- The Dance of Suspense:Sound and Silence in North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock has been frequently commended by critics for the purposeful, intuitive, and effective use of music in his films. Recently, significant attention has been given to his use of music as an integral component of film's narrative structure. This renewed focus is due, in large part, to the popular and critical success of Jack Sullivan's Hitchcock's Music (2006), a book focusing solely on this aspect of the director's considerable artistry. Further illumination and explication of the contributions made by composer Bernard Herrmann to one of Hitchcock's most critically acclaimed films, North by Northwest, will encourage additional consideration of the subtle and intricate role of music in film.
In an interview with Steven Watts early in his career, Hitchcock expressed his intrigue with the possibilities of using music in ways that were more subtle and persuasive than the few uses traditionally assigned to music—for example, "numbers" in film musicals or the slow, sappy music used for love scenes (242). He recognized the psychological potential of music to reveal a character's true feelings when words were not enough, to establish a mood or ambiance for a scene, to anticipate events, and to increase excitement. This appreciation for and emphasis on film music was, ironically, an outgrowth of his experiences with silent filmmaking. He explained to Watts, "One of the greatest emotional factors in the silent cinema was the musical accompaniment" (242).
His appreciation for the power of music compelled Hitchcock to employ well-known, serious composers to create the scores for his pictures, especially after his arrival in America in 1940. Unlike most film directors, Hitchcock was known to work closely with his composers, often providing them with "detailed, sometimes witty music notes" before the scoring even began (Sullivan xvi). The director also made a practice of consulting with his composers during filming and made specific suggestions, providing close direction, during the actual scoring process. Hitchcock sometimes insisted on certain sounds or types of music for his scores, but he was willing to entertain suggestions from his composers—in the case of Psycho (1960), famously acceding to Bernard Herrmann's insistence on scoring the shower-murder scene, which the director had originally intended to be silent.
Hitchcock was interested in incorporating up-to-date popular music, when appropriate. He eschewed the stuffy, culturally snobbish attitude held by some filmmakers and studios that all film music must be composed for and performed by an orchestra. Also unlike his contemporaries, he expressed his belief in the power of silence and indicated that the presence of music could be used to maximize the power of silence. "Silence is often very effective," he told Watts in 1933, "and its effect is heightened by the proper handling of the music before [End Page 53] and after" (242). These concepts—the primary importance of incorporating scores by contemporary art-music composers as well as the judicious use of popular music and silence—inform the music of North by Northwest (1959), one of Hitchcock's greatest comedy-thrillers.
North by Northwest was Hitchcock's fourth and final project with Cary Grant, and it emerged as "Hitchcock's grand summation of every 'wrong man' thriller" (Smith 226). The film was nominated for five Academy Awards but did not win in any of its categories. The score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Hitchcock on a total of eight films; North by Northwest was the fifth Hitchcock-Herrmann project. According to Jack Sullivan, "the composer and director were both at the top of their game" at the outset of this endeavor (235). The score wasn't Herrmann's only contribution to this particular film, however. During one of their previous collaborations, Herrmann had introduced Hitchcock to his friend Ernest Lehman, a screenwriter whose previous successes included Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954) and The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956). Within a year, Hitchcock had negotiated with the studio to get Lehman assigned to his next project, and their partnership resulted in the screenplay for North by Northwest.
Herrmann's portentous introduction to film composition was the creation...