The Thrilling Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann_CFS_GerhardtThis small detour is dedicated to the great Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). He is the composer who, when I was a pre-teen, first got me into serious music via the movies, along with the likes of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Dmitri Shostakovich and William Walton. An innovator and hugely influential, his amazing film career started with Citizen Kane (1941) and ended with Taxi Driver (1976), in between coming a ten-year collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock and much, much more besides. Here are some of my favourites from the mystery genre …

The following celebration is offered for Thursday’s Underappreciated Music meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

To try and keep this blog on track, I am only focusing on the music Herrmann composed for films in the crime and mystery genre.

Hangover Square (1945, including the Concerto Macabre)
Loosely adapted from the eponymous novel way Patrick Hamilton, Laird Cregar plays the disturbed composer who, when he hears discordant sounds, enters a fugue state and does terrible things. Beautifully shot and directed with his usual panache by John Brahm, the climax of the film sees Cregar perform this concerto inside a burning building, hence the severe diminuendo at the finish. The movie is great fun, lavishly produced on the Fox backlot, and Herrmann’s score os magnificent!

On Dangerous Ground (1951)
This is a very intense Film Noir that sadly got mucked around by RKO studio head Howard Hughes, None the less, more than enough remains of the original vision of director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter AI Bezzerides to make it worthwhile, especially in the fine performance of Robert Ryan as a big city detective whose violent ways are finally tempered when he meets Ida Lupin out in a snowy wilderness while searching for a killer. Once again, Herrmann’s score is exceptional, from the ferocity of the main theme to the delicate beauty of the love them – truly unforgettable.

Herrmann at Fox (1943-1962)
The composer’s longest association with any studio was at 20th Century Fox, where he provided such memorable scores as the Orson Welles Jane Eyre, the original version of Anna and the King, the sublime romance of The Ghost and Mrs Muir, the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still with its early and influential use of electronics; as well as such colourful CinemaScope spectaculars as Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and The Egyptian. One of my favourites in the crime genre (along with the aforementioned Hangover Square) is the relative unsung Five Fingers (1952), a spy drama, based on a true story, comes with a sly wit and a fairly restrained score to match the sophisticated worldview of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz and the blackly comic tone of the telling of the tale of a World War II double agent (James Mason) who was in the employ of both the Allies and the Nazis.

Hitchcock and Herrmann (1955-1966)
Alfred Hitchcock and Herrmann collaborated for over a decade with amazing results (before ending sadly with the rejection of the score for Torn Curtain in 1966). From the autumnal colour of the black comedy The Trouble With Harry (1955) to the Wagnerian romance of Vertigo (1958) and the South American habanera of North By Northwest (1959), these are all exceptional scores. The best-known, and certainly most influential, remains Psycho (1960; re-used in 1998 remake) – Just try watch the car driving sequences or the shower murder without the music and see what a genius Herrmann was!

Cape Fear (1962; re-used in 1991 remake)
Not a great movie, despite the star power of Mitchum and Peck, but the stark, full-throttle score is so instantly recognisable that Scorsese re-used it for his remake

The Bride Wore Black (1968)
This slightly sluggish adaptation of the Cornell Woolrich classic was the second of two films Herrmann scored for Francois Truffaut (the first was the mesmerising, hauntingly beautiful Fahrenheit 451), and makes galvanising use of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and stars Jeanne Moreau as the ultimate femme fatale.

Twisted Nerve (1968)
Made after the composer moved to the UK, this low-key and slightly distasteful chiller had a typically inventive score from Herrmann and its theme tune, with its memorable whistle, was rediscovered in Kill Bill and has been widely heard ever since.

Endless Night (1972)
This adaptation of a late Agatha Christie shows the composer still as inventive and as recognisable as ever, especially in his setting of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ – I reviewed the film in more detail here.

