You know, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these blogathon thingies, so hopefully I won’t totally screw this up. Especially given the topic of film composer! I’m a music enthusiast (and something of a lapsed musician), as well as a movie lover, so … count me in!

I chose North by Northwest, primarily because it’s one of my very favorite movies, by any director. However, in looking further into the subject of Herrmann’s music and his close association for many years with Hitchcock, I was amazed at how little was written about Herrmann and this particular film. I suspect that was primarily due to the quality and distinction of other work Herrmann did for Hitch at the time. Vertigo and Psycho make rather remarkable bookmarks to North by Northwest, as breathtakingly fast-paced and engaging as the plot of this movie is.

What I have to say here is less a reflection of general critical review than my own personal take of the subject.

Let’s start by asking, what is North by Northwest? It’s a thriller. And a spy thriller. With romance and humor. It has moments that are tender, as well as those that enthrall. For each scene, Herrmann’s music matches the mood perfectly.

It’s a perfect demonstration of how music affects mood. The songs become part of the story. And, have we established what kind of story it is? Well … it’s a spy thriller mashed up with a romantic comedy. Kind of like a faster-paced, more cynical version of Charade, which also starred Cary Grant. But that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion.

The opening titles score makes it obvious that we can expect to be thrilled, possibly to the point of a bit over-the-top, with a kind of muted wackiness beneath the swelling sound of stakes (and expectations) being raised.

The visual imagery of traffic reflected in windowed office buildings. Crowds thronging with a deceptively accidental-looking choreography. All add to a sense of discombobulated adventure in a world of strangers.

But if you break the movie’s entire score down into its various components, you’ll see that each scene is quite intentionally matched with its music. And varies significantly throughout the film.

First, take a look at this breakdown. Now, look at this one. Just the tiniest bit more detailed.

Then, compare the lists with the one in the notes beneath this video.

But if I had to pick one video that really seems to capture the movie, it’s this one.

Now, I realize it’s the combination of music and image that does that. That sells me on the romantic aspects. But there’s an undercurrent of something more than cheap romance. An undercurrent of danger, uncertainty. Not to mention the occasional marked counterpoint of musical mood to image. (A few of which made me laugh.)

Even though, it only reflects the mood of one scene. Kind of makes you wonder whether this film is a straight-ahead thriller or if its metaphors culminate into the obvious one at the end.

Another thing I learned is that Bernard Herrmann had an extraordinary career. He collaborated with two geniuses — Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Started his career writing the score for Citizen Kane. Worked in the business from 1941 to the late Seventies. Composed the score for Taxi Driver.

In television, he worked on The Twilight Zone and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He worked in radio, for the stage, and wrote concert works.

Not bad at all for a nice Jewish boy from New York. One who formed his own orchestra at the age of 20, according to Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. (Full disclosure: that’s an affiliate link.)

Here’s Bernard Herrmann’s web site. There’s even a Bernard Herrmann Society.

Still can’t get enough Bernard Herrmann? Check these out!

Bernard Herrmann talks about Alfred Hitchcock!

A Conversation with Bernard Herrmann!

Master of the Atmosphere: All About Bernard Herrmann.

Bernard Herrmann ‘Film Scores on Phase 4’ Box Set Announced.

Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock filmography. (Do check out the links!)

And, of course, he’s on IMDB.

Respectfully submitted for your consideration as part of the Bernard Herrmann Blogathon 2021! Hosted by The Classic Movie Muse.

PS: Would this be complete without a Hitchcock cameo? :)

Originally published on I Found it at the Movies.

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Debbi Mack

Debbi Mack

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New York Times bestselling author of eight novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.