Herrmann On the Mount

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Two great tastes that taste great together. Along with Prokofiev and Eisenstein and Steven Spielberg and John Williams, H&H constitute one of the most successful composer/director collaborations in film history.

And nowhere is that collaboration more enjoyable than in the 1959 thrill ride NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Ernest Lehman’s clever, convoluted script of mistaken identity and murder stars Cary Grant at his most debonnaire. Eva Marie Saint plays the lovely spy and James Mason oozes suave evil.

Herrmann’s typical practice of writing a score starting at the beginning of the film and working through to the end serves him in good stead. The score is one wild ride from the opening Spanish rhythms through the nail-biting Mount Rushmore finale. Herrmann was inspired by Grant’s “Astaire-like agility” to use the Spanish dance called the fandango for the score’s main theme.

A pale green covers the screen and underneath Leo the Lion’s trademark roar, we hear the fandango’s faint, insistent rhythm begin in the timpani and low strings. As the fandango takes over, blue lines criss-cross and intersect the green screen, disecting and chasing after one another until the graphics fade into the reflective side of a building. The cue is one frenetic chase to the end of the main titles and one of Hitchcock’s cleverest cameos.

Herrmann composed and orchestrated in the entire score for NORTH BY NORTHWEST in 51 days. For years, film music fans had to be content with Laurie Johnson’s recording of the score on Varese Sarabande. While Johnson offered an acceptable take on the score, the recording levels suffered from the limitations of early 1980s digital recording technology.

Fans rejoiced in 1995 when Rhino released the original stereo tracks for the first time, but that joy was tempered by the sound anomalies in the six tracks featuring the fandango (including the main title) which showed unfortunate signs of aging, angering many fans. By the time the 2004 DVD arrived, apparently new tracks had been found and the isolated score sounds just fine.

In 2007, Varese issued the definitive recording of the complete score conducted by Joel McNeely. With spirited conducting, a robust performance by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, and pristine digital sound, this was the recording fans of the score had been waiting for.

Every fan has their favorite Herrmann score and Hitchcock film and, for me, NORTH BY NORTHWEST fits the bill on both counts.

Hitchcock and Herrmann. The alliterative effect pleases me. The collaborative effect even more so.

5 comments

  1. I have three versions of North by Northwest: The 1980 Laurie Johnson-conducted recording from Varèse, the original recording release from Rhino in 1995, and Varèse’s 2007 re-recording by McNeely.

    The new recording is outstanding and nearly eclipses my interest in listening to the preceding versions, especially the sluggish orchestral performance in the first Varèse recording.

    However, I’ve felt the compulsion, fueled by my fondness for original recordings, to rip the fandango segments from the 2000 Warner DVD and use them to supplant the deteriorated tracks on the Rhino release.

    Come to think of it, I should probably wait to see if the Blu-ray disc also includes the isolated score, in which case I can get lossless audio rips. Editing compressed audio makes me feel dirty.

  2. I too have all three. The only one I retired was the Johnson recording. I can still listen to the Rhino original tracks when I want the “real” experience, even with the less-than-perfect fandango section. But I LOVE the Joel McNeely recording. It just booms out of whatever speaker I’m listening to (except my crappy laptop speakers…why do they even bother?). One of these days I’ll figure out the whole lossless thing. But since most everything I listen to is through ear buds walking through the streets of NYC, traffic noise pretty much makes lossless useless. And at some point I’ll switch over to Blu-ray. Too much technology!!

  3. Jim ,just wondering ,how about Billy Wilder and Franz Waxman? At least 3 scores that I can think of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *