Chaplin and Dickens: some reflections on the influence of Charles Dickens on the cinematic artistry of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography was one of the publishing sensations of the decade when it appeared in 1964. He had been encouraged to write it by Graham Greene and some of the story was already well known; yet critics were taken aback by the quality of the writing and particularly by the painful and powerful evocation of his childhood, which made such an impression that just the childhood section of the book was later published as a separate work in its own right. Alistair Cooke spoke for many when he noted what he called ‘an eerie similarity between the first sixty pages of Chaplin’s Autobiography and Oliver Twist.’ And he went on: ‘As a reincarnation of everything spry and inquisitive and Cockney shrewd and invincibly alive and cunning, Chaplin was the young Dickens in the flesh’.1

Chaplin as the reincarnation of Dickens is an interesting thought. There is no doubt in my mind that Dickens was the most pronounced artistic influence on Chaplin’s career. He had discovered Dickens before he could even read and even the origins of his showbiz career owed a lot to Dickens. Growing up in London, Chaplin had seen the actor Bransby Williams imitating Dickens characters like Uriah Heep, Bill Sykes and the old man in The Old Curiosity Shop and it had ignited a love of the theatre and a fascination with literature. ‘I wanted to know what was this immured mystery that lay hidden in books,’ he wrote, ‘these sepia Dickens characters that moved in such a strange Cruickshankian world. Although I could hardly read, I eventually bought a copy of Oliver Twist.’2 He was so enthralled with these Dickens characters that he began imitating Bransby Williams imitating them; and it was then that he was discovered and invited to make his stage debut. What is particularly intriguing about this is that Dickens as a boy used to console himself in the same way by impersonating favourite characters from novels he had read (particularly those of Fielding) and that his early ambition was a career on stage. To the end of his life he was a frustrated actor, liking nothing better than giving public readings of his description of the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist and then enquiring politely how many women in the audience had fainted.

In my view, Chaplin was to the 20th century what Dickens was to the 19th: both centuries unthinkable without them; both men comic/poetic dramatists of quite unparalleled popularity who used satire, caricature and suspense to assault injustice. They were both artistic giants in their respective fields, but fascinatingly, giants in remarkably similar ways and for remarkably similar reasons. The parallels between their lives and personalities as well as their work are quite uncanny:

Physically they were quite similar: both small and wiry.

Temperamentally they were very alike: as a close friend of Chaplin’s, Thomas Burke remarked, they were both ‘querulous, self-centred, moody insecure men who, with all their success, remained vaguely dissatisfied with life.’3 In both cases, this dissatisfaction lay rooted in a traumatic childhood never entirely exorcised but which permeated every aspect of their life and art. ‘Even now,’ said Dickens in his later years, ‘famous and caressed and happy, I forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life’.4 Chaplin too: ‘I’ve known humiliation,’ he said, ‘and humiliation is a thing you never forget. Poverty- the degradation and helplessness of it! I can’t feel myself any different, at heart, from the unhappy and defeated men, the failures.’5

Perhaps because of their similarly traumatic childhoods (Dickens haunted by family debts, the threat of prison and his period in the blacking factory, Chaplin buffeted between workhouse and orphanage because of an absent father and a mentally unstable mother) they are made precociously aware of life’s misfortunes, and, in response to this, they are similarly drawn to images of innocence in their work and lives, an innocence that they themselves have missed. One thinks of Dickens, in his work, with those child-women heroines, like Dora in his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, or Little Dorrit, who seems to stay little, however old she gets, and, in his life, his association with Ellen Ternan when he’s 45 and she’s 18 which leads to his separation from his wife. Chaplin too, with his four marriages to teenage brides, culminating in his marriage to Oona O’Neill (daughter of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill), when he’s 54 and she’s 18, a marriage that actually turned out to be an extremely happy one. Their attitudes to women and their depiction of heroines seem to be a mixture of adoration and misogyny, deriving from mother figures whom they loved but by whom they also felt in some way betrayed. For example, in Dickens’s case, when all the debts had been repaid and the family reunited, his mother had suggested that perhaps young Charles could remain at the blacking factory which he so hated rather than find some schooling; it is said that Dickens never quite forgave her for that. Similarly, Chaplin’s love for his mother was always mixed with a frustration and anger at her mental illness, an anguish that she’d not been able to protect him from a premature awareness of the harshness of the world (his father had abandoned the family when Charlie was seven).

