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Fall 2006 Spotlight:
Bernard Herrmann: Musical Genius

by Dylan Jeffrey

After we had read the Harper Lee novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, my 7th grade English teacher showed us the 1962 film version. Our assignment was to contrast the two. I wrote my paper suggesting the only major difference was that the film had a lovely Elmer Bernstein score while the book obviously didn't. This wasn't exactly what the teacher wanted, hoping instead for one of those literature vs. cinema arguements. As every art form has its merits, I've never been too big on that silly hierarchical debate, but one advantage that movies unquestionably have over books is the addition of music.

As a music lover, I feel that music has always been one of the most important elements in cinema, and one that is often overlooked or underappreciated. I'm always disappointed when movie reviews fail to mention a single word about the score - especially vexing when the composer is someone of whom I am a fan. Time and time again I've exclaimed to friends how great a particular film score was, only to hear, "Oh, I didn't notice." Most people hardly pay any attention to the music in movies, dismissing it as mere background (which, admittedly, it often is).

When a score is really superior, however, it can elevate an otherwise so-so piece of entertainment into the realm of cinematic greatness. Just think of Randy Newman's brilliant soundtrack to RAGTIME (1981), an otherwise mediocre Milos Forman film. Or Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN (1949) with its classic zither theme, flawlessly performed by Anton Karas. And, in my opinion, the films of Federico Fellini would lose half their power without the peerless music of Nino Rota; just try to imagine LA DOLCE VITA (1961) without its classic theme song!

A few rare cinematic geniuses don't require the use of music; in fact, many distain its use entirely (e.g., purist Robert Bresson). Others, such as Stanley Kubrick, with his use of Richard Strauss's evocative "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), rely heavily on music to create instant mood or emotion.

Consider, for example, the John Carpenter score for HALLOWEEN (1978), arguably one of the scariest movies ever made. I once did an experiment where I turned off the sound while I watched it and - nothing! Then, when I turned the volume back up, I was immediately terrified. Granted, the music alone isn't enough to instill such terror, but working together with the appropriate imagery, the power of its persuasion is indisputable.

Jim Jarmusch once notes how flat some of the sequences in DOWN BY LAW (1986) felt before he added the John Lurie score, at which point, the film really came to life. And it's hard to imagine his masterpiece, DEAD MAN (1996), without the scorching Neil Young instrumental accompaniment.

While to many people, movie music is nothing more than the modern equivalent of classical music (i.e., boring), the fact is, a good film composer doesn't merely provide background coloring or emotional cues, but can actually enrich the film and compliment the storytelling.

Leading us to look at the career of one of the finest film composers of them all - if not the greatest of all time: Bernard Herrmann.

He began his film career with a masterpiece - Orson Welles's CITIZEN KANE (1941) and ended it with another - Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976). Sandwiched in between were many fruitful collaborations with some of cinema's greatest directors.

Before being lured to Hollywood, Herrmann performed radio "chores" for Welles, composing and conducting incidental music and providing musical cues, such as the dance music that opened the infamous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast. When Welles left New York for Hollywood, he brought with him much of his radio staff (along with his Mercury Theater Players), including Herrmann.

Prior to Herrmann's work on CITIZEN KANE (1941), most film scores were fairly simple and standard. KANE sought to raise the bar in virtually every facet of filmmaking, and the musical score was no exception; Herrmann jumped at the chance to offer something different and special. Cited as one of the first musical scores to guide viewers along emotionally (instead of the usual one or two main themes), Herrmann's music employed several different compositions, some dark and dramatic, some quiet and mournful, and others spritely and joyful. He especially delighted in creating the fake opera in which Kane's wife Susan Alexander sings, a wonderful example of how music can be used to heighten the emotional effect of the imagery.

Welles sought Herrmann's services again for his second feature, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). Less audacious but more satisfying to this viewer, Herrmann's achingly beautiful score is one of his finest, in my opinion. Seeped in wistful melancholy, the music in the first half of the film is utterly charming, with plaintive harp and violin; the tragic second half turns to the use of ominous, heavy brasses.

