Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory

Book review: Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). 435pp.

Sinyard_Understanding Sound Tracks review_bookcover
This is a fabulous feat of film scholarship, both for the range of material it encompasses and the lucidity with which it handles complex ideas. The book is aimed primarily at undergraduate and postgraduate students of film; and, as a concise scholarly introduction to the thorny theoretical topics of Genre, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Queer theory, it could hardly be bettered. The theory is then applied to a variety of film soundtracks, and familiar films are paired with less mainstream examples for purposes of analysis, comparison and contrast. In the process dazzling insights are offered into acknowledged classics such as The Searchers (1956) and Rebecca (1940) as well as less well known films such as Dead Man (1995) and Ten Canoes (2006). One of the most revelatory sections is devoted to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), where, through a closely argued commentary on the way in which the soundtrack reflects the hero’s difficulty in pulling things together, the chapter offers a convincing critical rehabilitation of a film that was widely derided and misunderstood on first release. A coda combines all these theoretical approaches in a brilliant reading of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), which makes the film sound a lot more interesting to hear than I found it to watch.

A primary aim of the book is to challenge what has been called the “visual chauvinism” of much film analysis and give equal attention to a film’s soundtrack. This yields some remarkable and challenging interpretations. For example, there is a detailed account of the way Max Steiner’s score for John Ford’s The Searchers seems to run counter to the film, in the author’s words “obfuscating threat and emphasising reassurance” in a way that adds yet another layer of complication to what is already one of the most troubling masterpieces of the American cinema.1 (I would love to see a similarly forensic analysis carried out on Steiner’s equally contentious score for John Huston’s 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Huston claimed he only first heard at the film’s premiere.) The soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is then used as a compelling visual and aural contrast to the Ford film. There is a similarly engrossing comparison and contrast between Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and Ten Canoes to show the different ways they voice the Aboriginal experience. The visual elements of Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) might seem to reinforce Laura Mulvey’s influential description of the dominant patriarchal discourse of classic Hollywood film, but the author argues that aurally things are more complex, with Lauren Bacall’s vocal performance (and, contrary to movie myth, it is her actual singing voice on the film) challenging and even countering the film’s ostensible reinforcement of gender inequality. Conversely, a more overtly feminist film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) “reveals some irresolvable mixed messages when it comes to the endurance of a female ‘voice’ in a patriarchal context.”2

Elsewhere the author demonstrates how David Raksin’s “consistently alarmist” score for Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) is “an important regulator of [the father’s] power, since no one in the film world itself is able to exert clear-cut control of him”;3 the way Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, and not Maxim, “hold the primary aural power” in Hitchcock’s Rebecca;4 and how Peter Dasent’s score in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) assists in “helping us to understand the extreme and emotional multi-dimensionality of its subversive protagonists who were all-too-easily labelled monsters in their own time.”5 The implications of all these assertions are eloquently followed through. The result is to make you want to experience all these films afresh – and through new ears as well as new eyes.

Neil Sinyard

Two random afterthoughts, as stimulated by a couple of observations in the book:

1) In the chapter on Rebecca, the author notes that “in placing emphasis on the mesmerizing power of Mrs Danvers’s silent entrances in terms of her impression on us more than on ‘Fontaine’s’ experience, we are reading against the grain of what the auteur said. Though recognizing the significance of Hitchcock’s directorial role, we nevertheless explore meanings beyond the delimitations set out by him.”6 Although authorship is not one of the theoretical areas discussed in detail, the book cleverly intimates how consideration of the soundtrack inevitably complicates an auteurist approach to the cinema. John Ford’s legion of critical admirers often cite his method of cutting in the camera so as to minimise the possibility of editorial or studio interference with his footage, but that same control did not seem to extend to the soundtrack, which makes the discussion of Max Steiner’s score for The Searchers all the more intriguing and important (Ford grumbled about the score in his book-length interview with Peter Bogdanovich, saying “with that music they should have been Cossacks not Indians”). This issue of ultimate authorial control was surely partly behind Hitchcock’s legendary falling out with Hollywood’s most distinctive and original musical personality, Bernard Herrmann. To Hitchcock’s probable discomfort, Herrmann’s “voice” over the soundtrack was becoming too individual and insistent in its own right and competing for attention with Hitchcock’s, and you can’t have two auteurs in one film: not in a Hitchcock film, certainly.

2) In the chapter on The Piano, the author compares Michael Nyman’s score with Georges Delerue’s music for a roughly contemporaneous film, Steel Magnolias (1989), and writes: “the whimsicality, light textures and delicate timbres of the Delerue score seem innocuous and clichéd in comparison with the exuberant energy and stridency in Ada’s music as performed by [Holly] Hunter”.7 It is a curious comparison (the musical requirements of the two films are quite different) and also rather oddly expressed (Delerue’s “delicacy” is viewed negatively whereas Nyman’s “stridency” is seen as a virtue). Anyone who knows Delerue’s concert music as well as his film scores will readily appreciate that he would have been more than able to rise to the complexities of Campion’s film if he had been offered the assignment. Indeed, for me, it is a pity he was not, for I always find Delerue’s music infinitely more engaging, touching and beautiful than Michael Nyman’s, which, to my ears (and even when acknowledging its dramatic effectiveness in a film such as The Piano), invariably sounds like Philip Glass on an off day. But then: Benjamin Britten couldn’t stand Brahms; Andre Previn’s idea of musical torture would be having to sit through a Wagner opera; Leonard Rosenman described Maurice Jarre’s much-loved “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago as “amateurish” and with “actual wrong notes” etc. etc. There’s no accounting for musical taste – even theoretically? Discuss.

  1. Elsie Walker, Understanding Sound Tracks Through Film Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 36. 

  2. Ibid, pp. 238-239. 

  3. Ibid., p. 285. 

  4. Ibid., p. 363. 

  5. Ibid., p. 388. 

  6. Ibid., p. 356. 

  7. Ibid., p. 216. 

Juggling Wolves: BFI Film Classics: Marnie

Book review: Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 96 pp., £12.99

Fifty years after the film’s release, the jury is still out on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 suspense melodrama, Marnie. It was widely condemned and even derided on its first release for its apparent technical incompetence, artificial sets, and dubious sexual politics, though it found an eloquent early champion in Robin Wood, who proclaimed it a masterpiece in his trailblazing monograph, Hitchcock’s Films (1965) and thereafter never wavered in that opinion.1 More recent accounts include a thoughtful and sympathetic book by Tony Lee Moral about the film’s production (2002),2 and Donald Spoto’s latest, increasingly disillusioned volume on Hitchcock, Spellbound By Beauty (2009), where the film’s aesthetic quality takes second place to Spoto’s allegations about the director’s sexual harassment of his leading actress.3 Inspired by Spoto’s book, the tv movie, The Girl (2012) dramatised the relationship between Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren; and it prompted an article in The Guardian, which described Marnie as ‘a terrible movie and a cruel one: the idea that a woman sexually traumatised by her childhood can be saved by submitting to a controlling rapist, is offensive and plain wrong.’4 Yet might it not be the article, rather than the film, that is ‘offensive and plain wrong’? Reading it, one could almost hear Robin Wood turning in his grave.

