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BERNARD HERRMANN - Film Noir Foundation

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Bernard Herrmann<br />

and the music of desire<br />

Steven C. Smith<br />

“My Obsession score has two dis-<br />

From his first film score (Citizen Kane, 1941) to the work finished hours before his death<br />

(Taxi Driver, 1976), composer Bernard Herrmann was cinema’s unrivaled master of<br />

tinct elements: romance and tension.<br />

revealing character psychology in music. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Mik-<br />

They usually go hand in hand.”<br />

los Rozsa and Franz Waxman may have been equally gifted, and certainly they were<br />

—Bernard Herrmann better liked; but a score by Herrmann did more than intensify a film’s emotion. It could create a<br />

musical portrait that conveyed as much about a figure onscreen as dialogue and direction.<br />

28 NOIR CITY I FALL 2011 I www.filmnoirfoundation.org


His career encompassed radio, film, television, and the concert<br />

hall. The cinematic genres in which he worked ranged from traditional<br />

drama to fantasy to science fiction. But the composer, whose<br />

centenary is being celebrated worldwide this year with film festivals<br />

and concerts, remains best known for scores that explore the darkest<br />

side of human nature. Many intersect with the themes and obsessions<br />

of noir.<br />

On Dangerous Ground (1952), directed by Nicholas Ray and<br />

produced by Herrmann’s friend John Houseman, may be the most<br />

canonical example. As he would throughout his 35-year film career,<br />

Herrmann carefully chose his instruments to illuminate character.<br />

Here he selected the viola d’amore, a stringed instrument popular in<br />

the baroque era, as the musical voice of Ida Lupino’s blind heroine,<br />

Mary Malden, because of the “veiled quality” of its sound. For the<br />

score’s climactic cue, “The Death Hunt,” Herrmann used no fewer<br />

than eight horn players, pushed to their limit playing rapid-fire triplet<br />

figures, to suggest the animal ferocity of the chase pitting cop<br />

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) against a murderer (Sumner Williams) he<br />

hopes to save from a victim’s vengeful father (Ward Bond).<br />

In 1957’s The Wrong Man—one of eight collaborations with Alfred<br />

Hitchcock—Herrmann transforms the plucked rhythm of the<br />

bass played by nightclub musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda)<br />

