I had the privilege of previewing one of Waxworks‘ latest releases this week; Taxi Driver by Bernard Herrmann. I’ve reviewed this and the new Stylotone release of Twisted Nerve, also by Bernard Herrmann for a double review in the upcoming issue of The Wire. I thought I’d write about one of my favourite film score composers while the research is still fresh.
There’s no doubt that Herrmann was one of the greatest film composers of all time, scoring films like Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Cape Fear, Twisted Nerve, Fahrenheit 451 and Taxi Driver, collaborating with Ray Harryhausen on many occasions and, perhaps most famously, with Alfred Hitchcock on seven films including Psycho and Vertigo. He began scoring films when the genre was just coming into its own, a logical transition from radio and it was through his connection with Orson Welles via this medium, that Herrmann launched into scoring films with his debut Citizen Kane.
Winning awards for his championship of new and perhaps unpopular music, Herrmann drew influence from a deep and varied well, from composers like Nikolai Myaskovsky, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Richard Arnell, Edmund Rubbra, Charles Ives, Hermann Goetz, Alexander Gretchaninov, Niels Gade and Franz Liszt. Herrmann’s recognisable, yet never typical style, was built upon the contemporary classical tradition. This lead to a legacy of truly outstanding film scores, but also contributed somewhat to his downfall. Herrmann stayed true to his signature approach even as Hollywood was drifting away from the classical tradition to embrace the more commercial appeal of jazz and pop.
“[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him.”
When his most reliable cohort asked him to write a pop tune for his film Torn Curtain, Herrmann resisted. He believed that it was “a mistake. Because … he only finishes a picture 60 percent. I have to finish it for him.” It was this film that saw the old friends severe ties and Herrmann fall out of favour with Hollywood, moving to Britain where he resumed his career – without Hitchcock.
By all accounts, it was Herrmann’s flair for drama and true love and understanding of the medium that made him such an extraordinary film composer. He was able to see the important undercurrents and ulterior motives where no one else, not even the director, could. Hitchcock attributed Herrmann with the success of the famous shower scene in Psycho. Originally it was to have no music, but Herrmann insisted, knowing exactly the right buttons to push to the greatest effect.
“To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. People have a style.”
Herrmann’s approach to orchestration was also unique. He could not turn the orchestration of his work over to anyone else, “To orchestrate is like a thumbprint. People have a style. I don’t understand it, having someone orchestrate. It would be like someone putting color to your paintings.” He understood the material so well that often he would decide on the instruments even before he’d seen the film, as was the case with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. For Scorsese’s inspired tale of ‘New York gothic’ Herrmann settled on brass and percussion for the main theme coupled with a jazz idiom. For Twisted Nerve, Herrmann narrows down the arrangement to focus on woodwinds, vibraphone and harp which gives the film an even more sordid undercurrent of dreamy and false innocence. And of course that unforgettable whistle that was flung into the mainstream by music magpie Quentin Tarantino in 2003 when he borrowed it for Kill Bill.
It’s been said that had Herrmann not decided to work with Scorsese for Taxi Driver, he might have died leaving a trail of relatively mediocre work in his wake. Scorsese struggled to convince Herrmann that his film was worthy, and while he was surprised with the jazzy tune that Herrmann ended up submitting, it would appear that perhaps Herrmann was finally ready to embrace more modern styles of composition. Bernard Herrmann died on Christmas Eve 1975 in his sleep. Only hours earlier, he’d been burning the midnight oil with Scorsese to give the narrative of the final scene a sting. “Play it backwards” were the last three words that Scorsese ever heard from Herrmann. It was those parting words of creative insight, that seemed to come so easily to Herrmann, that cemented his respect for this remarkable composer.
“I felt Vertigo made one big mistake. They should have never made it in San Francisco. And not with Jimmy Stewart. I don’t think he was right for the part. I don’t believe that he would be that wild about any woman. It should have had an actor like Charles Boyer, or that kind. It should have been left in New Orleans, or in a hot, sultry climate. When I wrote the picture, I thought of that. When I do a film, if I don’t like it, I go back to the original [version].”
Read more about Bernard Herrmann at http://www.bernardherrmann.org/