The greatest director/composer partnership in Hollywood history fell apartby Neil Sinyard / October 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
In march 1966, at the Goldwyn studios in Los Angeles, there occurred one of the most famous recording sessions in Hollywood history. On the podium was the celebrated composer-conductor Bernard Herrmann, leading the orchestra through his score for Alfred Hitchcock’s new film, Torn Curtain, the ninth consecutive film on which Herrmann had worked with Hitchcock. The session was going well. Herrmann’s elaborate titles music had even drawn spontaneous applause from the hardened studio musicians. Enter Hitchcock, quickly making it known that he did not like what he heard. Harsh words were exchanged and, within minutes, a partnership which had prospered for ten years, and which for many critics remains the most important director/composer partnership in Hollywood history, was in ruins.
What had happened? To answer this question, we need to understand the psychology of the two men, the evolution of their collaboration, and the commercial pressures of mid-1960s Hollywood.
Hitchcock and Herrmann had been brought together in 1955, when both were at the height of their powers. By that time, the English-born Hitchcock had been in Hollywood for 15 years and was making films on more or less his own terms. He had just directed Rear Window (1954) with James Stewart and Grace Kelly; he had become a household name through his television series; and he was being acclaimed as an important artist by the future Nouvelle Vague directors in France-Fran?ois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer. Similarly, Herrmann, whose score for Citizen Kane (1941) had been a milestone in film composing, was now specialising more and more in film music. He had developed a distinctive style, with a particular flair for Gothic subjects and portraits of disturbed psychology.
Hitchcock and Herrmann were an odd couple: the former a repressed, sardonic Cockney; the latter a volatile New York Jew. But what they shared, according to Hitchcock’s biographer Donald Spoto, was “a dark tragic sense of life… and a compulsion to explore aesthetically the private world of the romantic fantasy.” The composer’s widow, Norma Herrmann, describes the bond more simply: they shared a sense of humour and liked playing practical jokes and imitating people. Herrmann was also an Anglophile. He loved English literature and was a champion of English composers such as Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. He could also be famously abrupt. (Late in his career, he was asked to write the music for The Exorcist. Director Willam Friedkin asked…