Bernard Herrmann at Film Forum (Oct 21 – Nov 3)

by on October 19, 2011Posted in: Essay


LET’S CONDUCT a thought experiment: what do you hear when you see the name Bernard Herrmann? The low, sleeping-beast woodwinds that signal the eminent death of Charles Foster Kane? The Irish horn-fiddle-cymbal flourishes that slice through The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)? The otherworldly, quivering theremin that hovers over The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)? You might need to struggle to piece together more than bits of those scores, but I’m guessing that you could probably notate almost all of Herrmann’s black-and-white strings for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or the sprightly anxiety of his score for North by Northwest (1959). Even the disturbingly sexy opening theme of Marnie (1964), with its straight-ahead male horn thrust (Yes, Marnie, yes!) and its ascending-descending female squeal of strings (No, Mark, no!).


The romantic maximalism of Herrmann’s style was too grand for realist dramas or comedies. He is most at home in subjective psychological states and non-naturalistic dreamscapes where he liked to find a certain groove or melody or rhythm, repeat it, then repeat it with a slight variation. Herrmann had almost no sense of humor. “It was ridiculous!” Hermann cried when his composer friend Elmer Bernstein spoke admiringly of Richard Rodney Bennett’s cheerful, stately train departure theme for Murder on the Orient Express (1974). “That train was a train of death!” As Bernstein explained, “He was very intense. That’s the way he saw things. If he would have done it, it would have been a train of death.”



HERRMANN WAS A PROUD MAN—cantankerous, abrasive, often hated but always respected—and he built a reputation as someone who was difficult to get along with. “Why do you show me this garbage?” he would snap in screening rooms at studio executives who wanted a score from him. Herrmann was free with insults and had exacting standards for his musicians, but his film music peer Miklós Rózsa said, “only his friends know that under a crusty and often forbidding façade a warm, friendly and generous heart was hiding.” Why did this generous heart feel the need to hide? And why was Herrmann so persistently drawn to the brooding, the romantic, the obsessive? “My feelings and yearnings are those of a composer of the 19th century,” he wrote to his wife Lucille Fletcher in 1947. “I am completely out of step with the present.”


He insisted on doing his own orchestrations, and this control over the technical execution of his work is essential to his artistry. Much of Herrmann’s musical impact lies in the subtle colorations of a theme as it is dynamically developed across instrumental sections, as if the recording studio were transformed into a kind of echo chamber where instruments volley questions and answers and sometimes attack each another. As a maker of musical forms, Herrmann bridges the gap between the endlessly prolonged, epic fluidity of Wagner and the dogged minimalism of Philip Glass, where the changing of one note in a repeated phase has all the force of a slap in the face or an unmanageable blow to the psyche. This opening-credits suite for The Kentuckian (1955) is a stark example of Herrmann’s principle of repetition at work. Note how the repeated motif incrementally gathers force, its resolution suspended until the thin, clear note that fades away just before the end:


SOME OF HIS MUSIC is profoundly sensual, even gentle, but beware the crash of his cymbals, the furious crescendos and decrescendos up and down the musical scale like great orchestral waves traveling up and down our spines and mucking around with our nerve endings. His main thematic focus was on romantic obsessions, which are mainly made up of the tireless going over of the beloved in physical and sensory detail: the sections of a body, the intonation of a voice, the endless interrogation of offhand behavior: “What did he mean by that smile?” or “Was she subtly mocking me with that compliment?” Over and over it goes in romantic obsessions, like a movie that we can screen again and again, like a Herrmann score that builds and builds to a height that needs to be the breaking point but never quite is.


Sometimes a small film like Blue Denim (1959) or The Night Digger (1971) can’t handle Herrmann’s instinctive grandiosity, so that his music in those movies is like a cannon firing on a dandelion, but for Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann dependably gave these major directors more than they could have dared to hope for or dream of–and these were men who were huge, impossible dreamers. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a sleepy little love story, not bad but really nothing special, yet Herrmann’s music for it single-handedly turns it into a moving, even essential romance. It was his favorite of his own scores, and it reveals just what a softie he really was. Listen to the thunderous male crescendos and the plucked, plaintive female strings; hear how they gradually merge and try not to get goose-pimply or teary-eyed:



THE ESSENCE OF HERRMANN is to repeat, to return to, and the technical musical term is “ostinato,” which in Italian means “stubborn” or “obstinate.” Over the course of his career there emerged a certain kind of obsessive, stalking, blond-crazed, ostinato Bernard Herrmann man. Tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles) sweeps up blond Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) in Citizen Kane (1941), forcing her to appear in operas for which her thin singing voice is inadequate. Welles asked Herrmann to write a pastiche of “a typical Mary Garden vehicle,” in other words, a virtuosic operatic part for a show-off soprano in which poor Susan’s failure would be most spectacular. Herrmann obliged with the aria for a fictitious opera, Salammbo, with an upsurge to lots of held high notes. At her disastrous debut, Kane stands and applauds for Susan by himself after a polite ovation has died down; he’s a tyrant whose own self-loathing reaches expression with contemptuous applause for his puppet mistress.