In his stimulating new study of Marnie, Murray Pomerance, to his credit, does not spend time remonstrating with the film’s detractors, which could be a wearisome exercise; when he does quote a fellow critic, it is invariably in a positive spirit and with a view to augmenting his own argument. The film’s quality emerges quite naturally from his enthusiastic, intelligent and insightful commentary. He plunges the reader straight into the film’s opening (one of the cinema’s great opening sequences). The camera focuses on a bulging yellow handbag (already suggestive of money) being carried under her arm by a mysterious female whom the camera follows along a deserted train platform, then stops, then follows again briefly, then stops, as if exhausted by the pursuit: its quarry has escaped. As Pomerance emphasises, a dominant theme of the film is flight: at this stage from a crime (the heroine is quickly established as a thief); then from her surrounding stifling society (the following scene with the outraged employer from whom she has stolen suggests she may have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment); but crucially from herself and from her own identity. It is some time before we are allowed to see her face. It has been calculated that Tippi Hedren as Marnie has 32 costume changes in the film, which, as well as keeping Edith Head on her toes, is expressive not only of the character’s external fluidity of appearance but also of the internal fragility of her sense of self. Soon we are to become aware that she harbours secrets deeper than her criminal activities, or her dislike of men, or an unusually tense relationship with her mother. There is also an irrational fear of the colour red at moments of stress or distress, and nightmares triggered by storms that seem linked to some fearful event from her childhood. The film’s narrative trajectory is dedicated to closing off her successive retreat from these demons to the point when she must finally confront them: only then will she able to find herself.

When Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) comes onto the scene and falls in love with her, Marnie’s flight from self becomes increasingly difficult, particularly when he discovers her theft from his office and virtually blackmails her into marriage so as to escape prosecution or an inevitable later apprehension by a male victim who might be much less forgiving. Is Mark’s behaviour that of a ‘controlling rapist’ (to borrow the phrase in the Guardian article) or that of a potential saviour prepared to defy conventional morality to save the woman he has come to love? There have been many accounts of the central relationship in Marnie, and particularly of the motivation behind Rutland’s actions, but I know of none more sympathetically attuned to the tone of the film than the following account in Pomerance’s book:

Mark’s sole project in Marnie is to rescue this girl from her amnesia, help her locate the memories of ‘old times’ so she can live in the present. He must time-travel with no map. Clues not placed in the narrative so Mark can cut a path to Marnie’s rescue are there so that viewers can share willingly in his concern. We must come to love Marnie because of her blazing pride, her animality, the elemental warmth buried within the frozen sheath of her fear.5

One of the particular pleasures of the book is the attention to the numerous felicities and subtleties of vocal intonation and dialogue delivery of the two leading actors. It is refreshing to see Tippi Hedren’s performance so eloquently celebrated, when some of the mythology surrounding the film (partly encouraged by Hitchcock himself) has been the suggestion that Hedren was an inadequate substitute for Hitchcock’s preferred choice of Grace Kelly, who had regretfully decided that her royal responsibilities as Princess Grace of Monaco compelled her to decline the role. In fact, I have often wondered whether her eventual rejection of the part was her suspicion that it might be beyond her capabilities. She could certainly have conveyed Marnie’s frosty exterior, but could she have conveyed the vulnerability of a frightened child that Hedren so courageously and capably assays in the extraordinary revelation scene at the end, where the actress has to simulate the tormented state of mind of a five-year-old girl? I wonder.

With the aid of a detailed study of the film’s preparatory production notes, Pomerance has no difficulty in defending Hitchcock from the charges of technical sloppiness and demonstrating that the stylised artificial backdrops are part of the film’s aesthetic design. It is not as if Hitchcock has not done this sort of thing before. In the famous love scene in the hotel room in Vertigo, when James Stewart’s hero thinks he has brought his love-object (Kim Novak) back to life, Hitchcock has incorporated back projection of a livery stable from an earlier scene to suggest the depth of Stewart’s delusion, the sense that this re-creation of the past is a fantasy inside his own head. Hitchcock’s use of back projection during Marnie’s ride on her beloved horse, Forio has a similar expressive implication. The director wants simultaneously to convey both Marnie’s sense of release but also the sense that this is not a genuine release and that her feeling of freedom is illusory. As Pomerance points out, Tippi Hedren was an accomplished rider, so there would have been no need to use back projection unless it were at the service of some other expressive purpose.

The back-projection debate is familiar territory in Marnie criticism and can never be wholly conclusive (one can acknowledge the deliberate and valid intention behind Hitchcock’s aesthetic strategy without necessarily being convinced by the result). Less familiar in Marnie criticism is what the blurb at the back of the book describes as the author’s ‘sharp-eyed understanding of American society and mores’, which extends to a particularly illuminating discussion of the North/South divide in the film and even the symbolic significance of the pecan pie baked by Marnie’s mother.

There is also a particularly good analysis of the fox-hunting sequence, where he argues that Marnie’s trauma here is not simply due to the sudden sight of the colour red but also by what he calls her ‘profound identification with the victimised animal. All too plainly, Marnie can see how society is little more than a fox hunt, with the callous, brave, unforgiving, and desperate (Strutt and Co) ganging up on the weak, vulnerable, feelingful and innocent…. She is the fox, a race with the hounds behind.’6 That section of the text took me back to the film’s first scene after the opening, announced by Strutt’s ‘Robbed!’ and where, joined by Mark who is visiting the premises, Strutt (Martin Gabel) affirms his conviction that the robbery has been committed by his former employee Marion Holland (one of Marnie’s aliases). Simply the way he describes her to the police is very revealing about the male classification of women against which Marnie rebels. Strutt can describe her appearance and indeed measurements in great detail (the secretary’s reaction whilst he is doing so is a picture: she has clearly seen all this before). Mark also joins in with this callous classification, saying ‘Oh, that one’ and recalling her as ‘the brunette with the legs.’ Strutt particularly remembers her habit of ‘pulling her skirt down over her knees as if they were a national treasure’, and it is a gesture that will later give Marnie away when she comes to work at Rutland’s: Mark will remember Strutt’s description. What is being implied through all this is a motive behind Marnie’s kleptomania: namely, a form of revenge against the patriarchal world in which she lives and the sexist attitudes she has to endure. (Significantly, we will learn that she steals in order to win her mother’s love.) One of the most sympathetically observed themes in the film is that of the situation of the modern woman trying to operate in a man’s world and how difficult it is for someone like Marnie in this society to maintain her sexual and financial independence. It reminds me of that superb moment in Rear Window when Jeffries (James Stewart) is spying on Miss Torso in one of the apartments opposite as she entertains a number of gentleman acquaintances in what seems to be a formal cocktail party. Jeffries rather leeringly refers to her as a queen bee, but Lisa (Grace Kelly), a successful career woman, has a much clearer perception of the situation and puts Jeffries straight (and the animal imagery looks ahead to Marnie). ‘I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,’ she explains. ‘Juggling wolves’.

