03 Nov

North by Northwest

By  Robert Walton
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(Bernard Herrmann)
Main Title analysed by Robert Walton

One of the most memorable tension-ridden moments in cinema history has got to be the nail-biting sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when Cary Grant was chased by a crop-dusting aeroplane on prairie wasteland. There was no music during this segment and apart from sudden spurts of sound from the aeroplane, silence reigned. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to.

However it’s the opening of the film I’d like to concentrate on. Although originally Spanish (there is a school of thought that says it’s of South American origin), the “fandango” became one of the main dances of Portugal in alternating 3/4 and 6/8 time, danced to the accompaniment of singing, castanets and guitar. Originating in the 18th century, it’s similar in rhythm to the bolero but different in style as it is designed to be danced. Basically it’s an exuberant courtship dance of Moorish origin and survives to this day as a folk dance in Spain, Portugal, southern France and Latin America. The fandango was first used by Gluck in his ballet Don Juan (1761), then by Mozart in The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Rimsky-Korsakov in his Caprice Espagnol (1887).

In my view, the fandango was never used to such great effect as in the opening of the 1959 film North by Northwest. The main title music is a ‘kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango designed to kick-start the exciting routine’. Saul Bass’ opening design intersecting horizontal and oblique lines, melts into a Washington cityscape with a ‘crazy dance about to take place between Cary Grant and the world’. Bernard Herrmann employs it for no other reason, than its propulsive rhythm, reminding one of Fred Astaire. The movie is sometimes called a comedy-thriller with reference perhaps to the springy rhythm and harsh brilliance of the orchestral sonority.

The dance is a recurrent musical symbol continuing behind Grant’s crazy-drunk drive along the cliff edge and ending up in a three-car pile-up. Then we hear a crestfallen, grotesquely scored version of the dance, especially at the time of Townsend’s assassination.

The most elaborately choreographed scene is the pursuit and the fight to the death on top of the National Monument on Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. At this point the dance assumes an appropriately black-veiled character in the scoring, but as the pace quickens it energizes the ending in its brazen and glittering main title guise. When Grant is first shown Eva Marie Saint’s table in the train’s restaurant car, “lift” music in piped form is being played. Gradually though it reverts to Herrmann’s background score with a telling clarinet solo. But we mustn’t forget another burst of dance, which completes the picture as the train carrying Grant and Saint disappears into the tunnel.

The fandango will never be quite the same again!

Original Motion Picture Scores
Brandenburgische Philharmonie Potsdam
Capriccio 10 469

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1 comment

  • Jim Stokes posted by Jim Stokes Monday, 05 November 2018 11:45

    Outstanding article! Thanks for sharing! BTW, the movie had some existing production library cues, too.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.