This post marks my last installment of my Herrmann-on-film series (also including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)). For the occasion I decided to finish with one of Bernard Herrmann’s most famous films, North by Northwest, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. There are many other Hitchcock films that Herrmann wrote the scores for that I could have chosen to write about, but I actually had the chance to watch North by Northwest on 35mm, so I thought it would be a good choice. And let’s be honest here Psycho is great, but it is almost too cliché to choose for this series.
Anyway, I’ve talked a lot about how important the musical themes that appear in film are, how useful character themes are for maintaining consistency in movie plots, announcing the presence of characters, and also how integral music is to the expression of emotion in film, so I thought I would look more into those pieces in this film, and to wrap up the series talk a little bit more about Bernard Herrmann.
North by Northwest was Alfred Hitchcock’s fifth film with Herrmann. Preceding this film, in order, were The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), and Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock knew Herrmann very well by the time that North by Northwest came around, and Hitchcock both knew what he wanted from Herrmann and what to expect. Hitchcock also understood the psychological potential of music and its ability to enhance the feelings of characters, enhance the moods of scenes, and heighten audience anticipation, so it was quite useful to have worked with Herrmann.
That said, Herrmann was a very tough person to work with. Herrmann liked to show off his knowledge of music history, and as such created many scores that demonstrated his awareness of that topic. However, he always seemed to go out of his way to create music that didn’t fit under the umbrella of ‘popular music’. For instance, he always flaunted his knowledge of Wagner by saturating his scores with Wagnerian waltzes, despite the lack of popular interest in Wagner and despite the films not being set in 19th century Vienna (a time period which Wagner is more suited for). He was also known to playfully and deliberately distort other aspects of his pieces, merely to defy audience expectations, and sometimes in ‘unnecessary ways’ according to critics. To top it all off, Herrmann was a believer in the philosophy of finding the bad things in everyone and everything to make one’s self feel better in comparison. Eventually, this attitude led to Herrmann telling a journalist, “[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him”, and thus led to the end of Herrmann’s relationship with Hitchcock. But no one can deny that while that relationship lasted, Herrmann and Hitchcock were able to accomplish some wonderful work.
Take a look (or listen) to the opening theme of North by Northwest. Over the green, patterned background that we eventually find out is the outline of an office building, we hear a powerful, bombastic Spanish orchestral Fandango. Odd for a movie based in New York and the mid-west to open with a traditional Spanish dance song. But in actuality it makes some sense. A fandango is a dance, like the flamenco, that originates from the courtship of a male and a female who circle around and compete with each other to seduce the other. The story of North by Northwest is at it’s core about a man who after being mistaken for an international agent is chased around the country as he tries to find out who he is being mistaken for and why, but orbiting the center of this whirlwind plot is a love story about a man and woman figuratively, and at some points in the film literally, circling each other and outwitting each other’s enemies. Coincidence? I think not. I think there’s a very good chance that Herrmann and Hitchcock were very aware of this fact.
Another detail to note about the title theme is the intensity and instability of it. The fandango, like other similar Spanish dance pieces is in 6/8 time (6 eight-note beats per measure). A common ‘stable’ time signature is 4/4 (4 quarter-notes per measure). Why is it stable? It’s a very common time signature, people are very familiar to people, and it is also very easy to count: 1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4; such that the usual stressed beats are 1 and 3. In contrast, 6/8 time signatures can be counted with stresses on 1 and 4: 1, 2, 3. 4, 5, 6. OR with stresses on 1, 3, and 4: 1, 2. 3, 4. 5, 6. Each of these ways of counting are fairly equally common. However, Herrmann, in order enhance the moods of the film, which is wrought with suspense and instability and unsureness, takes the viewer’s expectation for the counting of the 6/8 measure to stay constant and turns it upside-down by switching back and forth between stressing 1, 3, and 5 and stressing 1 and 4. To add to this instability, Herrmann orchestrates the melody such that it appears in the parts of different instruments with differing note ranges. When the instruments are combined and their parts are played together the effect of the disjunct melody constantly shifting around to different instruments is an enhancement of the instability of the piece.
On the subject of the love story between Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill and Anne Marie Saint’s Eve Kendell, Bernard Herrmann works another very subtle detail into the score of the film. Specifically into the theme of the two lovers that appears in the dining car of the train to Chicago, as Roger leans forward to light Eve’s cigarette. At this moment an oboe starts to play a soft, flirtatious melody over a small group of strings. This simple melody in the high oboe part confers the delicate emotional impact of the dining car scene. And as the love between Roger and Eve intensifies in Eve’s bedroom on the train, the music supports this evolvement by evolving the melody from just an oboe solo over a small string quartet to an entire violin section over an entire orchestra. The fullness of the orchestra versus the sparseness of the oboe all of the sudden makes the playfulness between Roger and Eve seem much more serious and full than before and does a great job of drawing attention to the relationship between the two characters.
Additionally, for the most part Herrmann likes to leave a lot of silence in his scores. Music is like the cream and cherry on top of an ice cream sundae and water for a plant. It should be used to make something look pretty but should also be used sparingly, for too much of anything is a bad thing. As such, there are very few scenes in which Herrmann arranges music over spoken dialogue in his films, so the fact that Herrmann chose to insert music in this lover scene is quite significant.
Inserting total silence when the audience expects music accomplishes an interesting dynamic as well. The famous “crop-duster” scene in the second half of the film utilizes this technique. Roger Thornhill steps off the greyhound bus into a silent, flat, and empty landscape and waits on the side of a dusty road to meet up with the man he thinks is George Kaplan. Little does he know he has been duped into a deathtrap by Vandamm’s men.
As the airplane descends, one would normally expect an orchestra to strike up in song and play along behind the noises of the battle scene between Roger and the airplane, but nothing happens. Not a single note is heard. The audience is left emotionally suspended, waiting for a musical resolve that will confirm their thoughts and feelings and expectations. That is powerful stuff, and Bernard Herrmann was very good at what he did.
Unfortunately, Herrmann did not have much more time after this film was made to work with Hitchcock. They worked together on three more films and then Herrmann got himself fired. I wonder what more they could have done with each other.
 Bray, Christopher. "The Sound of Music." New Statesman, 135.4800 (2006): 42-43.
 Lintgen, Arthur. "North by Northwest." Fanfare: The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors, 31.6 (2008): 161-162.
 Green, Edward. "Bernard Herrmann--'pop' Composer?." Popular Music History, 5.1 (2010): 7-20.
 Matthew-Walker, Robert. "'North by Northwest.'." Musical Opinion, 133.1476 (2010): 55.
 Daniel-Richard, Debra. "The Dance of Suspense: Sound and Silence in North by Northwest." Journal of Film & Video, 62.3 (2010): 53-60.