When Hitchcock met Herrmann

Alfred Hitchcock with a sleepy Bernard Herrmann (Paramount/The Kobal Collection)Alfred Hitchcock with a sleepy Bernard Herrmann (Paramount/The Kobal Collection)

This year the Sight and Sound film journal selected Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) as the best film of all time, knocking Citizen Kane (1941) that favourite of 50 years standing into second place. Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was the composer of both titles as well as two films further down that list, Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975) and another Hitchcock title, Psycho (1960). 

Hitchcock had been courting Herrmann for nearly a decade before they finally got together for The Trouble With Harry (1955), an offbeat comedy thriller based on an English novel, now set in New England, with more than a touch of Agatha Christie. The London-born Hitchcock knew the background well and Herrmann, the most cosmopolitan of Hollywood film composers, found this quirky whimsical tale with several macabre twists on the theme of disposing of a dead body, was well suited to his post-modern style with repeated phrases and insistent bass beat – grist to the mill of any film editor. Hitchcock was very taken with this score and as a token of his esteem for the director, Herrmann adapted it into a suite, A Portrait of Hitch. Despite Hitchcock's much wider profile, it augured well for the partnership.

By the mid-1950s, the director's name appeared above the title alongside his stars, lending him a unique standing amongst his contemporaries. He often made a surprise appearance in a cameo role and his portly profile and slightly lugubrious way of talking were also familiar to television audiences through 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents', first aired on the NBC network in 1955. 

Composers received far less attention, though Herrmann appeared on screen once conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Wider recognition came his way at the annual Academy Awards of which Herrmann was the recipient of Best Score in 1941 for The Devil and Daniel Webster. Hitchcock always invited Herrmann to view the early rushes of each film, a previously unheard of practice in an industry where it had been customary for the composer to fall in line at the end of the chain. A creative partnership was born and a bond of trust established between these two geniuses who were stimulated by each other's art.

Herrmann was a composer who needed the visual experience to inspire him, as testified by his flat operatic treatment of Wuthering Heights, the novel by Emily Brontë. Hitchcock found in him a loyal colleague who could reach beyond the director's own visual presentation to add a further dimension to his craft. For The Wrong Man (1957), Herrmann composed a jazzy prelude with a Latin-American flavour for the black tie clientele at the Stork Club with Henry Fonda, the wronged man, on bass. When his wife, Vera Miles, suffers a nervous breakdown, the sombre and fatalistic music reaches out to the seeming hopelessness of her situation with the insistent theme now embellished by the sympathetic voice of the harp. 

In Vertigo (1958) the team dig deeper, equal partners in the psychological and emotional world of the characters on screen. The film's superficially calm exterior masks a dark and volatile centre that holds a mirror to their two opposing natures: the cool yet authoritarian Hitchcock and the moody, volatile Herrmann. Vertigo gave full reign to Herrmann's musical imagination as the dreams and reveries that haunt this film unfold. The impending delirium in the repeated arpeggio figure in the prelude, the jagged tango in 'The Nightmare' and the voluptuous 'Scene d'amour' portraying the doomed romance twice over of James Stewart and Kim Novak, leave a haunting impression in their wake. 

North By Northwest (1959) was a compelling soundtrack with a propulsive energy running from the Main Titles to the terrifying climax on Mount Rushmore. When discussing the music Hitchcock would often say 'Mr Herrmann may have something to say here' but in the crop-duster sequence, one of the film's set pieces, the soundtrack was silent. The yearning, almost heartbreaking, melody 'Conversation Piece' to accompany Cary Grant's courtship of Eve Marie Saint is one of the tenderest of all Herrmann's compositions. Neither Herrmann nor Hitchcock with their larger than life features could be described as handsome, unlike their leading men. On hearing this music and watching the scene it accompanies, one wonders if in their imagination they wished even momentarily to be in such a place.     

With Psycho (1960) Hitchcock left Herrmann to score this low budget picture in his absence with an instruction to leave the notorious shower scene unaccompanied but Herrmann scored it anyway, composing a series of stabbing chords starting high up on violins that sent shock waves through the auditorium. Mr Herrmann did indeed have something to say! 

By the time of Marnie (1964), much had changed within the film industry and Hitchcock's personal affairs. As part of a deal he had become the third largest shareholder in MCA/Universal, the giant film and record entertainment business. All was well with this arrangement while the box office receipts rolled in from Psycho and The Birds, but Marnie was a failure and Hitchcock's bosses attributed part of its lack of appeal to Herrmann's score which they deemed lazy and old fashioned. The Bond franchise was now in full swing and the idea of a film soundtrack album with a title song was all the rage. Titles from Europe like Never On Sunday and Zorba The Greek had catchy themes. Universal who were releasing Hitchcock's 50th film, Torn Curtain (1966), wanted a change. Hitchcock attended the recording session of Herrmann's new score, heard  more of the same, and fired the composer in front of the orchestra. After this public humiliation the two of them never spoke or worked together again.

Herrmann retreated to London where he continued to compose for films and record his own music. However, in the last year of his life he was invited back to Hollywood by Martin Scorsese to score Taxi Driver. It earned him a posthumous Bafta Award for best film score. Hitchcock, despite a decline in his output, was acclaimed across continents as one of the world's finest movie directors. He was knighted in 1979.     

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