into a ghostly, ticking nemesis on the soundtrack; it echoes each step<br />

of Manny’s prosecution for a crime he didn’t commit. A dissonant<br />

cluster of muted trumpets tracks the mental breakdown of Manny’s<br />

wife Rose (Vera Miles). Only when Rose is released from an institution<br />

in the film’s last moments are the trumpets freed from their<br />

mutes to produce a clear, liberated sound.<br />

Herrmann’s ability to translate feelings of entrapment, anxiety,<br />

and romantic yearning into music surfaced early. Born in New York<br />

City on June 29, 1911, the son of a successful Russian Jewish optometrist,<br />

he studied at Juilliard and NYU. Herrmann would learn more,<br />

however, during his restless, first-hand<br />

explorations of the musical wonders<br />

New York offered in the 1920s<br />

and 1930s. With best friend (and future<br />

film composer) Jerome Moross,<br />

“Benny” snuck into Toscanini-Philharmonic<br />

concerts. He launched combative<br />

friendships with rising contemporaries<br />

like Aaron Copland and Oscar<br />

Levant. He debated Russian composers<br />

with George Gershwin while the latter<br />

wrote Porgy and Bess. (Another neighborhood<br />

friend, Abraham Polonsky,<br />

would later write the John Garfield<br />

noir classic Force of Evil.)<br />

Formed early was Herrmann’s selfimage<br />

as an uncompromising outsider<br />

in a world of conformists and Machiavellis.<br />

“Sparrows fly in flocks,” he<br />

would say, quoting Tolstoy. “Eagles fly<br />

alone.” Musically he found a role model<br />

in Hector Berlioz, the tempestuous<br />

19 th -century composer whose Treatise<br />

on Orchestration introduced Benny<br />

to a world of dramatic musical effects<br />

and rare instruments. A favorite Berlioz<br />

piece was the nightmarish “Symphonie Fantastique,” which describes<br />

an opium user’s dream of murdering his beloved, then paying<br />

the price on the guillotine.<br />

In 1933, a staff job as composer/conductor at CBS Radio gave<br />

Herrmann the ultimate training ground for his later career in Hollywood.<br />

Radio drama was a new medium. Commercial restraints<br />

were few, and experimentation was encouraged. Over the next two<br />

decades, he would score hundreds of radio shows, most broadcast<br />

live and many drawn from popular crime fiction.<br />

Dashiell Hammett inspired two of the best. 1939’s Campbell<br />

Playhouse adaptation of The Glass Key starred 24-year-old Orson<br />

Welles, the Playhouse’s producer/director, as charismatic, corrupt<br />

politician Paul Madvig—a performance enhanced by Herrmann’s<br />

original cues and bluesy source tunes. The program aired five months<br />

The composer’s onscreen credit in Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man<br />

www.filmnoirfoundation.org I FALL 2011 I NOIR CITY 29


The fiery performance of Herrmann’s “Concerto Macabre” is the climax of the classic horror-noir Hangover Square<br />

after Welles and Herrmann—temperamental innovators who became<br />

close friends—crafted their most notorious radio show: The War of<br />

the Worlds. (The Glass Key can be heard online at http://sounds.<br />

mercurytheatre.info/mercury/390310.mp3).<br />

In 1942, Herrmann scored a Hammett short story that was more<br />

explicitly noir-themed. Two Sharp Knives aired on Suspense, the anthology<br />

series that opened each week with Benny’s graveyard-dirge<br />

theme. Stuart Erwin starred as a shrewd, small-town police chief who<br />

unravels a murder scheme crafted by one of his own officers. The<br />

tale’s tension is heightened by brief but essential commentary from<br />

Herrmann: rising/falling patterns for muted brass, low woodwinds<br />

and tremolo strings. It reflects Herrmann’s lifelong technique of using<br />

short musical phrases, often repeated in a pattern, with growing<br />

intensity: his fondness for orchestral color is defined by the elimination<br />

or increasing of specific instruments. (Two Sharp Knives can be<br />

heard online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzFDb3HElEA)<br />

