Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (’59) is a breezy entertainment compared to the obsessive moods of Vertigo and shocking horror of Psycho, but it’s still a masterpiece of suspense with a riveting score by Herrmann. The composer started work on it right after scoring the pilot episode of TV’s The Twilight Zone. As was his practice, he wrote the score by hand, from beginning to end based on roughly sketched motifs. The sinister fandango theme music that opens the film, and ends without resolution, is melodically memorable and rhythmically invigorating. According to musicologist Christopher Husted, who wrote the booklet notes for the Rhino Records edition of the soundtrack, Herrmann claimed to have been inspired to use Latin American rhythms by star Cary Grant’s “Astaire-like agility.” Elsewhere, Herrmann uses popular melodies (“In the Still of the Night” and “It’s a Most Unusual Day”) to reinforce the romantic under current. The film’s love theme — a lyrical duet between clarinet and oboe — uses propulsive rhythms played on strings to suggest the steady forward momentum of train carrying Grant and Eva Marie Saint toward their shared destiny. The score has its share of ominous (“Kidnapped”) and thrilling sections (“On the Rocks”) wherein Herrmann combines swirling strings, stabbing winds and brass, and pulse-pounding percussion.
– from Chapter 6: A Fearful Earful of Kristopher Spencer’s Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979