The 1970s – return to American cinema and Movie Prominence
In his final years, Herrmann was re-discovered by a new generation of filmmakers such as Larry Cohen (1974’s It’s Alive) and Brian de Palma, for whom Herrmann wrote two exceptional scores for the writer-director’s ruminations on the work of the composer’s old collaborator, Alfred Hitchcock. The first was Sisters (1973), an hommage / conflation-cum-critique of Psycho and Rear Window and Obsession (1976), a collaboration with writer Paul Schrader that took the plot of Vertigo and spun into all sorts of transgressive directions and which boasts one of Hermann’s most beautiful scores.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Bernard Herrmann died on Christmas Eve 1975 only a few hours after coming back from the recording session for Scorsese and Schrader’s neo-noir masterpiece of urban isolation. The composer had been too weak to conduct, and this fell to Jack Harris instead, while Dave Blume would create easy-listening version of the score’s themes for the soundtrack album. With its unforgettable jazz theme (culled from an earlier composition for unsuccessful Broadway show) enveloped within a complex orchestral structure packed with extraordinary menace and delicacy, this capped a career full of highlights – the film was dedicated to the memory of Bernard Herrmann, a man whose work surely runs no risk of being forgotten.

And don’t forget to check out the other offerings in the Underappreciated Music meme hosted by the amazing Todd Mason over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

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18 Responses to The Thrilling Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann

  1. What a great idea, Sergio, to focus on Hermann’s work. So often composers don’t get the attention they really should; yet, their creations can add so much to a film. I know Hermann’s work best from his Hitchcock collaborations. But of course, Taxi Driver is memorable, too, as is Cape Fear, and several others you’ve mentioned. I really like this feature, and I hope you’ll do it again. Thanks.

  2. Colin says:

    Excellent tribute to one of the premier composers of the cinema. Like probably a lot of other people, I automatically think of Hitchcock when I hear Herrmann’s name but, as you’ve highlighted, his work was wide ranging.
    Cape Fear is a terrific score, menacing, intense & unforgettable. And while I don’t suppose too many associate him with the western, his work on Garden of Evil is very good and distinctive.

    • I agree with you there, Garden of Evil has a great score. I think the first of his I really came across were the great collaborations with Ray Harryhausen. And of course he wrote music in lots of genres, including the original theme music for Have Gun Will Travel too (before it was replaced with a pop song, the sort of thing that drive him crazy in those days …)

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Some notable and wonderful highlights from a master composer. Wonderful tribute, Sergio. Well done.

  4. Sergio – Good post, and I agree, Herrmann was one of the greats. He could create so much tension with a few (seemingly) simple notes. Now that you’ve highlighted the films, there are many I want to see again. And, yes, “5 Fingers” is a very good film.

    • Thanks Elgin, very good of you. I could have included so many others but hope this feels like a representative sample from within the genre.

      • Sergio – Your selections were great. The man did a lot of work. A few weeks ago, I was watching an old Perry Mason episode and the music sounded like Herrmann. The IMDb shows he composed for TV shows, including Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock’s program, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide and Gunsmoke. It was cool to find he provided his suspenseful sounds to television, and in a variety of genres.

        • He wrote a ton of music that was added to the CBS stock music library, so I’m not at all surprised and that cue probably was Herrmann – his stuff even turned up in episodes of LOST IN SPACE. His music apparently was definitely used in the Perry Mason episode “The Case of the Half-Wakened Wife”

  5. Mike says:

    Great stuff, Sergio, lovely to read a tribute to probably my favourite composer of them all. I admit over time that my own favourites of his might be the scoring he did for Science Fiction flicks, notably those blessed with Ray Harryhausen special effects. Just how much did Herrmann’s music add to the wonder and scale of Talos in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, for example? And if there’s a main theme that captures the sense of adventure better than THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD then I’m yet to hear it.

    • Thanks Mike, I reckoned you , me and Colin might be of like mind on this 🙂 The first I heard was the rousing score for Mysterious Island and have always been especially partial to it as a result, but I love wis fantasy score and have them all on CD and LP. His music for Gulliver is too often sidelines, and in my view is absolutely wonderful, full of light and fun.

  6. Thanks for this terrific post, Sergio. I have seen a few of the films you covered though at the time I didn’t know Bernard Herrmann had composed the music scores. This is something I have been paying attention to only in recent years. I’d like to see 5 FINGERS and watch THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL again.

    • Thanks Prashant – I am a huge fan so this is more than a little biased – but both of those are great movies and work superbly in their respective genres in my view – well worth a look or a second (or third) viewing 🙂

  7. Todd Mason says:

    And now I’ll have to go look into Hitchcock’s reaction to the TORN CURTAIN score…presumably not one of his more diplomatic interactions. Indeed, an exemplary Underappreciated Music entry, Sergio…any more of these you do will also be appreciated…

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