Also in 1942, the 30-year-old composer achieved an unprecedented<br />

feat in Hollywood, earning Academy Award nominations for his first<br />

and second film scores: Citizen Kane and All That Money Can Buy<br />

(aka The Devil and Daniel Webster). The latter won. With camerawork<br />

inspired by German Expressionism, and themes of entrapment<br />

and isolation—Kane by his growing power, farmer Jabez Stone by his<br />

30 NOIR CITY I FALL 2011 I www.filmnoirfoundation.org<br />

seven-year pact with Satan—each film mixes noir sensibilities with<br />

other genres (biography and fantasy, respectively). Their escalating<br />

sense of suffocation is driven by Herrmann’s music, which constantly<br />

reminds us of the price waiting to be paid by the story’s protagonists.<br />

Herrmann and Welles’s partnership in radio had convinced the directing<br />

wunderkind to bring his friend to Hollywood in 1940, when<br />

filming began on Kane. Welles hoped that Herrmann would provide<br />

innovations on the soundtrack that would match his own. It was a<br />

challenge Herrmann embraced and fulfilled.<br />

Dies Irae, an ancient Gregorian chant of death, is the foundation<br />

of his Kane score; a variant of this melody serves as the recurring<br />

leitmotif for Charles Foster Kane. It “seemed to suggest to me<br />

what the subject of Kane was, which is ‘All is vanity,’” Herrmann<br />

explained. The score also offers early clues to the film’s two mysteries:<br />

who was Kane, and what was Rosebud? Herrmann answers<br />

the second question before the film is half over: his “Rosebud”<br />

theme is heard just before and after the dying tycoon says the word,<br />

then returns to underscore young Charles’s snow ride on his treasured<br />

sled. “The music has told [the audience] right away,” Herrmann<br />

observed. “The score, like the film, works like a jigsaw.”<br />

That theme returns as a fortissimo cry of anguish during Rosebud’s<br />

incineration, in one of cinema’s most perfect fusions of sound and


image to convey immutable loss.<br />

Four years after Citizen Kane, Herrmann—<br />

now an established concert, film, and radio composer<br />

- summoned the musical furies that guide<br />

another antihero to his doom, in the gothic noir<br />

Hangover Square (1945). Laird Cregar stars as<br />

George Henry Bone, a composer in Edwardian<br />

London whose lust for a conniving music hall<br />

singer (Linda Darnell)—and a brain disorder triggered<br />

by high-pitched sounds—spark a murder<br />

spree—one that ends in conflagration during the<br />

premiere of Bone’s piano concerto.<br />

Producer Robert Bassler and director John<br />

Brahm (The Brasher Doubloon, The Locket) enlisted<br />

Herrmann to write the single-movement<br />

Concerto Macabre prior to filming. The complete<br />

work is performance at the film’s climax, but its<br />

themes are the basis of the underscore throughout;<br />

most memorable is a low-octave figuration<br />

for piano, evoking the licking flames that engulf a<br />

pawnbroker, Darnell’s femme fatale … and Bone<br />

himself.<br />

One moviegoer fascinated by the concerto<br />

was 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. The future<br />

Broadway composer/lyricist memorized the<br />

piece’s opening and wrote Herrmann a fan letter<br />

(he received a friendly response). Three decades<br />

later, Sondheim’s desire to “write a musical with a<br />

kind of Bernard Herrmann score” resulted in his<br />

masterwork, Sweeney Todd.<br />

By 1951, radio drama in New York was dying.<br />

The CBS Symphony that Herrmann led in<br />

concert broadcasts was disbanded. A new home<br />

and career beckoned in Los Angeles. Now working<br />

almost exclusively in film and television, the<br />

composer worked in a range of screen genres,<br />

from literary adaptations (The Snows of Kilimanjaro)<br />

to groundbreaking sci-fi (The Day the Earth<br />

Stood Still). He wrote ingenious small-ensemble<br />

scores for American radio’s last great drama series:<br />

Crime Classics, a darkly witty survey of history’s<br />

most notorious murders, from Julius Caesar<br />

to Lizzie Borden.<br />

Herrmann responded most intensely to stories<br />

of thwarted desire (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,<br />

Other sounds of noir<br />

During the 1940s and ‘50s, approaches to scoring crime drama were as diverse as the<br />

cultural backgrounds of its top practitioners. Here are some of the most memorable.<br />

The Maltese Falcon (1941)<br />

London-born Adolph Deutsch (1897–1980) may be the most unjustly overlooked<br />

of Golden Age composers. Against an image of the black bird, Deutsch scores Falcon’s<br />

main title with an eerie, exotic theme representing the mysterious title object<br />

and its Spanish origins. The theme becomes a musical question mark—one that pervades<br />

the soundtrack to suggest both lost treasure and the obsessive, futile quest to<br />

possess it.<br />

Double Indemnity (1944)<br />

As a shadowy figure on crutches moves toward us and the title card appears, Hungarian<br />

Miklos Rozsa (1907–1995) delivers his own death march: a loping theme for<br />

low brass whose subtle dissonance proved a subject of controversy. Paramount music<br />

director Louis Lipstone hated its “Carnegie Hall” pretensions, and “asked why I hadn’t<br />

written something attractive,” Rozsa recalled. “I replied that Billy Wilder’s film was<br />

about ugly people doing vicious things to each other.” Lipstone did his best to have the<br />

score dropped—until after the first preview, when Paramount production head Buddy<br />

De Sylva praised its hard-hitting power. Rozsa watched, bemused, as Lipstone threw<br />

his arm around De Sylva and replied, “Don’t I always get you the right man?”<br />

The Big Sleep (1946)<br />

If Austrian native Max Steiner (1888–1971) didn’t invent the rules of film scoring,<br />

he perfected them in dozens of early talkies for RKO and Warner Bros. By the time he<br />

tackled Howard Hawks’s version of Raymond Chandler, Steiner had perfected his style<br />

of creating leitmotivs (recurring themes) to define characters and situations. The surprise<br />

is that his European vernacular works so well in everything from westerns to noir—even<br />

if his theme for Philip Marlowe sounds like a German-American cousin of Strauss’s Till<br />

Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The score’s finale, where a swooning Bogie-Bacall love<br />

theme is joined by police siren obbligato as the couple kisses, is as witty as it is sexy.<br />

D.O.A. (1950)<br />

Bernard Herrmann believed that “a composer’s first job is to get inside the drama.”<br />