Herrmann obsessiveness took its first turn into outright psychosis in Hangover Square (1945), where a shrill flute on the soundtrack signals the moments when composer George Harvey Bone (the alarming Laird Cregar) feels the urge to kill. Herrmann was given the chance to write a concerto for Bone to be played on screen, and he called it the “Concerto Macabre.” With its percussive piano chords, its brutish decrescendos, and its grotesque evocation of mental disorder, this concerto is a complete and detailed musical reckoning of wounded male ego and sexual pathology, and the scene where it is played in the film is very juicily directed by the underrated John Brahm:



To paraphrase Scottie (James Stewart) in the second scene of Vertigo, Herrmann’s music goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down. The rhythm is sexual, like plunging waves, or the plunging of a knife into skin; he so often wrote megalomaniac musical panic attacks. He would use any and every instrument at his command to make us feel anxiety as intensely as possible. Robert Ryan in Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951) is another Herrmann man sick with ingrowing lust, sadism and smelly yet chaste self-disgust. Look at all the instruments at work here in this playing of Herrmann’s “Death Hunt” theme from that movie, all those sawing strings and delirious “keep going!” French horns:



After the Ray film, Herrmann marked time a bit before his all-important collaboration with Hitchcock, which began on The Trouble with Harry (1955), a first assignment so tricky that it almost feels like a test for Herrmann that he passes with flying colors. His first Hitch score catches both the film’s dry humor and its understated reach for profundity, light and dark alternating, the calling and answering that Herrmann was so skilled at. It’s even a bit Richard Strauss-like in its galumphing high spirits, proving that Herrmann at his lightest is still extremely Germanic. Listen here.


After playing the the conductor who presides over the climactic performance of Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Clouds Cantata” in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Hermann spread his wings for the Stork Club theme of Hitch’s remorselessly depressing The Wrong Man (1956), which sounds to me like a samba to have a nervous breakdown to:



Vertigo (1958) is as much the height of Herrmann’s art as it is Hitchcock’s, and the film is unimaginable without Herrmann’s score. Here’s the credits music and the rooftop chase music. The 1-2-3 main theme is hellishly repeated with horn blares, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Madness is numbers, and music is numbers, and madness is music, the music that will lead Stewart’s Scottie down all those dark paths hanging onto roofs, jumping into bays, and intuiting that San Francisco is a surreal city where the dead might speak to the living:



Watching the film again, I noticed just how much organ Herrmann uses in Vertigo , for the organ is the music of the Catholic church, and this is a very Catholic movie, nearly flooded with guilt and remorse. The “Madeleine” love theme of Vertigo is the opposite of the staccato 1-2-3 of the credits. It goes 1-2-3-4, 1-2-2-2-3-4, shyly but persistently, expressing a loss too painful to be named. Sometimes the third note, the “3,” will be played slightly higher for a particularly heart-piercing effect.



LIKE CITIZEN KANE, Vertigo is a film about failure. My first instinct is to say that this emphasis on failure feels very un-American, but what does it say about us that these two films are always being voted the best that have ever been made? Kane is served discreetly by Herrmann, with 1940s-style punctuation of certain moments; fine as the music is, it’s still basically a score that knows its place as the servant of Welles and his images. Whereas Vertigo is a film ravished and defined by its music, so much so that I can imagine the film ending with the scene where poor Judy Barton (Kim Novak) walks out of a green-glowing bathroom to Scottie all dressed up as the dead woman Madeleine she playacted too well for him. They share a triumphant kiss where Herrmann’s music crashes up to a relieved height that both cradles them in their mutual romantic sickness and also sees the full irony of their position.


There is a brutal self-destructiveness at the heart of Wagner’s music that glories in self-sacrifice. For Herrmann, self-destructiveness is a disease and his music for Vertigo is in some ways a repudiation of Wagner, particularly Tristan and Isolde. Herrmann’s favorite novel was Wuthering Heights, and he wrote an opera based on the book that was never produced in his lifetime. “I am Heathcliff,” Cathy says of her lover in Wuthering Heights, and of course Scottie is Madeleine, too, since Judy’s breathy-voiced Madeleine doesn’t even really exist except as a shared delusion. Herrmann was a smart enough man to flesh out the full awfulness of Scottie’s situation musically (listen to those castanets as the cartoon flowers fly apart in the nightmare montage!), but he was also enough of a romantic inside to know just how attractive such awfulness can be.


Novak’s Judy has a theme here, too, but it isn’t the 1-2-3-4 of Madeleine. Judy’s strings are messy, all over the place, hard to define. Herrmann fully understands our longing for Madeleine, but his own heart, his own secret identification musically, is with Judy. Herrmann was Jewish, and I feel that Judy probably is, too. Like her, he says, alright, you want this WASP dream woman, you can have her, but she’s a fake, and I’m right here, underneath. Can’t you love me? Leave the theater, Scottie, and stop buying a ticket to this movie. But Scottie can’t help himself. Tellingly, when he denounces Judy in the last sequence, Herrmann doesn’t have any music at all under Scottie’s words. He stays silent, out of respect for Judy and the dreams that she herself is losing.