There is another key moment in Marnie where a comparison with Rear Window suggests itself, and it occurs in the revelation scene when Marnie finally recalls the incident in her childhood when she has killed the sailor. It is activated by her sight of a struggle between a white-shirted Mark and her mother, at which point the memory she has so long repressed takes over and is visually recalled. Pomerance valuably reminds us that Mark can see none of this recollection and ‘is experiencing a form of paralysis akin to what besets Jeff Jeffries in Rear Window when through his long focus lens he sees his beloved Lisa Fremont caught in a murderer’s grip and, hobbled in his wheelchair can do nothing to save her.’7 Similarly in Marnie: far from being controlling, Mark is at this key point in the story completely helpless. Pomerance describes this moment as ‘the paralysis of dramatic involvement’.8 I would take this further and suggest that it is the moment in both films when the hero is confronted with the full consequences of his obsession and where it has led; the perilous terrain into which his obsession might have plunged the person he most loves; and, perversely perhaps, the moment in the film more than any other when he recognises the intensity of that love.

Appropriately, the most contentious section of the book deals with the most contentious section of the film (it led to screenwriter Evan Hunter’s removal from the project): namely, the honeymoon sequence. Is the scene when Mark finally has intercourse with his wife a ‘rape’ scene? The screenwriter Evan Hunter thought it was, which is the reason he was removed. The new writer, Jay Presson Allen always thought the scene was dealing with a difficult marital situation, and the word ‘rape’ was never used in her discussions with Hitchcock. There is a lot of sensitive detail in Pomerance’s description of the whole sequence (the reference to Klimt is a particularly lovely observation), but there is also an element of tentativeness and imprecision not present elsewhere in the volume. ‘What precisely can Mark take her to mean when Marnie bellows “No!”?’ he asks.9 Well, precisely: ‘No’. It is difficult to see any ambiguity in Marnie’s response; the rejection could hardly be plainer. Pomerance posits the suggestion that Mark’s entry into her bedroom might have awakened another occasion in her past that she is trying to suppress rather than signifying a rejection of any form of sexual congress with Mark himself. He writes: ‘When Mark kissed her in his office during the thunderstorm, and again in the stables at Wykwyn, we saw her fondness for sex, at least with him.’10 Not exactly. In the scene in his office, Mark could be seen as taking advantage of Marnie’s obvious terror, certainly comforting her, but also using the opportunity to make a romantic advance. His line, ‘You’re safe… from the lightning’ has the undercurrent of ‘but not from me’. It always reminds me of that moment in Vertigo when Scottie is comforting a similarly distressed Madeleine, and says, ‘No one possesses you, you’re safe with me’, which, in the full context of the film, will become profoundly ironic. Similarly with the love scene in the stables: it concludes not happily, but with Marnie looking away from Mark and with an expression on her face of profound anxiety. Her robbery of Rutland’s safe directly follows that love scene in the stables and suggests a connection: the theft could almost be a kind of rebuke directed at Mark’s romantic presumption. It certainly indicates her intention to effect a closure of the relationship and her desire to flee from it.

In discussing the actual ‘rape’ scene, Pomerance quotes William Rothman to the effect that ‘we have grounds for believing, as Mark does, that he is making love to her, not raping her. As Hitchcock films this moment, she even seems to move on her own accord to the bed, though backward, as if in a trance.’11 This rather glides over the fact that Marnie is to follow this sexual experience with an immediate attempt at suicide. To compound the impression of authorial unease, there is an odd misprint hereabouts in the text (along with the erroneous dating of Winston Graham’s novel as 1971, not 1961, it is the only such instance I spotted) when Pomerance writes; ‘There is no escape from the fact that he [Mark] is become the camera.’ I presume what is meant is ‘has become’, because the author then quotes Raymond Bellour as saying that ‘Hitchcock becomes a sort of double of Mark’. He then concludes that, like Mark, ‘we are all now very much wanting to go to bed with Marnie’ and being held back.12 On the contrary, it is equally possible, and arguably more plausible (because of the suicide attempt that follows) that Hitchcock is inviting us to identify with Marnie rather than Mark at this stage – the close up of Mark at the moment of intercourse looks more threatening than seductive – and share her feelings of desolation. As I have argued elsewhere, the character of Marnie (her repression, the private fears beneath the external calm, the sublimation and displacement of her sexuality) seems much closer to that of Hitchcock’s own personality than does the virile, self-confident hero played by Sean Connery. Ironically, much earlier in his book, Pomerance has made a very similar observation when he has claimed: ‘If ever he [i.e. Hitchcock] had a female alter ego….Marnie is her epitome.’13 Absolutely: and it is curious that he does not follow through this intuition in the film’s most controversial scene, because it could illuminate and even validate Hitchcock’s whole presentation.

Even in a detailed and rigorous study such as this, one cannot expect complete comprehensiveness in coverage of such a complex film. However, I was a little surprised by two omissions. There is no extended discussion of what has always seemed to me the key scene in the film: the ‘free association’ scene between Marnie and Mark, which brings together all the main elements of Marnie’s trauma; is the scene when she openly challenges Mark in suggesting that his obsession might be as ‘sick’ as her repression; where, for the first time, she is driven to concede that she needs and wants help; and where Mark’s genuine love for her is apparent in his gesture of protectiveness and concern. Hedren, Connery and Hitchcock are at their very best here. ‘It’s a very sad scene, isn’t it?’ Hedren said to Hitchcock at one of their script sessions. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but it comes out of anger,’ a remark I have always thought as being as revealing about Hitchcock as about Marnie. Perhaps Pomerance thought the scene had been analysed extensively elsewhere and that he had nothing to add. One would have welcomed his intuitions nonetheless.