The music of Dimitri Tiomkin (1894–1979) takes the exact opposite approach: the Russian<br />

composer excelled at flamboyant, fortissimo statements of a drama’s externals, hitting<br />

home an idea that is already told visually. D.O.A. is no exception: Tiomkin even<br />

throws in a wolf whistle for the walk-by of a comely female. Still, his sledgehammer<br />

neo-romanticism lifts movies like D.O.A. so far above reality that the effect is undeniably<br />

powerful. His soundtracks are as explosive and effective as a Tommy gun blast.<br />

Sunset Blvd. (1950)<br />

Franz Waxman (1906–1967) knew evil first-hand. Beaten in the street by Nazis in<br />

his native Germany, he fled to Hollywood, where he scored two of the most beautiful<br />

monsters in movies: The Bride of Frankenstein and Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.<br />

In the style of countryman Kurt Weill, Waxman uses a jaded tune for saxophone to<br />

evoke the moral slide of screenwriter Joe Gillis, and paraphrases Richard Strauss’s<br />

Salome— Norma’s dream project—for a theme that tells us exactly how the forgotten<br />

film star sees herself and the world around her. The result was an Oscar win, and<br />

a score that comingles beauty and horror. As Waxman knew from Berlin, nothing is<br />

as scary as a dream that turns to madness, then murder.<br />

—Steven C. Smith<br />

www.filmnoirfoundation.org I FALL 2011 I NOIR CITY 31


Alfred Hitchcock warily considers his favorite overworked compose<br />

Obsession), suspenseful pursuit (Five Fingers, North by Northwest)<br />

and psychological disorder (A Hatful of Rain, Marnie). Fueling his<br />

empathy for the tragic side of life was his own growing pessimism<br />

and anger. By the 1960s, his dreams of a conducting career and of<br />

producing his grand opera Wuthering Heights were largely crushed.<br />

Casualties of his explosive temper included countless professional<br />

relationships and two marriages—first to writer Lucille Fletcher<br />

(Sorry, Wrong Number), then to Fletcher’s cousin, Lucy Anderson.<br />

A third marriage to Norma Shepherd, a BBC producer 29 years Herrmann’s<br />

junior, survived similar storms until his death.<br />

If Herrmann was unable to control his rage, he could still channel<br />

his anxieties into music of striking psychological force. The ultimate<br />

outlet was his decade-long partnership with Alfred Hitchcock,<br />

launched with The Trouble with Harry (1955).<br />

Hitchcock involved his favorite composer from the start of each<br />

project, adjusting his approach to sound design and pacing to reflect<br />

Herrmann’s input. That trust would shape two of their most influential<br />

collaborations: Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).<br />

“All of this will naturally depend upon what music Mr. Herrmann<br />

puts over this sequence.”<br />

—Hitchcock production notes on Vertigo<br />

Music communicates character and story from the first seconds<br />

of Vertigo’s score. Herrmann’s main title Prelude opens with a hypnotic,<br />

rising/falling triplet pattern for winds and strings. It describes<br />

both the fear of heights and the emotional disorientation that will<br />

cripple detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), as he falls in love<br />

with a woman destined for death.<br />

Over that triplet ostinato (the term for a repeated musical pattern),<br />

Herrmann adds a plunging, two-note motif for horn that<br />

evokes the nightmarish series of falling bodies that motivate the<br />

story from its first scene to its last.<br />

Much of Vertigo plays without dialogue, achieving tension on the<br />

soundtrack almost solely through music. These sequences include<br />

Scottie’s shadowing of the mysterious Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak);<br />

Madeleine’s apparent death; and most unforgettably the “recognition<br />

scene,” as Judy Barton, Madeleine’s double, embraces Scottie<br />

while dressed as her dead alter ego.<br />

Herrmann’s climbing strings deliberately echo Wagner’s Liebe-<br />

32 NOIR CITY I FALL 2011 I www.filmnoirfoundation.org<br />

stod from Tristan und Isolde, since Scottie is by<br />

now a man in love with death; years later, Herrmann<br />

recalled with pride Hitch’s description of<br />

how this perverse love scene would be staged:<br />

“We’ll just have the camera and you.”<br />

“I think that we’re all in our private traps—<br />

clamped in them, and none of us can escape.”<br />

—Norman Bates in Psycho,<br />

screenplay by Joseph Stefano<br />

Homicidal transvestites, matricide, and onscreen<br />

gore were uncharted turf in late 1959<br />

when Psycho was shot. Hitchcock hedged his<br />

bets with a modest budget, including less money<br />

than usual for music. Herrmann embraced the<br />

limitation, foregoing woodwinds, brass, and<br />

percussion to write a score for string orchestra<br />

only. His reason for the selection: “to complement the black-andwhite<br />

photography of the film with a black-and-white score.”<br />

During Psycho’s first 40 minutes, charting the doomed flight of<br />

secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) after stealing 40,000 dollars, it<br />

