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NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Classic Hitchcock begat classic Herrmann, now given ultimate album presentation
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2007 Masters Film Music; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest is one of his most entertaining movies, a perfect blend of espionage thrills and stylish wit, bolstered by one of the great screenplays, by Ernest Lehmann. The cast couldn't be better - Cary Grant gives the performance of his life as Roger O. Thornhill ("the O stands for nothing"), Eva Marie Saint is the beautiful Hitchcock blonde and James Mason as compelling as ever as the bad guy. The film was made at the height of Hitchcock's collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann - in between two films and scores usually given more attention, Vertigo and Psycho - and to me represents both of them at their peak.
There had been two previous CD releases of North by Northwest's music - first, a re-recording conducted by Laurie Johnson not long after Herrmann's death, which was excellent but omitted a lot of important music; and then the original tracks were released by Rhino, in a release whose motives couldn't have been better but which was marred by atrocious sound quality, particularly (if not unpredictably) in some of the most important cues. Now, a re-recording of the complete score, released (surprisingly) in limited edition format by the Varese Sarabande CD Club, with Joel McNeely conducting the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra.
The score is built up from a few themes, most famously the fandango which serves as the "Overture" and which appears on all the Herrmann compilation albums. What separates the great film composers from the good is the ability to do the unexpected and make it work - and using a Spanish dance as the main theme from a spy thriller which is entirely and uniquely American would sound like madness, but it works brilliantly. Effortlessly exciting, full of movement, with a bustling rhythm, it fits the film like a glove, especially over the famous Mount Rushmore climax.
"Conversation Piece" introduces the romantic theme, slightly ironic in its old-fashioned nature - nothing in the film is what it seems, and Herrmann adds to the sense of uncertainty with a theme which is both beautiful and intoxicating - and with an inescapable tongue-in-cheek sensibility. Its title would actually make for a telling epithet for the nature of the score as a whole, large parts of which are constructed as conversations between different orchestral sections, with McNeely noting the difficulties this brought to him as conductor since frequently the conversation isn't taking place across bars, but across beats. Herrmann presumably intended this as a means of matching the smart dialogue, which is so very witty, as much as it was simply an interesting compositional exercise; both of those purposes (if they were indeed so) are delivered with typical panache.
The other two main recurring themes are not so well-known, but still worthy of attention. "The Streets", associated with the various urgent travelling Grant's character undergoes, introduces a simple little urgent motif from which Herrmann extracts his usual bewilderingly large array of material. Then there's a theme ostensibly associated with the villains of the piece, heard most fully in "The Cafeteria", which recalls a very similar theme in On Dangerous Ground; it's menacing, but retains the slightly light air that pervades the entire score and lends it a rare quality.
McNeely handles the score perfectly. Of course, he has recorded numerous Herrmann scores before for this label, but this is the first time the recording dynamic has been quite so up-front and film-like. The Slovakian musicians perform without problem; and the liner notes by producer Robert Townson, reconstructor Christopher Husted and conductor McNeely are interesting and entertaining. This is one of the finest film score re-recordings there has been; and not only that, it's one of the finest film scores to have been re-recorded. Don't wait around for this one.