AFTER THIS TOUR-DE-FORCE, Herrmann was right at home with the “keep going, keep going” Madison Avenue hustle and bustle of the graphic line credits of North by Northwest, and he lets the famous scene where Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is chased by a crop duster in an empty, sun-blasted field play out in silence. When Hitchcock first showed Psycho (1960) to Herrmann, he told the composer that he didn’t want any music under the shower murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), but Herrmann could sense Hitch’s uncertainty. They were wary friends at this point in their collaboration, and so Herrmann tried something out, those nightmare “Reek! Reek! Reek!” strings as she gets stabbed, then just the sound of rushing water after her body collapses on the tile. Herrmann supervised the sound of the electronic flaps and screeches of The Birds (1963), and then he gave his whole musical soul to Marnie, his last released score for Hitch, with the aforementioned Sean Connery-horn flares followed by the Tippi Hedren-frightened strings, and then Marnie’s own lush, complex theme, which yearningly goes, 1, 1-2, 1-2-3-4-5-6, like two short intakes of breath followed by a long sigh. It serves as a tribute to a pitiably damaged but still smart, funny and resourceful heroine, and it marks Herrmann’s second-best score for Hitch:



Hitchcock was pressing Herrmann now for a more commercial score, something preferably with a pop song attached, but the composer was unable or unwilling to comply, and so he was fired from Torn Curtain (1966). If you listen to the music Herrmann wrote for that movie, under the opening scenes especially, the film becomes much more evocative and intriguing, though still not anywhere remotely near Hitch’s previous high standard (John Addison’s score for the film is in no way negligible, but its James Bond-style apings cannot compete with Herrmann’s stately menace).



HERRMANN SPENT a few years feeling neglected until a new generation of cinephile filmmakers took him up. He was employed by Brian De Palma for two Hitchcockian movies, Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976), and he died right after finishing his score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), in many ways a bold step in a new direction. This music showed the influence of Miles Davis in the melodic love theme and a broken-down simplicity throughout, for Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a harrowingly simple man. He’s the sort of guy who might have tried to assassinate Charles Foster Kane, yet he is tied to the newspaper tycoon by his fatal love for blond Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a frosty winner defined by her relationship to the media, a girl who is as far from the helpless Susan Alexander and the manipulated Judy Barton as you can get.


Again, Herrmann joined forces with a film that was subjective and non-naturalistic. Who else but this composer would have thought to use a harp on the soundtrack after Travis has slaughtered several men? There’s even some light piano on the end credits. Herrmann shied away from the piano usually, and he used that instrument like a drum for his “Concerto Macabre,” but maybe he felt he had earned a little piano consolation by this point. His music is now played in concert halls the world over, and that’s as it should be, but his real achievement must be experienced in the dark, on a large screen, ostinato-fashion, re-played over and over and over again, without remorse, without pride, without relief.



Dan Callahan is a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.


“Bernard Herrmann” is playing at Film Forum, October 21st to November 3rd.

  • Very nice piece, Dan. I first became aware of Herrmann as a serious artist back in 1961 as a fellow student at Communist Martyrs High (aka. The High School of Music and Art) was over the moon about him. He was especially besotted with Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

    I rate The Ghost and Mrs. Muir a lot higher than you do. But then I love Mankiewicz (an acquired taste I’ve discovered.)

    Oh and you forgot his Truffaut scores! The Bride Wore Black is minor but effective bit of dark fun. Fahrenheit 451 however is MAJOR.

    God (aka. Stephen Sondheim) was overwlemed by the score for Hangover Square — which he saw as a kid. There was one shot where you see hte composer hero/villian’s score on a music stand and he went back to see it over and over trying to copy it out — whcih is what one had to do in the pre home video era. He wrote Bennie a fan letter and to his delight discovered he was living in Bennie’s old neighborhood. Steve’s major tribute to Bennie is of course Sweeney Todd — which “samples” Hangover Square at several points.  

    Bennie’s best friend as a kid was my favorite communist auteur Abraham Polansky. They met, Abe told me, on the front stoop of Abe’s building. “Hey,”said Abe,” You wanna be my friend?” “Yeah sure” — said Bennie. And that was that.

  • Mankiewicz interests me, but more his middle and later films than the early ones. I think Herrmann himself wasn’t happy with some of the cuts Truffaut made to his “Bride Wore Black” score, but the score for “Fahrenheit” is terrific.

    I’m glad Sondheim was inspired by “Hangover Square”—that whistle that blows periodically in “Sweeney Todd” is very like the one that makes Cregar kill in the film. I’m also in love with Patrick Hamilton’s original novel.

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