From the moment the first film flickered from a cranky old projector over a hundred years ago, music has always played a vital accompanying role with the moving image. Sometimes, however, the cinematic marriage between filmmaker and composer can transcend any creative possibilities to become iconic collaborations that result in undeniable masterpieces. To wit: director Alfred Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann.
Of late, there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in the life of the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. There was BBC2s one-off drama The Girl, about his relationship with actress Tippi Hedren during their filming of The Birds and Marnie. And Anthony Hopkins has stepped into the shoes of the Master of Suspense for the movie Hitchcock, which recounts the making of Psycho. In other words, there’s a fresh interest in the man and his flair for the macabre.
Hitch – as he was often called by friends and colleagues – was often as unconventional, twisted and dark as many of the characters and themes he depicted in his enduringly popular, frequently sinister films. However, these movies wouldn’t have been half as memorable had the slasher stylings of Psycho and the obsessive oppressiveness not been accompanied by the musical scores of his most famous and frequent collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.
In a working (and also personal) relationship that spanned ten years from 1956 to 1966, their towering and intimidating talents (and egos) synchronised to create masterpiece after masterpiece, from The Trouble With Harry to their final collaboration (which also led to a bitter falling out) with Torn Curtain.
There are a few other director/composer collaborations that have been as enduring and productive – Federico Fellini/Nino Rota, Steven Spielberg/John Williams, Tim Burton/Danny Elfman – but Hitchcock and Herrmann arguably remain the giants by which all subsequent collaborations must be judged.
The Trouble With Harry
Hitchcock and Herrmann’s first celluloid pairing was this – a quirky, amusing, offbeat, macabre offering of rural gothic about a small rural community and a dead body that just won’t go away. The film was a change in tone for Hitchcock as much as it was for Herrmann, who owed more to the English and pastoral, lyrical and elegiac compositions of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. It’s a score that combines just the right blend of fun, pathos, and haunting beauty for Hitch’s film.
Above: Herrmann in pastoral mode
Accompanying the swirling, hypnotic images of legendary title designer Saul Bass, Herrmann’s opening piece music for Vertigo – like so many of his main title compositions, in fact – grabs you by the cahonies and doesn’t let go, merging, melting, and swirling amongst the dizzying riot of visuals to create one of the most unforgettable combos of image and musical composition ever.
Above: Herrmann at his vertiginous and dizzying best
It’s a score that impeccably captures the essence of obsession, delusion, paranoia, fear and madness played out by James Stewart in perhaps the most complex and darkest performance of his career.
And Herrmann’s Scene d’amour – a five minute plus sequence that Hitchcock reportedly told his cameraman “I think Mr Herrmann might have something to say about this” – evokes the romantic, obsessive spirit of Wagner at his most dramatically and operatically luscious.
Above: Romantic music par excellence
North By Northwest
A fandango?! Who’d ever have thought it? Well, that’s the Spanish musical style Herrmann adopts to represent what he called Cary Grant’s “Astaire-like agility” and “exciting rout to follow” in a fast and furious overture that gets the film off to a barnstorming start.
Above: Makes you want to dance over the stone faces of Mount Rushmore
It later reappears in some of the movie’s key action sequences (including a drunken car-drive and the heart-stopping finale dash over Mount Rushmore). His yearning love theme, known as Conversation Piece, captures the love and longing of the two protagonists.
Above: Music for tender moments
Interestingly, though, the most talked about and famous scene of the entire film – Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a cropduster plane – runs without a single note of accompanying music.
Undoubtedly the most famous of all their collaborations, there’s not much to say that hasn’t been said already about this potent, powerful and unforgettable synthesis of image and music. From the opening, insistent ostinato to the shower murder’s shrieking violins (conjectured by some to represent the screeching of the birds so beloved by the killer Norman Bates), it’s a purely string orchestra that Herrmann described as a “black and white sound for a black and white film”. The end result is a classic. Not bad considering Hitchcock was so disappointed with the original cut that he wanted to trim it down to an hour-long TV movie.
Above: A relentless and terrifying prelude
Above: It’s enough to make you commit murder
OK, so there’s really no score in this film at all, but Herrmann was extremely proud of his contribution and work as ‘sound consultant’ alongside electronic sound designer Remi Gassman. The screeching bird cries and the frantic flapping of wings were masterfully manipulated and edited to create an unnerving and almost unbearable tension that provided the perfect and terrifying aural soundscape of nature turning against man.
Above: No film score, just the amplified flapping of wings
One of Hitchcock’s least successful films, this tale of a kleptomaniac with a dark past isn’t one of the director’s finest achievements. Herrmann’s music also isn’t his best (although even Herrmann on a bad day is better than most composers on a good one), repeating too often the main theme, which is admittedly lush and romantic. There’s a fantastic scherzo, however, which accompanies a hunting scene.
Above: Let’s cut to the chase – so here’s some chase music
Herrmann was not only an irascible, hot-headed and volatile personality, but also a man who found compromise pretty much impossible. So when Hitchcock, who in the mid-sixties was at the height of his powers and getting a little too big for his boots, insisted that Herrmann write a pop score (as was in vogue for many film soundtracks of the decade), Herrmann unusually humoured the director.
But it all came to an unpleasant denouement when Hitch walked on to the soundstage, saw the unorthodox orchestra, and heard the first few cues. He fired Herrmann on the spot and the two never met or spoke again.
Above: Bold, bombastic, brilliant – but sadly rejected
Although Herrmann was gravely wounded by this turn of events (he respected Hitch a great deal), he went on to score a number of notable films for several significant directors: Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451; Brian DePalma’s Sisters and Obsession; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). Hitchcock’s career, however, had reached its peak in the 60s and never hit the same heights again.
What do you think of Hitchcock and Herrmann’s collaborations? I defy you to rate those of any other director/composer pairing above them!