North by Northwest

Synopsis
At the Plaza Hotel in New York, advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has the bad luck to call for a messenger just as a page goes out for another hotel guest, a George Kaplan. From that moment, Roger finds that he has stepped into a nightmare, as he is pursued across America by a group of mysterious agents in an extreme case of mistaken identity. On his ill-fated journey Roger is abducted, falsely accused of murdering a UN diplomat, and chased by a fully armed crop-dusting plane. In an attempt to elude his captors, Roger boards a train and meets the beautiful and mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). As the plot unfolds we learn that, though Eve appears to be in league with Roger’s tormenters, she is in fact an undercover government agent who has infiltrated the enemy group. Roger and Eve manage to prevent the group from leaving the country, before attempting a daring escape leading to a climactic finish atop one of America’s most famous landmarks, Mount Rushmore.

North by Northwest
“I’ve had enough stimulation for one day.”

With North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock poured an enormous glass of delicious, addictive bourbon and sent audiences careening down a steep seaside road and running for their lives through abandoned cornfields and across the precipice of four American presidents. The 1959 film was his biggest hit to date with both critics and audiences, and it might just be the perfected cocktail of the auteur’s taste for gallows humor and suspense. The sexual repartee, the nerve-wracking set pieces, and the story of an everyman swept up in a deadly cat-and-mouse chase are all here and beautifully blended—cast with the director’s favored Cary Grant (never funnier or more charming as Roger Thornhill), the beguiling Eva Marie Saint (as Eve Kendall), and a pack of baddies led by a slick, slithering James Mason and the late Martin Landau. It’s a globetrotting spy adventure complete with a debonair and exquisitely tailored hero, a mysterious femme fatale, and a larger-than-life villain’s lair . . . three years before James Bond debuted in theaters.

The film marked Hitchcock’s fifth collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann, one of the most influential director-composer pairings in movie history—and it was actually Hermann who introduced Hitch to his friend, screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who went on to adapt West Side Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the screen). Hitch initially hired Lehman to adapt the seaborne thriller novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare, but they scrapped that in favor of Lehman’s desire to write an original story. The director had been envisioning a chase atop Mount Rushmore, and he also recalled an idea given to him by a journalist about a spy agency creating a fictional decoy. The two brainstormed other images and story ideas that would make for the ultimate Hitchcock film—including a dagger murder at the U.N. headquarters—and the inventive result ultimately earned Lehman an Oscar nomination.

Herrmann had just given Hitchcock’s much gloomier Vertigo its sensually spiraling music—and there are certainly elements of that same coiling, minimalist mystery in North by Northwest—but what really sets this score apart is the mechanism Herrmann puts into motion in the overture. Saul Bass’s vivid title sequence features credits sliding up and down a New York City high-rise, and a studio executive asked Herrmann to evoke Manhattan by way of Gershwin. The iconoclastic composer instead conceived of a “kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango designed to kick off the exciting rout which follows,” evoking “the crazy dance about to take place between Cary Grant and the world.” The wild rhythms and hurtling melody fragments mirror the elevated heart rate and bewilderment of Roger Thornhill as he drunkenly struggles to maintain control of his runaway car, flees the scene of a framed murder, and finally scrambles across South Dakota’s iconic monument in the film’s spectacular climax. The spirit of the whole film—ever dangerous, but always fun—is embodied in this dominant dance.

Herrmann paints the sinister machinations of Mason’s Phillip Vandamm and his cronies with low, swirling storm clouds of strings and the distinctive contrabassoon (a favorite of the composer’s). Eve’s entrance, forty-five minutes into the film, introduces her theme: a bittersweet yet seductive melody for oboe and clarinet. A chugging, locomotive rhythm in the strings motors the love theme along as Eve and Roger trade suggestive remarks on the train. Herrmann takes the melody into darker tunnels once mistrust begins to creep into Roger’s attraction and then as Eve becomes imperiled. That rhythm picks up steam in moments of heightened danger, approaching the manic pace of the fandango, and a staccato motif for braying horns or low winds plays to Roger’s amped-up state. One of the best known action scenes in a Hitchcock movie is the crop duster centerpiece, and Herrmann helped ratchet up the tension . . . by remaining silent. “If you’re a painter, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use black,” he said in 1975. “And that is a sound: black.”

In all of Hitchcock’s films, “there’s an element of romance, and certainly a great deal of tension and anxiety,” said Herrmann’s biographer, Steven C. Smith. “Herrmann himself was a very anxious person. It’s unfortunate that he lived his life in a fairly constant state of tension, and I think he was at his happiest when he was writing and conducting music. Hitchcock knew that Herrmann’s contribution was an enormous part of the films. He gave Herrmann tremendous latitude when it came to writing the scores. He would edit the films to accommodate the scores, in some respects, and he would bring Herrmann to the set. I think it’s fair to say that, unlike the other composers that worked with Hitchcock, Herrmann can be legitimately considered a co-author.”

—Tim Greiving

Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.

(November 2017)