Bernard Herrmann at 100: Music of the Fears

On his centenary, a tribute to the Master of Musical Suspense, who gave viewers shivers with his superb scores for Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver.

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His first wife was the writer Lucille Fletcher, who in the ’40s was a radio nerve-jangler more famous than her husband (for her suspense plays “Sorry, Wrong Number” and “The Hitchhiker”), and whom Herrmann left to marry her cousin. In the Waletzky doc Fletcher reads Herrmann letters that sound like self-flogging confessions. “I entered into work that was extremely distasteful to me: movies, commercial radio. I never had time for my own reflections and work.” That’s not true: he wrote a symphony, an opera (Wuthering Heights), and a cantata. But this least compromising Hollywood composer felt he had sold out, betraying his dream to be the conductor of a symphony orchestra. In one letter he says he is haunted by “my own lack of achievement, the passing of time and the hollowness of it all—the onslaught of my enemies.”

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He may have despised his movie work, but to his colleagues it was revolutionary. His scores were less tuneful than thoughtful; you would leave a Herrmann film not humming but hmmming. He could be both an acute psychoanalyst of roiling feelings and the coroner of emotions, with musical figures recurring within a short scene and throughout the film. “Benny was a genius with a repeat sign,” says the smiling Raksin (Laura) in the doc. “But it works.” A lover of dead-of-night minor keys, Hermann made even his fanfares sound like funeral marches. Violinist Louis Kaufman recalls Herrmann telling the session musicians to “Cool it down. I don’t want a hot sound, I want it very cool and very factual.” Here’s how composer Elmer Bernstein defines the Herrmann touch: “To create good film music, you don’t do it through a series of tunes, necessarily. You do it by creating atmospheres, by manipulating the emotions of the audience through sounds, and a kind of magic.”

Change “sounds” to “images,” and Bernstein might be describing Hitchcock’s moviemaking strategy. The two men, both subversives within the Hollywood system, would work on eight films: The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (Herrmann can be seen conducting at the climax), The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. The masterpieces, for both men, have to be Vertigo and Psycho. The second film, in which Hitchcock placed Herrmann’s name just before his own in the opening credits, to acknowledge his importance, has a superb section early on: a symphony of paranoia, as Leigh drives through the rainy night away from pursuing police and toward the Bates Motel. There’s also the edgy motif for Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the boyish voyeur, in which Herrmann creates what we might call the sound of watching. But Vertigo is, at least for the composer, the richer achievement.

Detective Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart), whose acrophobia forced his retirement from the San Francisco Police Department, takes a case—following a friend’s moony, perhaps suicidal wife Madeleine (Kim Novak)—that festers into obsession. Scotty tracks Madeleine to a church, a graveyard, a museum, a shabby hotel, and for more than 10 minutes there’s not a word spoken, only Herrmann’s ominous music, channeling Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The notes are hypnotic, rising and falling, up-down up-down, like a staircase exercise for a man afraid of heights, or the mathematics of dread. The story and the music lead inevitably to a church bell tower, and as Scotty and Madeleine ascend the steps, Herrmann’s music descends. For Scotty is plumbing Madeleine’s secret, even as he dives deeper to find the key to his love for a dead woman.

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Herrmann could be a devious, deadpan musical tease, but his mind games often included clues to a movie’s mystery. This week in the Wall Street Journal, Steven C. Smith, who wrote the critical biography A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, points out, that at the beginning of Citizen Kane, “you hear vibraphone notes played just before Kane says ‘Rosebud’ and dies. The next time that we hear those same notes is when we see the sled [in a childhood flashback] and that same theme is played in a very emotional way. Herrmann said that if you’ve been paying attention [to the music], he just told you what Rosebud is.” Claude Chabrol, the French filmmaker who also coauthored a Hitchcock study with Eric Rohmer, said of the Psycho shower scene: “The shrill violins are like bird cries. Since Norman stuffs birds, the music virtually points to the culprit.”

The bird hints in Psycho, and in Vertigo‘s shots of trees as Scotty drives his beloved to the final fatal rendezvous, led naturally to The Birds.* That film, detailing the unexplained attack of flying creatures on a sleepy California town, had no music at all, unless it was birdsong. Herrmann, credited as “sound consultant,” designed the aural environment of avian cries that lead human annihilation: caws and effect.

The two men were contracted to collaborate on the 1966 Torn Curtain, but the Universal bosses had warned Hitchcock that they wanted Herrmann’s score to be more accessible than usual, with maybe a love theme suitable for AM radio. Herrmann wrote his typical acerbic stuff (the outtakes sound splendid), and when Hitchcock heard it played in the recording studio he berated Herrmann in front of the musicians and declared the session over. John Addison took the composing gig, and Hitchcock and Herrmann rarely spoke again.

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Luckily, Herrmann was rescued by that next generation of filmmakers. His final score, for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, weaves a musical inferno around shots of grungy Times Square and the quiet, lovesick, deranged Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). Most startling is a jazz-blues saxophone solo, as sumptuous, aching and romantic as anything Herrmann wrote. It sounds like a secret mash note from inside Travis, who spends the first half of the film watching and the second half killing—a Scotty who turns into Norman.

Herrmann died, at 64, on Christmas Eve 1975, a month before Taxi Driver opened. (Scorsese dedicated the film to him.) But his legacy is more solid now than it was then. His music retains its palpable, purgatorial majesty. When it’s not attacking viewers and listeners with a kitchen knife, it creeps inside them to reveal how they may be as tortured and intense as a newspaper publisher, a cab driver, an obsessed detective or that shy fellow behind the counter at the Bates Motel. Or the would-be “serious” composer who thought he had squandered his talent by writing movie music that no one who’s heard it will, or can, ever forget.

*Correction: The original version of this article said that The Birds was Hitchcock and Herrmann’s final film together. It was not. The two worked on 1964’s Marnie.

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