The other striking omission – to me, at least – is the complete absence of any reference to Bernard Herrmann’s score. Over the years this has become almost as controversial as the film itself, because it foreshadows the calamitous falling out between composer and director over the score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966). No one could dispute the importance of Herrmann’s contribution to Hitchcock’s films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), but a number of critics have suggested that Hitchcock felt that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. In Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (2012), Gergely Hubai goes so far as to contend that ‘Hitchcock mostly blamed Herrmann for Marnie’s poor box-office showing, claiming that its old-fashioned style ruined his cutting edge “sex mystery”’.14 Memos at the time indicate that Hitchcock saw Marnie as a psychological suspense drama in the manner of Spellbound and that it should have a similar recurring musical theme, which Herrmann does indeed supply, though in his own distinctive style. It was actually quite unusual for Herrmann to highlight his main theme in that way. Although the theme itself is quite similar to one he composed for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (and indeed quite similar to Leonard Rosenman’s main theme for Rebel Without a Cause), he would have been entitled to quote Brahms when he was informed that a theme in the finale of his First Symphony was similar to a theme in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth: ‘Any donkey can see that.’ The important point is how the theme is deployed and developed. In this regard, I would think back to Pomerance’s fine visual analysis of the early hotel room scene when our mysterious heroine rinses the black dye out of her hair in the bathroom before facing the camera for the first time as the archetypal Hitchcock blonde. ‘In the explosion of that proud, beautiful face inside the wet ring of sparkling hair,’ Pomerance enthuses, ‘we already love her.’15 What is missing from that exultant description is an acknowledgement of the essential way Herrmann’s music swells, contributes to, and indeed completes that moment. In the words of musicologist Christopher Palmer (1990), ‘the burst of musical technicolor’ at that point ‘makes it one of the most memorable images in the film.’16 One could multiply instances of that kind. For me, Herrmann’s score, which appropriately combines rich romanticism with disturbing dissonance, has always been an inseparable part of Marnie’s greatness.

Let me end on the film’s finale, and on the book’s eerie cover illustration, which grows more haunting the more you look at it. It is an image of the children playing in the street, as seen by Marnie when she emerges into daylight after exorcising the childhood trauma that has paralysed her emotional development. One can also just see at the end of the street that disconcerting ship, a clue all along that Marnie’s mental blockage might have some connection with it (a sailor being at the centre of her forgotten nightmare). The children are very oddly arranged in the frame and look slightly alien: is there a potential future Marnie amongst them? When Mark emerges from the house, Marnie tells him she does not want to go to prison but would rather stay with him. Is that the nearest she can come to a declaration of love, or is it simply an expression of her preference for one kind of imprisonment over another? Mark replies: ‘Had you, love?’ Pomerance astutely picks up on the curious expression and grammar of that response: ‘had you’ rather than ‘would you’; ‘a delicious subjunctive’, as he puts it, ‘which invokes a potent “if”.’17 If Marnie is right that what has excited and attracted Mark to her is the mystery of her background, how stands the relationship now the mystery has been solved? Wonderfully appropriate that this most enigmatic of films should end on an Ivesian Unanswered Question.

Joseph Conrad once said that he would rather have the faults of Dickens’s Bleak House than most other novels’ virtues; and one can feel the same about Marnie. It is a film one can love irrespective of its flaws; after all, that is what Mark does with Marnie. Pomerance’s splendid monograph is a love letter that reads like a thriller. Hitchcock would surely have been delighted..

Neil Sinyard, November 2014

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  1. Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films (Tantivy Press, 1965). 

  2. Tony Lee Moral, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Manchester University Press, 2002). 

  3. Donald Spoto, Spellbound by Beauty: Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (Hutchinson, 2008). 

  4. Alex von Tunzelman, ‘Do Hitchcock and The Girl reveal the horrible truth about Hitch?’, The Guardian, 11 January 2013, available here

  5. Murray Pomerance, BFI Film Classics: Marnie (Palgrave Macmillan for British Film Institute, 2014), p. 48. 

  6. Ibid, pp. 49-50. 

  7. Ibid, p. 77. 

  8. Ibid. 

  9. Ibid, p. 34. 

  10. Ibid, p. 35. 

  11. William Rothman, Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze, 2nd edition (University of New York Press, 2012). Quoted in Pomerance, p. 33. 

  12. Pomerance, p. 37. 

  13. Ibid, p. 9. 

  14. Gergely Hubai, Torn Music: Rejected Film Scores (Silman James Press, 2012), p. 62. 

  15. Pomerance, p. 8. 

  16. Christopher Palmer, The Composer in Hollywood (Marion Boyars, 1990), p. 291. 

  17. Pomerance, p. 83. 

Hitchcock vs Herrmann: the story behind the break-up of cinema’s finest director/composer partnership

I have called this talk ‘Hitchcock versus Herrmann’ because I want to tell the story behind the break-up of what to me is the cinema’s finest director/composer collaboration. But first I’d like to show two short extracts by way of introduction. The first represents the highpoint of their collaboration and is very famous:

The second is undoubtedly the partnership’s low-point and I guarantee that no one will have seen this sequence in this precise form in the cinema:

[Please note that, although Neil’s text describes the version of the Torn Curtain opening scored by Bernard Herrmann, the extract on this webpage is currently the version with John Addison’s music. The Herrmann version is, however, available on the DVD release of Torn Curtain.]

The first extract was, of course, the famous shower-murder in Psycho, made in 1960, the murder accentuated by perhaps the most celebrated musical cue in film history, Herrmann’s famous screaming violins that highlight the heroine’s screams but also the stabbing knife. The second extract was the credit sequence of Torn Curtain, made in 1966, and some of you might have noticed that it says ‘Music by John Addison’. Actually the music you heard was by Bernard Herrmann, arguably the most notorious piece of film music ever written because it brought to an end – and an abrupt and hostile end – this great director/composer partnership. The orchestra liked it: indeed, after they’d played it, they burst into spontaneous applause, so it came as something of a surprise to them that, when Hitchcock heard it, he was angry and upset, cancelled the remainder of the session, and severed a partnership that had served him well – nay, brilliantly – over 11 years and 9 films. My talk then is centrally concerned with what happened on that fateful day in March 1966 (surely the most dramatic recording session in Hollywood history) and why it happened. It is a complex and even mysterious story with some still unanswered questions, but very revealing about the individual personalities of two extraordinary artists and of two competing egos and insecurities. I also want to assess different accounts of what happened, offering my own interpretation but basing this too on what people who were close to the event have told me. But to understand it fully, one needs to contextualise it a bit; and in this regard, I want to say a few things about the partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann in its prime.


