"Extremely Distasteful"

I've never particularly cared for Hitchcock. The films are quite entertaining as such but afterwards one inevitably gets an empty, almost nauseating feeling; just like after having eaten something dodgy or read a Christie novel. There's something off, there's something fundamental lacking; they both have this frighteningly chilly core at the centre of their art, this inhuman vacuum where a human soul of some description ought to reside.

However, I do love a few Hitchcock movies. Psycho. Vertigo. North by Northwest. It took me long while to see just what it was that made me adore these films in particular, even view them as masterpieces. Then the obvious suddenly struck me: Bernard Herrmann.

It's Herrmann's music that transforms these movies into gripping cinematic experiences and singular works of art.

Herrmann (born in 1911) was a native New Yorker and attended New York University and the Juilliard School. He was a member of Aaron Copland's circle and tried his hand at composing, writing his first dramatic score at 22, La Belle Dame sans Merci. In the early '30s he joined the CBS orchestra as a conductor and avidly performed new and unknown works. Like those of Charles Ives, who was still alive at the time and whom he soon befriended. Ives was at this point in time almost entirely unplayed and quite unknown. Certainly nobody had any idea he was the greatest composer the United States had produced - still is - and the New World's equivalent of Arnold Schönberg. Herrmann understood it.

CBS also broadcast a lot of radio plays, like those put on by the Mercury Theatre and the Campbell Playhouse, both of which operated under the auspices of that controversial theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles. The radio plays of course needed music. Herrmann suplied it. He conducted the music for Welles's best known and most poignant radio play The War of the Worlds in 1938 and scored many other productions. It naturally befell Hermann to score Welles's first venture into the world of cinema, an almost forgotten little effort called Citizen Kane.He also did the score for The Magnificent Ambersons but pulled it when the studio in a dastardly fashion slaughtered the film in Welles's absence. A few bits of it remain in the carnage that the studio released, much against Herrmann's wishes.

After that there was no turning back. In the '40s he scored Robert Stevens's Jane Eyre (with Joan Fontaine in the title role and Welles as the dark and brooding Rochester), John Brahm's Hangover Square (with Laird Cregar and George Sanders), John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam (with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison) and Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs Muir (with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison). Among his highlights in the '50s were the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (by Robert Wise), Mankiewicz's spy thriller 5 Fingers (with James Mason and Danielle Darrieux), Henry King's Hemingway picture The Snows of Kimanjaro (with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner), and Michael Curtiz's Mika Waltari epic The Egyptian (with Peter Ustinov and Gene Tierney).

In 1955 the collaboration with Hitchcock started with The Trouble With Harry and the following year he did both the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man. Then it came: the truly unsurpassed masterpieces - Vertigo in 1958 and North by Northwest in 1959. Then Psycho in 1960 and J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear in 1962.

The collaboration with Hitchcock ended in 1964 and Torn Curtain. Hitchcock wanted a jazz and pop influenced score, Herrmann wanted to do it his own way. Like always. He would not be dictated to. If he couldn't do it exactly like he wanted, if he wasn't in total control of the music and in on the making of the movie from the word go, then he didn't want to do it. Quite sensibly, I might add. Hitchcock and Herrmann parted on not too amicable terms. After Hitchcock Herrmann did write a couple of important scores but the entire industry was changing and not all for the better. He wrote the scores for Fahrenheit 451 (1966, based on the Bardbury novel) and The Bride Wore Black (1968, based on the Cornell Woolrich novel) for Truffaut and Taxi Driver (1976) for Martin Scorcese. He died just a few hours after having finished recording the soundtrack for Taxi Driver.

I have a particular fondness for North by Northwest. Maybe there we have the finest film music he wrote. Or even: the finest film music ever written. The fandango that begins the film is right on the money and let's us know the name of the game at once. It's repetitive, simple, obsessive and frustrating. The effect is at the same time both dizzying and hypnotic. It's like we're in this spinning carousel and can't get off. In Psycho there are the unforgettable stabbing pizzicati and screeching birdlike violins. And again the repetition: the anxiety and the frustration grow and grow till we can no longer bear it. The it starts anew. There can be no solace. Something bad is about to happen, every note is a harbinger of doom. Nothing can avert the evil. It is like the rain in the driving scene: all-permeating and absolute. We can do nothing but await its coming and accept it when it does come.

What Herrmann realised is that film music doesn't have to be complex or stand on its own two feet. What is needed is impact. This is more often than not acheived by doing quite simple things. But doing them just at the right time. And repetition is the key - breaking down the viewer's every last resistance.

Herrmann goes for the gut reaction and by Jove he gets it.

In Vertigo we have the haunting Tristan like theme that keeps repeating itself and the frustration keeps building. It's never in the pictures or the lines - it's all in the music. This is probably something of which Hitchcock was acutely aware and disliked immensely. It has been suggested that a great part in the rift between Hitchcock and Herrmann was played by the possible fact that Hitchcock on some level, subliminal or not, resented the immense impact Herrmann had on his movies.

Herrmann's second unsurpassed masterpiece is the score of Cape Fear. The theme is simplicity itself. And it spells doom. It never relents, it never gives up, it never goes away. It immediately goes for the jugular. Four chords that keep on repeating. And repeating. And repeating. Till the bitter end. Right from the first note we know it's going to be a tragedy of epic Greek proportions with proper carnage. It can end only in cathartic death. But in a Herrmann score not even death brings us an escape from the frustration and anxiety he's built up. There is no escape. There is no relief. Not in the movie, not in life.

The last work, Taxi Driver, is a departure from the usual Herrmann. The jazzy score is softer, moodier, less anxious and neurotic. But again he unerringly captures not only the mood but the essence of the film - the hopeless cosmic loneliness of Travis Bickle. The music insulates him from the rest of humanity. They cannot hear it nor understand it just like they cannot understand or connect with him. The saxophone plays only for him. He's alone.

The title of this entry comes from a letter Herrmann wrote to his first wife, the author Lucille Fletcher (who wrote the briliant radio play Sorry, Wrong Number, which later was made into not quite as brilliant a movie with Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck): "I entered into work that was extremely distasteful to me . . . I never had time for my own reflection and work . . ." According to Lucille he wanted to be a conductor and conduct those pieces of music by Ives and Bartok and the other big boys he truly loved. He wrote one symphony, one opera and a cantata dedicated to Ives.

So this is his tragedy. He didn't really want to be a composer of film music at all. It's just that he was so incredibly good at it, so exceptional. He might have become a conductor of note - but we have those. We have many many brilliant conductors. We have no other film composer like Herrmann. Not even close.

Herrmann's only screen appearance is in The Man Who Knew Too Much. The scene takes place in Albert Hall and in it Herrmann plays - a conductor.

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