. The film follows Madison Avenue executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) who is mistaken for one “George Kaplan,” apparently a top American intelligence agent, and is chased halfway across America by foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his minions. Roger finds himself attracted to the mysterious and seductive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may or may not be in league with the bad guys. Eventually a high-ranking government official (Leo G. Carroll) arrives on the scene to unravel the confusion, leading to a dangerous confrontation across the face of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
As the composer observed a few years later: “Most people think of Hitchcock as a master of mystery and suspense. Although this is fundamentally true, he is also a great romantic director, his films allowing enormous scope for sensual and lyrical musical treatment.”
Herrmann ignored the MGM music department’s suggestion that, as the movie opens in New York, he write something Gershwinesque to start. Instead, “its overture is a rapid, kaleidoscopic, virtuoso orchestral fandango designed to kick off the exciting rout that follows,” the composer explained, its Spanish rhythms illustrating “the crazy dance about to take place between Cary Grant and the world.” Saul Bass’ brilliant directional titles form the background for Herrmann’s “dazzling, dizzying overture,” in Smith’s words. Herrmann invokes this theme, and variations on it, throughout the film, driving the action and suspense, especially during the tense, climactic scenes on Mount Rushmore.
Other themes are heard throughout the score. First is a love theme, voiced by oboe and clarinet over gently propulsive string rhythms — notably during the conversation between Roger and Eve on the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, but often heard when they are together and in the film’s memorable final scene. Second is a motif for the mysterious George Kaplan: a dark, descending string line best heard during the negotiations between Thornhill and Vandamm in the tourist cafeteria at Mount Rushmore. Finally, there is the “hurry” motif associated with Thornhill’s movement from place to place, especially during the auction scenes in Chicago.
Significantly, Hitchcock asked his composer to refrain from scoring the film’s famous crop-duster scene, in which Roger — stranded in a Midwestern cornfield — is repeatedly attacked from the air by a small plane and barely survives. Only the noise of the aircraft and its machineguns, the whoosh of passing cars and the rustling of crops, is heard for four harrowing minutes.
Herrmann, who (unlike most American film composers) always insisted upon personally orchestrating every note of every score, composed the “North by Northwest” music between January and March 1959 and recorded the original soundtrack (approximately 65 minutes of music, broken up into 48 separate cues) in April and May. Released in July 1959, the film was widely considered among Hitchcock’s best work, critically praised and his most commercially successful film to that time. It ranks 40th on the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 films, and its score is among the AFI’s Top 250 (with Herrmann’s “Vertigo” and “Psycho” placing in its Top 25).
“North by Northwest,” notes Herrmann scholar Christopher Husted, “presented the composer with an opportunity to write a flamboyant, virtuosic score that liberally mixes sensuality, menace and, in a rare turn for him, light comedy … the last of Alfred Hitchcock’s fun-loving, stylish adventure films.”
Jon Burlingame writes about film music for Variety and teaches film-music history at the University of Southern California.
Note: Conductor Richard Kaufman and composer Bernard Herrmann’s daughter, Dorothy, will appear onstage for a pre-concert conversation from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m. Feb.15. The event is open to all “North by Northwest” ticketholders.