On the face of it, it might seem an odd pairing: Hitchcock a droll Cockney Catholic, who after a string of brilliant English thrillers such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes had gone to Hollywood at the invitation of producer David Selznick in 1939 to make Rebecca and who had settled in America; Herrmann a volatile Jewish New Yorker of prodigious musical talent as conductor as well as composer, and for the concert-hall as well as the movie screen and incidentally a great Anglophile: he loved English music and English literature. They came together, though, through a colossal mutual professional respect; a shared sense of humour (Herrmann’s widow, Norma, told me that when I asked her what she thought was the secret behind their successful partnership: ‘They had a very similar sense of humour,’ she told me, ‘quite dark and mischievous’); a certain similarity of outlook (both nurturing under defensive exteriors a deeply romantic sensibility); and similar aesthetic goals. Herrmann thought that the key to good film music was the ability of the composer to seek out and intensify the inner emotions of the characters, not just to illustrate and accompany the drama but to get inside it (if you can’t do that, he thought, then you shouldn’t be writing music for films in the first place); and that corresponded to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of conveying psychological intensity not through histrionic display but through cinematic means of composition and montage.

When they teamed up in the mid 1950s, both were on a career high. Having been in Hollywood for 15 years, Hitchcock was now established as a major player. He had just made one of his greatest films, Rear Window (1954); had launched his hugely successful television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents which, through his witty introductions and conclusions, had made him a star in his own right, which undoubtedly enabled him to make controversial films like Psycho on the basis of his name alone; and, significantly, was being hailed not simply as the ‘Master of Suspense’ but a major artist- an auteur, indeed- by the young critics and budding film-makers of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, who were soon to form the nucleus of the French Nouvelle Vague: Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.

[Please note that the video of Herrmann extracts above was not part of Neil’s presentation but is included here as illustration.]

Similarly with Herrmann. Having begun his professional career as a staff musician for CBS radio and collaborated with a boy wonder by the name of Orson Welles, he had accompanied Welles to Hollywood and begun his film music career in spectacular style with his score for Citizen Kane, which was a musical milestone as well as a movie masterpiece, because it broke away from the lush Europeanised romanticism of composers such as Korngold and Max Steiner that had dominated Hollywood soundtracks in the 1930s and created a much starker sound that often involved an innovative use of the orchestra: in Howard Goodall’s phrase, he replaced sentiment with anxiety. Straight after Kane, he won an Oscar for his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster; and one of his typically Gothic scores of the mid-1940s, Hangover Square even prompted a fan letter from a 15-year-old Stephen Sondheim. During the 1940s he was trying to divide his time between his concert and cinema engagements and between composing and conducting but was now in such demand by the studios that the concert and conducting ambitions were having to take a back seat. This frustrated him in some way because he was a formidable musician whose real love was conducting (he never quite forgave André Previn for landing the post of principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra – he would have loved that job). Which career path should he choose? His widow Norma Herrmann once showed me a copy of the score he had of Stravinsky’s Symphony in 3 Movements which he had asked Stravinsky to sign, and the inscription reads: ‘To the excellent musician and conductor, Bernard Herrmann. Cordially, I. Stravinsky.’ For a 20th century musician, an inscription such as that from Stravinsky would be like a reference from God: I doubt whether Stravinsky would have done that for Herbert von Karajan.

Herrmann completed his opera based on Wuthering Heights in 1951, but by the mid 1950s, he was in such demand as a film composer that his path had been chosen for him. When Hitchcock came along, the partnership ‘jelled’ immediately, with Herrmann catching the tone of Hitchcock’s macabre comedy thriller, The Trouble with Harry to perfection with a witty, alternately playful and portentous score that really added to the fun; then scored The Man who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man with an appropriately menacing tread, sometimes flamboyant, sometimes eerie and troubled; and then the Golden Period, between 1958 and 1960, when we had three masterpieces of film direction and film scoring one after the other- Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), the latter being perhaps their ultimate collaboration in terms of success and impact: it’s noticeable that Herrmann’s name comes up second on the credits just before Hitchcock’s, as if emphasising his importance.

BUT: with hindsight, it’s possible to see that the Psycho collaboration contained hints of future discord, areas of disagreement that here had been successfully resolved but might have left niggling feelings of disquiet. For example, it is well known that Hitchcock had originally not wanted music for the shower murder whilst recognising that the whole film depended on the effectiveness of that scene – everything leads up to it and everything that follows is dependent on its impact, so if that sequence didn’t work, then the whole film would go down the drain, as it were. Herrmann came up with those screaming violins, perhaps the most immediately effective cue in film music, and in essence proved Hitchcock wrong, which generally was not a wise thing to do. Still, to give Hitchcock his due, he deserves credit for giving way on this point (when Herrmann with typical mischief reminded him that he’d said he didn’t want music for this scene, Hitchcock replied, ‘Improper suggestion.’); and, in fact, I was once on a radio programme with writer/director Peter Bogdanovich who’d attended the New York premiere of Psycho when little was known about the film and he said the audience was screaming so loudly during the shower murder that he never heard the music, so maybe Hitchcock was right after all. At one point Hitchcock was getting cold feet about the film and was thinking of cutting it down to an hour to show as one of his television specials and it was Herrmann particularly who persuaded him not to do that and that it was one of his major films; and what particularly persuaded him was seeing the complete film with the score. In short, Herrmann was becoming very important, the danger of that being that he might be stealing some of his thunder (and Hitchcock was notoriously loath to give credit to his collaborators). In the end, with Psycho, everything worked out triumphantly, but his next film The Birds had a mixed critical and commercial reception (Herrmann on that film being more of a technical consultant as it didn’t have a conventional score); and then when Marnie, which had one of Herrmann’s full-blown romantic scores, flopped with critics and public, being regarded as clumsy and old-fashioned (it has been re-evaluated since), the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership was put under stress as never before. Things came to a head over Torn Curtain.

There is no doubt that Hitchcock was under considerable pressure from the heads of Universal Studios to commission a score for his new film that was commercially exploitable, which was becoming a feature of films at that time. They had seen how Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ had boosted the popularity of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lara’s Theme’ had added to the appeal of Dr Zhivago; and there was the widespread feeling in the industry in the mid-1960s that the conventional symphonic score of Hollywood’s heyday was now a bit old-hat. The pressure on Hitchcock would have been intensified by his terror, as Herrmann’s widow has described it to me, of what he called ‘the whizzkids’ and of being thought old-fashioned and out of touch with the tastes of the contemporary audience. Before he’d always seemed ahead of the game, particularly with Psycho, which had been enormously popular and ahead of its time and had confounded the critics, many of whom had condemned the film at the time and had been compelled to eat their words. Was he losing his touch? Was a new strategy required?

