Friday, November 24, 2017


On Friday, December 1 and Saturday, December 2, The San Francisco Symphony will present the Alfred Hitchcock blockbuster, North by Northwest (1959), featuring Bernard Herrmann's iconic score, in evening performances at Davies Symphony Hall. As with all SFS film series presentations, North by Northwest will be screened with its score scrubbed from the soundtrack and instead performed live by the symphony orchestra.

North by Northwest was one of Hitchcock's biggest hits. It's the film that put the exclamation point on the end of his amazing run of Technicolor classics of the 1950s, and is the movie Cary Grant once said was the one his fans mentioned most often as their favorite. The film garnered three Academy Award nominations, Ernest Lehman's screenplay is among those listed by the Writers Guild as one of the greatest ever written, and North by Northwest also boasts one of composer Bernard Herrmann's great signature scores.

The symphony's film series presentations are always must-see events. Having had the thrill of watching North by Northwest once before on the big screen, I know that that alone is an exciting experience. But to see a newly-restored print while listening to Herrmann's score performed live by the San Francisco Symphony...well, that will be out of this world. Meanwhile, for an idea of what the big-screen experience of North by Northwest is like (and more), here's some of what I wrote about it in 2011:

"At noon on Sunday, September 5, the Rafael presented North by Northwest as part of its quarterly "Everybody's Classics" series. By 11:40 a.m. the line was long, but good seats were still to be had. By show time Theater 1 was packed and anticipation ran high.

Then Bernard Herrmann's pulsing score began and the crisscrossing lines of Saul Bass's title sequence filled the screen. North by Northwest was upon us and in just a few exhilarating moments I was whisked into the adventure.

Cary Grant - the adventure begins
Possibly Hitchcock's quintessential thrill-ride, North by Northwest incorporates many familiar themes and plot devices - an innocent man accused, a romance complicated by mistrust and betrayal, a double chase (the police after the innocent man and the innocent man after the true villain), a backdrop of international espionage...

North by Northwest has been linked to two of Hitchcock's earlier classics, The 39 Steps (1935) and Notorious (1946), but by 1959 the director, at the height of his powers, was in a position to control just about every aspect of his films, much more so than he had been 10 and 20+ years earlier.

He was able to cast his favorite actor/star, Cary Grant, in the lead. And though he was unsuccessful in enticing Princess Grace back to the screen as his leading lady, he transformed Academy Award-winning method actress Eva Marie Saint into a stunning and complex femme fatale. James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis rounded out his first-rate cast.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, hands on
Bernard Herrmann, who by now had worked with Hitchcock on several films, was just completing the score for the pilot of "The Twilight Zone" when he began North by Northwest. Ernest Lehman wrote the sophisticated and clever script that earned an Oscar nomination. Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert F. Boyle (also Oscar-nominated for this film) and other Hitchcock stalwarts joined in the collaboration.

All of these ingredients plus glorious VistaVision and Technicolor added up to produce one of Hitchcock's most successful and exciting films.

I'd seen North by Northwest on the small screen countless times and felt I knew the film well, but to finally see it on a movie screen was akin to seeing it for the first time.

To begin with, Cary Grant's starpower was almost overpowering - his screen presence was that commanding. What grace, what confidence…and how impossibly handsome he was. It's not surprising that Bernard Herrmann adjusted his score to match what he described as Grant's "Astaire-like agility."

As might be expected, the suspense seemed magnified on a theater screen, and so did everything else - the humor was more direct and the seduction scenes more intense in their intimacy and erotic implications. The film’s pacing is acutely precise – with suspense building to an exquisite pitch, then, at just the right moment, relief - via wit or romance. Then, once more, the suspense begins to build…

Climax of a classic chase scene
The crop-dusting sequence with its truck-in-flames finale and the moonlit chase across the face of Mount Rushmore are striking set-pieces on a screen of any size. Via the big screen I could almost feel the heat of the truck’s explosion and smell South Dakota’s night air. These scenes are legendary and, for obvious reasons, much imitated. The early James Bond films emulate the crop-dusting scene... Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters (1977) includes a well-known homage with its replication of Hitchcock's night-time Black Hills.

Alfred Hitchcock has been widely acknowledged for his matchless ability to maneuver an audience's emotions and point of view with ease, and it's hard to maintain much distance from Hitchcock's best films. This could be why I enjoy the experience of his films as much as I enjoy the exercise of studying them.

As with all Hitchcock films, North by Northwest has a few things going on beneath its slick surface. But last Labor Day weekend, inside a darkened theater filled with laughing, sighing, cheering people, I was a child again for a while. Happily immersed in a suspenseful, clever, sexy adventure, I didn't really notice that, from the first note of Herrmann's score to the final shot of a darkened railroad tunnel, I was being swept along as if aboard a sleek 20th Century Limited under the command of a very crafty locomotive engineer."


For more ticket and other information on the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of North by Northwest on December 1 and 2, click here.


  1. I enjoyed this article very much as you took us on a thrill ride comparable to Hitch's guiding hand on North by Northwest.

    1. That was my experience of the film on the big screen, a fabulous, thrilling ride. Thanks!