is the role of the music to “tell the audience, who don’t know something<br />

terrible is going to happen to the girl, that it’s got to.” Herrmann’s<br />

main title immediately sets the tone, with its stabbing opening<br />

chords and frenetic rhythm that pulses like a skipping heartbeat.<br />

This music returns to stalk Marion from the start of her panicked<br />

exodus to her rain-drenched arrival at the Bates Motel.<br />

Herrmann’s score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo may be his most psychologically complex


Psycho would prove to be the composer’s most sonically iconic score<br />

Although Hitchcock asked for no music during the film’s notorious<br />

shower scene, Herrmann characteristically followed his own<br />

instinct. The resulting cue—which Hitchcock loved—was simple to<br />

perform and multilayered in meaning. Its slashing sound is created<br />

solely by violins, but evokes Norman’s knife, Marion’s screams, Norman’s<br />

stuffed birds (another Herrmann clue to a film’s denouement),<br />

and, to quote the composer, sheer “terror.”<br />

Psycho concludes with much exposition but no resolution. Marion’s<br />

desperate attempt to “buy happiness” ends in annihilation. A<br />

handsome young man grins a deaths-head smile inside his own private<br />

trap, his identity forever lost. Daringly, Herrmann reinforces<br />

Psycho’s lack of closure by ending with a violent unresolved chord.<br />

It was an approach he used again in his final score, Taxi Driver<br />

(1976)—another portrait of alienation and romantic obsession<br />

which briefly quotes Psycho’s score, while offering a new sound for<br />

the composer: a melancholy jazz theme for tenor sax. Herrmann intended<br />

the theme “to show that this was where [cabbie Travis Bickle’s]<br />

fantasies about women led him,” recalled co-producer Michael<br />

Phillips. “His illusions, his self-perpetuating way of dealing with<br />

women had finally brought him to that bloody, violent outburst ... I<br />

had never thought of it in terms of what Benny said, but Bobby [De<br />

Niro] and I both said, ‘God, he’s right.’ Absolutely. Perfect.”<br />

The theme is as melodically seductive as it is unnerving in its<br />

dramatic use. “Herrmann knew how lovely the dark should be,”<br />

observes David Thomson in his New Biographical Dictionary of<br />

<strong>Film</strong>. “He was at his best in rites of dismay, dark dreams, introspection,<br />

and the gloomy romance of loneliness. No one else would have<br />

dared or known to make the score for Taxi Driver such a lament for<br />

impossible love. Try that film without the music and the violence is<br />

nearly unbearable. Yet the score … is universally cinematic: it speaks<br />

to sitting in the dark, full of dread and desire, watching.”<br />

By the time of its composition, Hermann had been exiled for a decade<br />

in London, largely forgotten by an industry that now preferred pop-<br />

heavy soundtracks (and the hit albums<br />

they might yield). It took a new<br />

generation of directors led by Brian<br />

De Palma, Larry Cohen, and Martin<br />

Scorsese to rediscover him. By 1975<br />

Herrmann was busier than ever.<br />

That December 24th, hours after<br />

Taxi Driver’s last recording session,<br />

the 64-year-old composer—weakened<br />

by heart disease, but creatively<br />

undimmed—returned to his hotel<br />

room in Universal City, not far from<br />

the moonlit façade of the Bates Motel.<br />

“What are we doing here,” he<br />

sighed to Norma, before closing his<br />

eyes one last time and surrendering<br />

all battles with the world. ■<br />

Steven C. Smith is the author of A<br />

Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and<br />

Music of Bernard Herrmann (University<br />

of California Press, 1991).<br />

www.filmnoirfoundation.org I FALL 2011 I NOIR CITY 33

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