So initially Hitchcock’s decision to keep faith with Herrmann could be seen as being commendably loyal, particularly as Herrmann was a notoriously cantankerous character who made no secret of his contempt for the studio’s attitude to, and ignorance of, film music. Conversely, I think it would be wrong to suggest, as the critic of The Times did when reviewing a concert of Herrmann’s film music in 2006, that the relationship foundered during Torn Curtain because ‘Hitch’s lordly ways had, it seems, been gnawing way at Herrmann for some time.’ I don’t think that is so- if anything, it’s more true the other way round. Whatever the niggles over the Psycho experience, the swiftness and finality of their falling-out over Torn Curtain seems to have taken Herrmann completely by surprise. Another misconception (reiterated by Howard Goodall in an otherwise splendid programme he did on Herrmann’s music for Channel 4) has been the suggestion that, after the Torn Curtain debacle, Herrmann was seized on by Francois Truffaut to write the score for Fahrenheit 451 (1966). In fact, Herrmann had been commissioned for the Truffaut film before the Hitchcock; and indeed there is a letter by Truffaut to Hitchcock (18 November, 1965) which deepens the mystery of their subsequent split. ‘In London,’ Truffaut wrote, ‘I met Bernard Herrmann who will be writing the score for Fahrenheit 451. We had a long talk together about you and I feel that, in him, you have a great and genuine friend.’ It is a reminder that the break-up was not simply a professional blow but, for both men, a devastating personal loss. Herrmann was undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s closest friends in the film community, and vice-versa. They went shopping together, apparently; would wash up together after meals; and crucially, would confide in each other and exchange confidences about their private lives- and at that particular time, both of them had quite a lot to exchange. During the filming of Marnie, Hitchcock had become infatuated with his leading lady, Tippi Hedren, and although accounts might differ as to how far this infatuation went, it certainly ended unhappily (‘She said something that no one is ever allowed to me,’ he told his authorised biographer, John Russell Taylor, ‘she referred to my weight’). At the same time Herrmann was experiencing the collapse of his second marriage and going through a very painful divorce. So I’ve no doubt Truffaut was right: there was a great bond and friendship there, which makes the break-up all the more extraordinary.

The exchange of telegrams between them about the upcoming score make interesting reading. Although remaining loyal at this stage to Herrmann, Hitchcock had expressed his disappointment at the composer’s most recent score for the film Joy in the Morning (1965), which he’d found repetitive and derivative, and demanded a different approach that recognised, as had European film makers, a new audience that was, in his words, ‘young, vigorous and demanding’ and required a score that had ‘a beat and a rhythm.’ ‘If you cannot do this,’ he concluded, ‘then I am the loser’ (words that, one could say, would come back to haunt him). Herrmann seemed unfazed by this and responded with enthusiasm: ‘Delighted to Compose Beat Score for Torn Curtain. Always Pleased to Have your Views.’ Hitchcock immediately got a production assistant to cable back: ‘These are not views: these are requirements.’ Whether Herrmann quite understood what Hitchcock was getting at is a moot point; directors are not always good at conveying to composers what it is they’re after. (Anecdotally, I can remember interviewing the director Fred Zinnemann during the making of his last film, the mountaineering drama, Five Days One Summer when he’d had a falling-out with his composer, Carl Davis: he’d wanted a small intimate score, he said, and Davis had composed for an orchestra of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony proportions, and I remember thinking: how could they have misunderstood each other so completely?) It’s not clear to me whether Herrmann did think he was delivering what Hitchcock wanted or went away and did his own thing, thinking that that this was the fix the film needed. (As he used to put it: ‘You expect a doctor to make you well: you don’t expect him also to make you rich.’) Were Hitchcock’s requirements specific enough? He told Herrmann that the score should be modern, that he had very definite ideas about where the music should go, and that there shouldn’t be too much of it. Herrmann had simply responded: ‘Please send script indicating where you desire music- can then begin composing.’ Hitchcock had told him that ‘the main title should be exciting, arresting and rhythmic’. One could certainly argue that Herrmann’s main title music was all of those things: what it was not, however, was melodically memorable or obviously commercial. Herrmann went away and wrote the score. In March 1966, the Goldwyn studios in Los Angeles were booked for two days for the recording of the score, with Herrmann conducting. And then all hell broke loose.

Versions of precisely what happened that day have tended to differ. In broad terms, Herrmann started recording the score with the orchestra and the session was going well. Indeed, after the playback of the title music, the musicians had burst into spontaneous applause, a rare tribute from seasoned Hollywood musicians, who would have been accustomed to André Previn’s cryptic summary of the film composer’s perennial dilemma: ‘Do you want it good or do you want it Thursday?’ However, as soon as Hitchcock appeared on the scene, the atmosphere changed. His first sight of Herrmann’s orchestra would have startled him, because it was typically unconventional: 12 flutes, 16 horns, 9 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of tympani, 8 celli, 8 double basses, and no violins – he must have wondered where his hit song would have materialised out of that combination.

But there is question: why was he there in the first place? Was it his usual practice of attending recording sessions? (I’ve been told that he wasn’t at the recording sessions of Psycho, for example.) In his biography of Hitchcock, Patrick McGilligan writes that ‘Hitchcock kept an appointment with Herrmann in late March to listen to the first recording of the music’. However, an article on the Bernard Herrmann website by Steve Verlieb in 2002 states that: ‘Hitchcock who must have been warned by his spies about the performance, arrived unannounced on the stage accompanied by his assistant Peggy Robertson to listen to the newly recorded cues.’ If I incline towards this second interpretation rather than the first, it’s for two reasons: 1) Norma Herrmann told me that Herrmann as a rule didn’t like directors turning up at his recording sessions, for he thought they had no business there (they’d done their job, leave him to do his); his ideal was someone like Truffaut, who would just arrive, wish everybody good luck, and then disappear; and 2) if Hitchcock had been invited, why wasn’t he there at the start of the session, particularly as he’d made specific requirements about the main title music? Also, if he’d been invited, would Herrmann have started without him? These are not conclusive arguments, but they do tend to suggest to me that Hitchcock’s arrival was unexpected.

