Bernard Herrmann: The Composer as Coauthor

10/19/2011 4:00 AM |

Bernard Herrmann
October 21-November 3 at Film Forum

Where a simple “This film is dedicated to” usually suffices, the last frame of Taxi Driver‘s closing credits reads: “Our gratitude and respect, Bernard Herrmann, June 29, 1911–December 24, 1975.” The composer died days after finishing the film’s iconic slow-jazz score, and every word of that dedication is crucial. Though “our” may have specifically referred to Taxi Driver‘s director, writer, crew, and cast, it more broadly applies to all film lovers appreciative of the composer’s masterly, boldly co-authorial contributions to the art of film scoring. The “our” is also a generation of cineaste directors like Truffaut, De Palma, and Scorsese. So many of the films that shaped them were scored by Herrmann, and they were lucky enough to show their respect and repay the workaholic composer with scoring jobs on their own films.

When editor Paul Hirsch secured Herrmann to score De Palma’s Sisters (1973), the director was amazed: “I could hardly believe the genius who had scored Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho was really going to write our music.” But he did, going on to finish his career with Obsession (1976) and Taxi Driver. A career in film that began with collaboration with one maverick (Orson Welles on Citizen Kane) ended with fruitful teamings with the cinephilic upstarts of the late 60s and 70s. His music is the unmistakable through-line, the element that most indelibly unites numerous great cinematic texts from the twentieth century’s middle decades (and beyond, thanks to his disciples and plagiarists).

Not that all that these later directors got out of Herrmann was an air of Hitchcock-by-association or something. Herrmann always sounded like himself and routinely quoted his own compositions, but since his early days with Welles on CBS radio creating complex, experimental soundtracks on the fly, he had always been able and eager to adapt. Hence his modish Moog synths on Sisters, his radical use of militaristic percussion and trumpet on Taxi Driver, and his overpowering Obsession, which attempts to outdo his Vertigo for romantic extravagance. To the end, he was an outspoken, bullish collaborator whose suggestions were usually correct. It was Herrmann who advised De Palma to alter and trim the last third of Paul Schrader’s Obsession screenplay, a detour that in its original form would have laboriously taken Cliff Robertson’s character to prison and his daughter to an asylum.

The 22 selections in Film Forum’s series could be enjoyed blindfolded, but even when you listen to a Herrmann score at home, part of the power comes from recalling the visuals with which the cues were always so beautifully matched. The New York-born son of Russian Jews had a famously atrocious temper that laid waste to friendships and cut into his job opportunities— Steven C. Smith’s biography A Heart at Fire’s Center is almost farcical with its whiny and mean all-caps outbursts recounted by acquaintances on every other page— and yet he was a team player, saying at a college lecture that “the music of a film oughtn’t to be admired… cinema is only one thing: an illusion of many arts working together.” So the screen dictates the sound. A return to Charlie’s snowy boyhood with Rosebud prompts Citizen Kane‘s most romantic cue. Shrieking violin downstrokes double Mrs. Bates’s knife slashes in Psycho (1960). The jangly percussion during the battle with skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts (1963) sounds like it was beaten out with bones for drumsticks.

The latter was one of four films scored by Herrmann that featured the Dynamation effects virtuosity of Ray Harryhausen. Both were artists (Harryhausen is actually still ticking at 91) who took every assignment seriously as paid professionals, no matter the potential silliness of the material. The first and best wedding of their talents was in Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), with its Cyclops, vengeful flying Roc, and lone skeleton soldier (a warmup for Argonauts). After a more low-key overture, which he would later quote in Marnie (1964), Herrmann matches the audacity of Harryhausen’s creations with an uncharacteristic pomp that nevertheless retains his particular romantic signature.

Herrmann’s vast and ferociously opinionated knowledge of music and composers, as well as English literature, assisted his ready adaptability to widely varying material. In William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), the composer’s fondness for Americana traditionals allows him to imbue the entertaining and moralizing hokum with real feeling, bundled with a gleeful performance by Walter Huston as the Mephistophelean Mr. Scratch, and patriotic speechifying by the titular statesmen (Edward Arnold) from Stephen Vincent Benét’s story.