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 for something “even greater than what you did for Citizen Kane.” Herrmann replied: “Oh yeah? Then make a greater film than Citizen Kane!”) But the basis of his relationship with Hitchcock was profound mutual respect.
Their first collaboration, The Trouble with Harry (1955), was one of Hitchcock’s favourites and Herrmann caught its droll humour perfectly. But the partnership really came into its own on Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Nobody who has seen James Stewart’s detective pursuing Kim Novak along the sloping streets of San Francisco in Vertigo could forget Herrmann’s accompanying music: hushed, haunting, hypnotic. His love theme has a swooning romantic intensity which is pure Herrmann, but also alludes to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The crazy fandango that Herrmann invented for North by Northwest amplifies the film’s absurdist adventure as advertising man Cary Grant is mistaken for a secret agent and pursued across the US by spies. Most remarkable of all is the score for Psycho. Seeking a black and white sound to complement the film’s bleak, monochrome photography, he composed a score entirely for string orchestra: he wanted to create a sound, he said, “of pure ice water.” The chill reaches its climax in what is the most celebrated musical cue in cinema: Herrmann’s screaming violins, which accompany the murder of Janet Leigh in the shower, evoke both Leigh’s cries and the slashing of the murderer’s knife.
This was the high point of their collaboration. Herrmann’s contribution helped to make the film the most commercially successful of Hitchcock’s career. He supervised an electronic score for Hitchcock’s next film, The Birds (1963), which is now accepted as a classic but at the time divided critics. But he returned to a full-blown romantic style for Hitchcock’s Freudian melodrama, Marnie (1964), starring Sean Connery; it was a box-office flop and derided by the critics for its psychological crudity. Herrmann’s score escaped censure and in some quarters was regarded as superior to the film it accompanied.
The failure of Marnie unnerved Hitchcock. He was now under pressure from the heads of Universal studios to commission a score for his next film, Torn Curtain, which was commercially exploitable. Also, the symphonic film score of the kind in which Herrmann excelled was becoming unfashionable and studios were looking for a hit song or theme (like Lara’s Theme in Doctor Zhivago) which would add millions to a film’s takings. Norma Herrmann (who married Herrmann in 1968) told me that at this time Hitchcock was terrified of what he called “the whizzkids” and of being thought out of touch. In the 1950s he had always seemed ahead of the game-mastering first colour, then the competition of television. But in the mid-1960s, after the failure of The Birds and the flop of Marnie, the old confidence in anticipating trends was beginning to slip.
He stuck with Herrmann for Torn Curtain, but during the shooting of the film, Hitchcock would say solemnly to his friend: “I want a Number One.” Herrmann then went away and did his own thing. A clash was inevitable. When Hitchcock arrived at that recording session and saw the orchestra-12 flutes, 16 horns, nine trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, eight cellos, eight basses and no violins-even a non-musician could grasp that this was not the combination to conjure up a hit. He was furious with Herrmann for not doing as he was told. For his part, Herrmann was dismayed at what he saw as Hitchcock’s capitulation to studio pressure.
There still remains some mystery about the quarrel. If Hitchcock wanted a “Number One,” why did he ask Herrmann to write the score in the first place? Herrmann was a composer of great gifts, but a commercial melodic sense was not one of them. Although thrown by the sight of Herrmann’s orchestra, why did Hitchcock not even listen to what he had written? After all, Psycho was hardly a hummable score, but it had played a big part in the film’s success. And after ditching Herrmann, why did he replace him with John Addison, a decent film composer but no more likely than Herrmann to provide a commercial hit? Henry Mancini, composer of hits such as Moon River, would have been more logical. (Although, when Mancini was commissioned to write a score for Frenzy, Hitchcock threw it out, saying it sounded too much like Herrmann.)
My own view is that Hitchcock hoped Herrmann could deliver the goods, but had also come to resent his dependence on him. Hitchcock’s insecurity surfaced in Torn Curtain because Herrmann implied that he knew best. Hitchcock was particularly cross that Herrmann had written music for a farmhouse murder scene when he had told him not to. (Originally Hitchcock had not wanted music for the shower murder in Psycho but had to concede that it worked better with it. He did not want to be proved wrong twice.)
It is often said that the two never spoke to each other again, and indeed that Hitchcock avoided contact. This is not true. Norma Herrmann told me that she was present at an occasion when her husband gave Hitchcock a recording of his opera, Wuthering Heights, and that Hitchcock later sent him a note saying how much he had enjoyed it. “It was not a friendly meeting,” she told me, but it was at least polite. She also showed me an affectionate inscription by Hitchcock to Herrmann on the latter’s copy of Truffaut’s book-length interview with the director. The inscription is dated 1967-after the falling out. Herrmann continued to speak admiringly of Hitchcock after their break-up. In interviews after Torn Curtain, Hitchcock never mentioned Herrmann’s name.
The split was a watershed for both men. Hitchcock’s career never recovered the glory of his Herrmann years, and most of the scores for his final films were dreary. Herrmann fell out of favour for a while but was rediscovered by a new generation of directors. He wrote a thunderously romantic score for Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), a virtual remake of Vertigo. Indeed, the music seems a homage by the composer to his Hitchcockian past. And he provided pure American Gothic for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), even quoting from Psycho at the end, to suggest the continuing psychosis of Scorsese’s hero. He completed the recording on Christmas Eve 1975, and died in his hotel room that night.
The task of the film composer, Herrmann said, was “to get inside the drama.” It sounds basic, but few can do it, and none as well as he. How brilliantly, for example, the music evokes Janet Leigh’s paranoia and guilt during her tormented car drive in Psycho. He thought of film music as “the connecting tissue between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.” Hitchcock similarly believed in enveloping an audience in an emotional experience, which is why they complemented each other so well. Rather than Gus Van Sant’s pointless shot-for-shot remake of Psycho (with its misconceived use of Herrmann’s music), the Hitchcock centenary would have been better served by a reissue of Torn Curtain with Herrmann’s rejected score. Was it too bizarre for this popular melodrama, or was it the dramatic ingredient the film needed? It would be fascinating to decide which of the two great artists was right.