Well, whether Herrmann was expecting him or not, he seemed unperturbed and asked the engineer to play back what they had recorded, at which point, according to McGilligan, ‘the director didn’t get very far before shutting the recording off’. A row broke out between director and composer in front of the other musicians, in which Hitchcock declared that the score was exactly the kind of score he hadn’t wanted and cancelled the session on the spot. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ Hitchcock apparently demanded of Herrmann: not love music or romantic music, as has sometimes been suggested, but a hit song, a ‘number one’, as he put it, and he kept demanding. ‘Where’s the theme song?’ ‘I know this,’ Norma Herrmann told me, ‘as Benny used to say in later years with the greatest contempt in his voice, ‘Theme song! Theme song!’ Hitchcock then walked out (though the principal horn player Alan Robertson told Norma Herrmann that it was Herrmann who had stormed out first) and went over to Head Office, apologising for what had happened, confirming the cancellation of the next day’s recording session and offering to pay Herrmann’s salary out of his own pocket to atone for his mistaken loyalty in hiring him in the first place. What has always struck me as extraordinary about that chain of events is that, for Hitchcock, it seems so out of character. Everyone who knew Hitchcock- and it’s confirmed by every interview about him I’ve ever seen or every book on him I’ve read- agreed that he was a man who hated confrontations (it was one of Ingrid Bergman’s grouses; ‘You can never have an argument with that man, he just walks out of the room’); and yet, in this instance, according to some accounts, he seems to have gone our of his way to provoke a confrontation and to cause maximum embarrassment in the process.

No music for Gromek's killing: Torn Curtain

No music for Gromek’s killing: Torn Curtain

Later that day Hitchcock rang Herrmann, who was still in the recording studio in a state of shock. They resumed their argument, Hitchcock furious with Herrmann for disobeying instructions and Herrmann angry with Hitchcock for capitulating to the wishes of studio bosses. Hitchcock would have been particularly cross also because the composer had written music for a brutal murder scene when the director had expressly told him not to: this was a sensitive matter when one recalls that Hitchcock had not wanted music for the shower murder in Psycho – clearly he did not want to be proved wrong twice. To prove him wrong once might be a misfortune; to prove him wrong twice looks like carelessness. And incidentally there’s an odd sub-text to this: the music Herrmann used for this was music he’d used years before for the Hitchcock TV episode ‘Behind the Locked Door’: whether Hitchcock recognised this is unknown, but if he had, it would certainly have made even madder, because it would have confirmed his belief that Herrmann was beginning to repeat himself. Herrmann, though, would have probably said, as he had of the Psycho incident: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t use it.’ In any event, according to Herrmann’s biographer, Steven Smith: ‘Both voices were rising; and the conversation quickly ended. It was Hitchcock and Herrmann’s last.’ That last statement, incidentally, is not strictly accurate, as I will shortly explain.

So: how to interpret what happened? Had Herrmann betrayed Hitchcock’s trust by ignoring his requirements and going along with his own instincts rather than those of the director? Or had Hitchcock behaved with rudeness and insensitivity towards one of his most loyal and prestigious collaborators? It has never been entirely clear whether Herrmann quit or was fired; and there are other mysteries connected with the event that seem to go way beyond simply the question of creative differences, and I’ll just mention three things:

(1) If Hitchcock was so insistent on requiring a commercially exploitable score, why had he commissioned Herrmann in the first place? Herrmann was not incapable of accomplishing this, but he wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice. The positive reading of Hitchcock’s motive would stress loyalty to, and confidence in, his composer-friend. The negative – indeed paranoid – reading of his motive would suggest that he was deliberately setting up a confrontation. If so, why? I’ll return to that in a moment.

(2) Also, even thrown by the sight of Herrmann’s orchestra and disliking what he had heard, why did he not at least listen to the score in its entirety? This was Herrmann’s own argument: the sessions have been booked, the musicians will still need to be paid, why don’t we just carry on and finish, and if you still don’t like it, then throw it out? (He might have added that, after all, audiences didn’t exactly go out of the theatre whistling the theme from Psycho but no one would dispute the importance of the music to that film’s success.) Hitchcock wouldn’t hear of it. Again defenders of Hitchcock might say that, having expressed his displeasure so forcefully, he could hardly be expected to go back on it: he’d look a bit of a fool if he said at the end of it all ‘Actually I quite like it now’. But to me this detail highlights the most extraordinary aspect of the affair: not the fact that the score was rejected but the way it was rejected, which in my view was-and still is- unprecedented. After all, umpteen scores have been thrown out in different circumstances and replaced, but this is something else. There is no other occasion I can recall where a director has halted a recording session in mid-flow after hearing only one section; berated the composer, who is not some newcomer but the finest in the business, in front of the other musicians; and essentially rejected the complete score without hearing it. And this coming from one of the foremost of all director/composer partnerships and involving two great artists who had previously been great friends. I honestly can’t think of anything quite like this in the annals of movie history.

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

The on-screen composer credit for Torn Curtain

(3) After ditching Herrmann, why did he replace him with John Addison, a perfectly competent film composer but who was no more likely to come up with a ‘popular’ film score than Herrmann? There were certainly more obvious choices, and we do know that, for example, Dimitri Tiomkin, who had worked with Hitchcock before and had a good track record of popular hits (High Noon, High and the Mighty, Friendly Persuasion, Green Leaves of Summer amongst them) agitated for the job. The obvious choice, if available, would have been Henry Mancini, not only one of the most popular composers of the day but extremely adept at writing music for thrillers (The Grip of Fear, Charade). The irony here is that Hitchcock was later to commission Mancini to write the score for his 1972 film, Frenzy, but then rejected it because, he said, it sounded it sounded too much like Bernard Herrmann. Anyone who has heard some of Mancini’s score and compared it with Ron Goodwin’s replacement might feel, with me, that Hitchcock made the wrong choice – again.

In a television documentary entitled Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann, a number of the interviewees, like Claude Chabrol, for example, see the break-up between Hitchcock and Herrmann as entirely Hitchcock’s fault, and that indeed he may even have engineered the showdown, though personally I think that might be taking paranoia a little too far. However, I do believe that certain ingredients of potential conflict had been bubbling for some time and, on this fateful day, boiled over. In the documentary the great film musicologist and arranger, Christopher Palmer, who was very close to Herrmann, suggested that Herrmann was becoming too important and perhaps getting too big for his boots; and Hitchcock, feeling as insecure as only a man with a man with a massive ego can feel, was determined in this instance to demonstrate who was boss and in as public a manner as possible. The person most critical of Hitchcock in the documentary was the composer David Raksin (composer of great film scores for films such as Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful etc.) who also seemed to suspect a set-up. ‘He was determined to humiliate Benny’ he said, (Herrmann was known to his friends as ‘Benny’) and he described Hitchcock of having, as he put it, ‘the loyalty of an eel’, showing no gratitude towards the man whose music had so enriched his movies. As a film composer himself and a close personal friend of Herrmann’s, Raksin could be seen as a partial witness; but he was quite close to the event, Herrmann having showed him parts of the score prior to the recording (‘I was amazed at the quality’, Raksin told me). Raksin also saw Herrmann and the leader of the cello section on the day of the recording session, Edgar Lustgarten, on the day of the recording session after the argument had happened, when Herrmann was badly shaken. In a letter to me, Raksin told me how he, Lustgarten and their wives had invited Herrmann to dinner that evening and had tried to cheer him up, but when Herrmann started to offer ‘a kind of loopy defence of Hitchcock’, as Raksin put it to me, he lost his temper with him, feeling that he was wrongfully defending the director for an act of gross insensitivity, cruelty and ingratitude.

