This 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.