Herrmann & Hitchcock: Symphony of Suspense

Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Few collaborations between artists have ever led to as indelible an array of art as the partnership of Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Of course, both men’s careers are legendary on their own terms. Herrmann began his career scoring Orson Welles’s landmark “Citizen Kane” and ended it with Martin Scorsese’s classic, “Taxi Driver,” dying before the film was released and earning two posthumous Oscar nominations in 1976. He was only nominated for a total of five Oscars and won a single statuette for William Dieterle’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” released the same year as “Kane.” None of his scores for Hitchcock were acknowledged by the Academy, hardly a surprise considering how the Master of Suspense spent his entire career being snubbed by industry accolades. Time is the true test of one’s achievement, and the impact of Herrmann and Hitchcock’s astonishing work is practically unrivaled in its brilliance, audacity and influence (only the pairing of Steven Spielberg and John Williams comes close).

With one of their most acclaimed pictures set to screen in 70mm this summer at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre (see details below), Indie Outlook takes a look back at the eight unforgettable unions of two incomparable geniuses…

Jerry Mathers in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Jerry Mathers in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Herrmann’s first score for Hitchcock is also his most playful and the one that the iconic director deemed as his favorite. The film’s lush autumnal landscapes are impeccably married with the tranquil rhythms of Herrmann’s music—that is, until a corpse is spotted in a picturesque meadow by a wide-eyed youngster brandishing a toy gun. That’s when the music turns on a dime, exclaiming in macabre delight like a bemused jack-o’-lantern. Perhaps that’s why I love playing this score out my window on Halloween evening. It nails Hitchcock’s signature brand of humor, precariously perched on the razor’s edge of whimsicality and morbidity. No wonder it often sounds so similar to Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette,” memorably used as the opening theme song for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which premiered a day before “Harry” opened in U.S. theaters.

Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Bernard Herrmann in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

It’s no secret that my all-time favorite scene in the history of cinema is the Albert Hall assassination sequence in this woefully underrated remake, and that’s largely a result of Herrmann’s phenomenally visceral arrangement of Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata.” The piece was originally written for and featured in Hitchcock’s solid but inferior 1934 version of the film, but Herrmann places it center stage and allows it to unfold in its entirety while ensuring that every note is put to excellent use. The music not only conveys the mounting tension but also the emotional turbulence of our heroine (Doris Day, in a career-best performance) forced into making an impossible decision. This is the first great example of Herrmann devising a psychological soundscape for Hitchcock, epitomized earlier in the film by the stinging wail of horns signaling a literal knife in the back.

Henry Fonda in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man.” Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Henry Fonda in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man.” Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Wrong Man (1957)

Hitch sure loved a good bait and switch. Who can forget Ron Goodwin’s grand and elegant “London Theme” that sets a misleading mood for 1972’s gritty and grotesque “Frenzy”? People tend to forget that Hitchcock attempted something similar with this despairingly bleak, fact-based account of an innocent man’s wrongful imprisonment, opening it with an infectiously upbeat jazz tune scored by Herrmann for the nightclub where the protagonist (Henry Fonda) works. What follows is Herrmann’s most subdued work for the Master, focused not on creating memorable themes but on conveying the excruciating sense of frustration and helplessness that consumes Fonda and his wife (Vera Miles), who suffers a psychotic break due to the stress. Aggressively unpleasant, high-pitched tones are repeated with sickening intensity as the camera circles nauseously around Fonda, stationary against his will.

Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Vertigo (1958)

Just as this picture has been voted in the recent “Sight & Sound” poll as the greatest film ever made, its music is a top contender for the greatest film score ever written. There’s the hypnotic note patterns that begin the picture, accompanying the dizzying vortexes that threaten to engulf Scottie (James Stewart) and the audience. There’s the two-note motif in the form of a “scream” (reportedly resembling the fog horns that bookend the Golden Gate Bridge) that sounds as Scottie has his vertigo-inducing glimpses at the ground below. There’s the ominous murmurs of paranormal intrigue that follow Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine, as well as the atonal flourishes that reverberate through his nightmare. But it’s the swooningly romantic “Scene D’Amour,” which has drawn comparisons to Wagner’s “Liebestod” and was showcased in “The Artist,” that is most captivating of all, unfolding like a blossoming flower.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Courtesy of MGM.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Courtesy of MGM.

North by Northwest (1959)

Diagonal lines are everywhere to be seen in this universally beloved crowd-pleaser, mirroring its hero’s titular journey across the map to South Dakota as well as the off-kilter ground on which he struggles to remain afoot every step of the way. This motif also extends to the music as well, which moves giddily in slanted directions during the exuberantly pulse-pounding title theme that reemerges during a wildly inebriated car ride and the spectacular finale atop Mount Rushmore, making especially rousing use of tambourines. There’s also an exquisitely lovely piece of music written for the erotically charged scenes between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who spin around her claustrophobic room aboard a roaring train while linked in a smitten embrace. All of these themes pay off in the film’s glorious final moments, one of the swiftest happy endings and drollest sexual innuendos in film history.

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Psycho (1960)

Nothing kills off the potential of a horror movie quite like an overdone score. It’s always the simplest approach that proves to be the scariest. The chomping two-note shark theme in “Jaws” and the sole piano note hammered again and again in “Halloween” capture the deranged tunnel vision of a homicidal predator determined to destroy its prey. Of course, the grandfather of all modern horror scores is Herrmann’s groundbreaking all-strings symphony that earned its place in infamy with the shrieking violins that leap out at moviegoers’ eardrums much like Mother Bates’s bread knife. Yet the musical moment that unsettles me the most occurs when the detective (Martin Balsam) creeps into the Bates residence as Herrmann whittles his score down to a few blisteringly eerie notes with a stealthy undercurrent of violins that sound as if they’re quivering in anticipation of the inevitable violence.

Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The Birds (1963)

Though Hitchcock originally didn’t want music in “Psycho” (and later realized his error in judgment), he was correct in removing any trace of score in his follow-up horror spectacle, thus accentuating the alienation felt by its human characters facing an apocalyptic catastrophe. Yet the fingerprints of Herrmann, who served as a sound consultant and uncredited sound designer, are still felt in every scene. His orchestration of the bird noises are frighteningly distorted, inferring that nature’s most harmless creatures have suddenly morphed into barbaric monsters. Source music is used sparingly and never more splendidly than when schoolchildren sing an Americanized version of the Scottish folk song, “Wee Cooper O’Fife,” which has nonsense lyrics that grow in number as various malevolent birds land one by one on the jungle gym behind our heroine (Tippi Hedren).

Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie.” Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Marnie (1964)

The final masterpiece of Hitchcock’s career, comprising a half-century of artistry, brings together many of his visual and thematic obsessions such as red filters, unresolved trauma and expressionist mise-en-scène that suggests through blatantly artificial imagery how fantasy infiltrates a tormented character’s psyche. It’s only appropriate for Herrmann’s score to fuse elements of his previous work for the director, though Hitchcock later criticized him for repeating himself (which is hardly the case). During the first close-up of Marnie (Hedren), Herrmann’s music is awash in scintillating romanticism, but for much of the film, his score lurches and thrashes about like a caged animal, which Marnie certainly feels like in the hands of her captor. The “shrieks” here differ from those in “Psycho,” though both films share a preoccupation with the violating terror of rape (only in “Marnie,” it actually happens).

Opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Courtesy of MGM.

Opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” Courtesy of MGM.

Epilogue

It was the end of an era in so many ways. According to Hedren and others, Hitchcock’s obsession with the actress grew wildly out of control, which may have led Marnie to become the last of his “cool blondes.” For Hitchcock, three longtime collaborations would come to an end on this picture: cinematographer Robert Burks (“Strangers on a Train”) died four years later, editor George Tomasini (“Psycho”) died soon after the film’s release, and Herrmann was fired after writing the score (doomed to be unused) for Hitch’s next troubled project, 1966’s “Torn Curtain.” After Herrmann failed to turn in a hit commercial score for “Marnie” (lyrics were added to the main theme and sung by Nat King Cole), Hitchcock demanded one for “Torn Curtain,” perhaps out of bitterness for having been saddled with two big stars (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews) that he didn’t want. Herrmann wisely refused.

Still smarting from losing Hedren as his treasured (and grossly abused) muse, Hitchcock appeared to have snapped, launching into a self-destructive mode that culminated in the termination of his greatest professional relationship (aside from the lifelong one he forged with his wife, Alma). His subsequent pictures had flashes of greatness, but they also were rather joyless, as if the director had grown disinterested in filmmaking altogether. Their most powerful sequences were uncharacteristically grim, cruel and devoid of music. Needless to say, none of the scores for Hitchcock’s last four pictures—not even the one written by John Williams—can hold a candle to Herrmann’s visionary genius. Hitchcock’s legacy is nearly impossible to envision without the contributions of his finest composer. It was the melding of their minds that, over eight pictures, crafted the definitive symphony of suspense.

“Vertigo” will screen as part of the Music Box Theatre’s “Son of 70mm Film Festival,” which also includes classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Showtimes for “Vertigo” are 8pm Saturday, July 19th and 7pm Wednesday July 23rd. Full festival details will soon be available at the Music Box’s official site.

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2 responses to “Herrmann & Hitchcock: Symphony of Suspense

  1. What a great article! Finally a writer who isn’t another insufferable snob, unwilling to admit the obvious fact that Williams/Spielberg is second – and then there is one mighty dropoff. (As Eliot said about Shakespeare and Dante, “there is no third.”)

    I’d add a couple fun things, from the way I see it. The score to NXNW is a fandango, perfect for the angular rhythmic structure and also perfect for a work firmly rooted in the theatre of the absurd – Spain has absolutely nothing to do with the film. However, Spain has a ton to do with NxNW’s companion piece, Vertigo, which melds Wagner with the habanera. Vertigo is a tragedy about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist, and NxNW is a comedy about a man who is mistaken for a person who doesn’t exist.

    The other thing I’d add is that Psycho is the culmination, a real unity of drama and music, and unfortunately what everyone recalls is the attaca downbows, at the expense of Herrmann’s most profound, unforgettably complex love music.

    I recently saw (I think) every single one at film forum, and it did seem that “Psycho,” the third of the “love trilogy” (vertigo, nxnw, psycho) is the “Cosi” – the real triumph. Vertigo: the impossibility of consummating love. NxNW: the possibility of consummating love. Psycho: a world without the possibility of love.

    No wonder George Martin, six years later, used the Psycho string writing for Eleanor Rigby: the theme is the same. “No one was saved.” (And no wonder the decline begins after “Psycho,” a “last movie” if there ever was one. But the disintegration of the relationship between Herrmann and Hitchcock is sad, as is the story of the last years of the filmmaker’s life.)

    -jc

    • Thank you so much Joshua for your kind and insightful words. I love your interpretation of “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” as Hitch’s “love trilogy.”

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