We might never know the full story of what happened that day. Who was in the right? Would Herrmann’s score have made a difference to the film’s reception and perception? (It got mixed reviews but was moderately successful at the box-office.) Typically Herrmann seemed musically to be seeking out the film’s darker sub-text and endeavouring to get behind these cardboard tv characters, as he called them. Would the film have been able to sustain that or would the score have proved too heavy for the material? The rejected score survives and has indeed been recorded in its entirety twice, which is more than the score that was actually used. One scene in the film interests me particularly as providing a clue as to what Herrmann thought the film was about. It’s near the end, where the hero, an American scientist played by Paul Newman, is on the run in East Berlin with his fiancée (Julie Andrews). He’s pretended to defect to East Berlin in order to steal a secret formula from a top East German scientist, not, it seems, out of any patriotic motive but for his own purposes: the film has an odd Faustian sub-text about a hero who might be selling his soul for ultimate knowledge. As we join the film, they are hiding in a theatre during a ballet performance prior to making good their escape to the West, but they have been spotted by the star-ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) in mid-pirouette. Until now, in a running joke in the film, she has always found herself upstaged at airport arrivals and news conferences by Newman’s defecting, defective scientist, and now is her chance for revenge. But what particularly interests me in the scene is the music:

[The extract discussed in Neil’s text, the theatre scene from Torn Curtain, is currently unavailable.]

Very Hitchcockian, that: when Paul Newman shouts ‘Fire!’ and causes panic in the auditorium, some of you might have been reminded of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) when Doris Day’s scream halts a concert performance and foils an attempted political assassination. The music is very resonant, coming from Tchaikovsky’s tone-poem ‘Francesca da Rimini’, inspired by an episode from Dante’s Inferno in which the souls of two lovers are swept into the flames of hellfire. Whose choice was it? There’s no doubt in my mind that it was Bernard Herrmann’s and would have been made before the two fell out. My conviction about this point, incidentally, has been confirmed by correspondence with Norma Herrmann, who thought the same. ‘It makes sense anyway,’ she told me, ‘because on the wall of his study is an old engraving of Francesca….Benny bought it during the Depression as the music was a great favourite of his. He used to walk past it and stop and conduct in front of it, singing very badly.’ My feeling is that, just as Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was Herrmann’s key to the mood and theme of his great score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, he sensed that Francesca da Rimini fitted the mood and theme of Torn Curtain, interpreting what Hitchcock had delivered not as a simplistic tale of heroism and democracy (which is how a number of critics disdainfully read it) but as a subversive tale of hellfire and damnation. Think of the credits of the film: fire and smoke billowing out on one side of the screen, faces writhing in agony on the other, as if they are souls in purgatory. Whether Hitchcock saw the material in quite that way is another matter.

It has often been asserted that the two never spoke to each other again after that disastrous day and that Hitchcock actually hid behind his office door when Herrmann once turned up unannounced. However Norma Herrmann (she married Herrmann in 1968) told me that she was actually present at an occasion when they met again, when Herrmann gave Hitchcock a recording of his opera of Wuthering Heights; and she also showed me an affectionate inscription by Hitchcock to Herrmann when Herrmann asked him to autograph his copy of Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with Hitchcock, and that was dated 1967: i.e. after the Torn Curtain bust-up. Herrmann was to continue to speak admiringly of Hitchcock in interviews; by contrast, Hitchcock in public was never again to mention Herrmann’s name, if it could be avoided. When one interviewer was brave enough to ask him if he would work with Herrmann again, he replied: ‘Only if he did as he was told.’ In personal terms, the one who came off worst was definitely Herrmann. He was deeply wounded by the split; genuinely surprised it had happened; and hoped that his superb 1969 recording of orchestral suites from Hitchcock’s films, with its affectionate ‘Portrait of Hitch’ derived from themes from Trouble with Harry would serve as an olive-branch: but to no avail. But what about professionally?

The irony is that, although many believe it was Hitchcock more than Herrmann who was to blame for their falling-out, it was Hitchcock who suffered the most from their parting. He was never again to secure a film score remotely in Herrmann’s league (John Williams’s charming score for Family Plot was the nearest) and his films were diminished as a result. By contrast, after a few lean years, Herrmann was re-discovered in the early 1970s by the Movie Brats and particularly championed by Brian de Palma and Martin Scorsese. He wrote a thunderously romantic score for De Palma’s Obsession, a virtual re-make of Vertigo when the Hitchcock film was out of circulation because of a prolonged copyright dispute and where Herrmann’s score seems almost like a passionate homage to himself and to his Hitchcock past. And poignantly, as another reference to his Hitchcock past, the very last notes of his final film score for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver quote the three-note madness motif of Psycho to suggest the continuing unresolved psychosis of the Robert De Niro character, ironically acclaimed as a hero after his rampage of righteous slaughter has almost inadvertently rescued a teenager from a life of prostitution but where the man is still clearly profoundly disturbed. (‘He’s gonna do it again,’ said Herrmann, explaining that musical touch at the end, ‘he’s gonna do it again.’) Completing the recording session for Taxi Driver on Christmas Eve 1975, Herrmann retired to his room in a Los Angeles hotel and died that same night. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Herrmann thought of film music as ‘the connecting tissue between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience.’ That is very close to Hitchcock’s aesthetic of using all the elements of the film apparatus to envelop an audience in an emotional experience. ‘Ours not to reason why,’ he would say, ‘ours just to scare the hell out of people.’ And yet: he moves us, as well as terrifies us; and in this, particularly in masterpieces like Vertigo and Psycho, he is helped immeasurably by Herrmann’s music, which seemed so imaginatively and innovatively attuned to the fraught psychological landscape of Hitchcock’s world. What a pity it was that this quite remarkable partnership should have ended so abruptly and dramatically in rancour and regret, though, given two such powerful personalities, perhaps it was inevitable. At its finest, though, in my view, it was a director- composer relationship (and there have been many great ones) unmatched in film history for dramatic flair and cinematic symbiosis. Or, to put it more simply, they brought out the best in each other – and in their respective fields, that best is better than practically anyone else’s best.

Neil Sinyard

This piece is taken from Neil Sinyard’s keynote address at the conference Partners in Suspense – Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock that was held in York in 2011. That talk was entitled ”The Loyalty of an Eel’: some reflections on the incomparable partnership of Hitchcock and Herrmann and the reasons behind their falling-out over Torn Curtain‘.’

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