Scoring the stuff of nightmares


Bernard Herrmann's film music - from Psycho to Taxi Driver - contributed so much, it became a virtual extra character, writes Eddie Fiegel

Think of the shower scene in Psycho and what comes into your mind? Almost certainly it'll be the look of terror on Janet Leigh's face accompanied by the nails-scraping-down-a-blackboard screeches of composer Bernard Herrmann's score. So seamless was the marriage of Herrmann's sound with Hitchcock's image that watching the scene you couldn't be sure where Norman Bates's knife attack ended and those nagging violins began. More than 45 years since the film was made, few other film sequences have provided such a tightly intertwined mix of sound and image.

This seemingly effortless symbiosis was the result of one of cinema's most fruitful and enduring partnerships, spanning 11 years and nine films, including North by Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, Marnie and The Birds. While Hitchcock provided an enthralling visual narrative to our darkest dreams, Herrmann's music took the soundtrack several steps further.

It was an unusual partnership from the start: a pairing of seeming opposites who seemed to perfectly complement each other professionally while also developing a personal friendship. Herrmann was a bearish New Yorker of Russian Jewish parentage with a reputation for incendiary rages and less-than-tactful put-downs. "Why do you insult my intelligence with this garbage?" he told one hapless Hollywood director who had asked him to score his film, later telling another musician "your views are as narrow as your tie". Hitchcock, meanwhile, was fastidious, urbane yet detached and, as Herrmann once described him, "essentially a puritan", but the pair nevertheless developed an affection and empathy rarely equalled in either of their lives, often spending weekends together at each others' homes with their wives.

Herrmann had first come to Hitchcock's attention with his debut film score for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Despite a non-musical family background, Herrmann had emerged as a prodigious talent early on, winning a local songwriting competition at 12, and going on to study at the Juilliard Music School and New York University. By the time he was 22 in 1933, CBS had hired him as composer and conductor of their radio orchestra, through which he met Orson Welles, for whom he scored numerous broadcasts including the notorious War of the Worlds.

Herrmann was the natural choice as composer when Welles came to make his first film, Citizen Kane, which was to establish the composer's reputation as much as the director's. Just as Welles threw out the cinematic rule book with his direction, Herrmann (or Benny, as he was known), likewise ditched virtually every accepted scoring practice. Instead of smothering a film in music and providing a catchy hummable theme (as per Tara's Theme from Gone with the Wind), Herrmann offered a series of evocative motifs in a cornucopia of music styles.

Over the next few years, while continuing to score radio shows for CBS, he wrote for numerous other films including Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Hitchcock saw potential for collaboration and in 1955 commissioned him to score The Trouble with Harry. From the outset it was evident that the pair shared not only a meticulous approach to film-making, but a brooding and frequently tragic view of the world and human relationships. Herrmann's scores articulated Hitchcock's underlying themes of loss, obsession and guilt, bringing the often detached images an emotional resonance that was just as important as the action and dialogue.

Hitchcock was quick to recognise the impact of Herrmann's music, and when it came to one of the pivotal scenes in Vertigo (a film that contains more music than dialogue), where Kim Novak's character is finally transformed into a replica of her predecessor, he decided to have no dialogue at all. "We'll just have the camera and you," he told Herrmann, thereby allowing the swirling drama of the music to become a virtual third character.

North by Northwest and Psycho followed. With Psycho, Herrmann not only broke with Hollywood tradition by scoring it for strings alone (saying he wanted to find a sonic equivalent of black-and-white film), but also rescued the film. Hitchcock was in despair at what he felt had ended up as a mediocre pot-boiler, and was seriously considering cutting the film to an hour and selling it to TV. Herrmann persuaded him to let him score it before doing so, and despite the director's insistence that the first murder scene remain silent, defied him. The end result left Hitchcock no room for argument.

For The Birds, although the film contained no score, Herrmann worked closely with electronic composer Remi Glassmann to recreate the squawk of the birds electronically. This was followed by Marnie and then, in 1966, Torn Curtain - the source of a catastrophic falling-out between the pair and consequently their final film together. From the director's point of view, the dispute was a clear question of the composer having directly gone against his wishes: Hitchcock specified from the start that he wanted an upbeat, jazzy score that would appeal to younger audiences. Herrmann promised to comply, but wrote something typically dark and suspenseful, which he believed would, as with Psycho, add tension to an essentially lacklustre film.

But Hitchcock insisted it was exactly what he had not wanted. "Finished," he told him. "Goodbye, here's your money. Sorry." Despite uncharacteristically humble attempts on Herrmann's part at salvaging the situation, Hitchcock never forgave him for disobeying his instructions, and Herrmann continued to feel betrayed by his friend's lack of trust in his judgment. But Herrmann's film career continued until his death with successful scores including Fahrenheit 451 for François Truffaut in 1966 and Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese - completed just a day before he died in his sleep in 1975.

- Guardian Service

The IFI is showing a season of nine films featuring classic scores by Bernard Herrmann throughout August, starting with Vertigo next Tuesday