Herrmann spent the next decade scoring dozens of genre pictures, including dramas (ON DEADLY GROUND), fantasies (JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH), romantic comedies (THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR) and sci-fi (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL), some memorable, others not. His most productive and rewarding period began with his noteworthy collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, the director with whom he is most frequently associated.

Their work together began with THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955), whose oboe- and bassoon-laden main title theme remains the most delightful and "bouncy" of Herrmann's oeuvre. On the other hand, some of his contributions to Hitchcock films were rather limited; THE WRONG MAN (1957), for example, didn't utilize much of his talent, and THE BIRDS (1963), whose soundtrack is composed exclusively of electronic bird noises, credits Herrmann only as a "technical advisor." And in Hitch's later version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1955), the credits merely read "music scored by Bernard Herrmann." Hitch makes up for this, I suppose, by featuring Herrmann in a clever cameo as the orchestra conductor in the Albert Hall finale; the composer's actual musical contribution is unfortunately overshadowed by Doris Day's syrupy rendering of the popular (and Oscar-winning) song, "Que Sera, Sera."

Herrmann's most famous score - and perhaps the one he is most associated with - was written for PSYCHO (1960); the shrieking violins of the shower scene are particularly memorable. (Incidentally, this was one scene in which Hitchcock initially didn't want any music. Herrmann ignored Hitch's wishes and scored the scene anyway; the rest is history.) Equally brilliant is the score for VERTIGO (1958), whose opening credit sequence - Herrmann's haunting, lush music paired with designer Saul Bass's swirling psychedelic animations - is about as beautiful and exquisite as is humanly possible. And later, in the psychological thriller MARNIE (1964), Herrmann continued to develop the rich, sumptuous romanticism which seems to underscore the displaced sexual obsessions of his director perfectly.

Sadly, the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership turned sour during the completion of TORN CURTAIN (1966). Either the studio or Hitch himself turned down Herrmann's music as "too old-fashioned," prefering something more "commercial." In addition, Hitchcock was incensed over a scene - the murder of the KGB agent out in the farmhouse - during which he wanted no musical distraction. (As with PSYCHO, Herrmann again disobeyed and set the scene to music). This time the music was vetoed and Herrmann was fired. The composer was, by all accounts, devastated, and reportedly the two men never spoke again.

Yet, despite a bruised reputation, Herrmann's career was far from over. He next worked with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut on the film FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966) and then again on THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968), a noirish thriller with a distinctively Hitchcockian feeling. Later he worked with Brian De Palma on SISTERS (1973) and OBSESSION (1975), and his soundtracks are perhaps the only worthwhile contribution to these otherwise mediocre ripoffs of the great Hitchcock's work.

Unfortunately, the downward trend begun with DePalma would continue throughout the early 70s, as Herrmann composed for lurid horror films well beneath his talents (but all worth seeing just for the music). Even a slight piece of cheap exploitation like IT'S ALIVE (1974) received a musical score far too cool for this typical run-of-the-mill horror genre flick.

By the time Martin Scorses came knocking with TAXI DRIVER (1976), Herrmann was ready to call it quits and initially turned the director down. But Marty wouldn't take no for an answer and, persuading Herrmann to take a look at a rough cut, arranged a screening. The composer was sufficiently blown away by what he saw to dash off an appropriately dark and moody score. It would be a fitting finale to a tremendous career.

Truly one of the musical giants of the film world, Herrmann helped to elevate the film score into an art unto itself, and his influence continues to be felt today. Just listen to Alberto Iglesias's work in BAD EDUCATION (2004), or Charles Band's heavily imitative REANIMATOR (1985) - borderline plagiarism! Minimalist composer Philip Glass seems to have lifted his entire career from Herrmann's main title theme to Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959); Glass's debt to the great Herrmann is especially evident in his score for Godfrey Reggio's mind-bending KOYANNISQATSI (1983).

And, as a final testament to Herrmann's brilliance, when Martin Scorsese made his own version of CAPE FEAR (1991), he simply reused the composer's original film score, written in 1961!

It's hard to improve on the work of a master, much less a genius.