Similarly their popularity was quite unprecedented and it’s interesting that when Chaplin’s popularity was being discussed in the 1920s and 30s, Dickens was often invoked as a comparison. I always loved the story concerning Dickens’ popularity which extended to a situation where, when British ships were coming into New York harbour, they were receiving frantic signals from the shore saying ‘How is little Nell?’ When Chaplin visited London in February,1931 for the premiere of City Lights, The Times wrote: ‘Dickens knew something of popular enthusiasm, but could he have beheld the press of people gathered…in honour of Mr Chaplin, he might have rubbed his eyes in astonishment.’6 It is said that, during one visit to London, Chaplin received 73,000 fan letters from the capital alone. His popularity was such that it became something of a psychopathological phenomenon, notably on an occasion on 12 November 1916 when Chaplin was allegedly spotted in 800 places at the same time.

Their popularity cut across cultures, countries and class, and it might have delayed proper critical recognition of their stature, for in both cases their artistic reputations plummeted for a while after their deaths. Henry James thought Dickens superficial as later did F.R. Leavis (though he changed his mind in time for the centenary of Dickens’s death): and George Henry Lewes was moved to observe that there probably never was a writer of so vast a popularity whose genius was so little appreciated by the critics. Still if the critics had their reservations about Dickens, they weren’t shared by his peers and fellow novelists, such as Thackeray, Joyce, Conrad, Kafka and Dostoyevsky, who said that what kept him sane during his exile in Siberia was reading Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield. Similarly, if the critics really went for Chaplin after his death, calling his films old-fashioned, technically unadventurous and woefully sentimental, their reservations weren’t shared by his peers and successors, such as Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir, Woody Allen, Francois Truffaut, Jean-luc Godard, and Federico Fellini, for whom Chaplin was ‘the Adam from we’re all descended’. There was a nice comment from Sean French when he heard Barry Norman claim that Chaplin was over-rated: ‘I felt as if a molehill had said that Mount Everest’s reputation for height was undeserved.’

There are couple of extracts from Chaplin’s movies that I now wish to examine for what I see as their Dickensian characteristics. The first is an extract from Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times, and the Dickens comparison I have in mind is his novel, Hard Times. It was published in 1851 and is one of his most terse, polemical works, particularly its savage critique of a Utilitarian approach to education, which prioritises Fact over Imagination and which sees children as potential economic units rather than as individuals whose innate creativity also needs to be nurtured and encouraged. (This might strike you as rather topical.) But another great theme of the novel is Industrialisation and the relation of men and women to machines and how this industrial drive, unless harnessed to some kind of humanity, could result in the depersonalisation/mechanisation of the individual. The industrial town in Hard Times is appropriately called Coketown, as if it is smothering and suffocating its inhabitants; and there is a great passage in the novel (the opening of Chapter X1 entitled ‘No Way Out’) about the industrial workplace and the relation of man to the machine, written in a style that wonderfully parodies the educational system he is also attacking: it’s satirically statistical:


So many hundred hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these, its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.-

I think that’s one of the great passages in Dickens. He’s not idealising humanity (he’s careful to balance ‘good’ OR ‘evil’, ‘love’ OR ‘hatred’ etc.) but he’s still recognising and cherishing the rich complexity of humanity, even in – perhaps especially in – what he calls the ‘soul… of its quiet servants’. He goes on: ‘There is no mystery in it [i.e. the engine, the machine]; there is a mystery in the meanest of them, for ever.’ I’m sure Chaplin would have responded to that. When his silent features were re-released during the sound era and he added a commentary, he would refer to the Tramp as ‘The Little Fellow’- and was heavily attacked for his so-called ‘condescension’- but what he was thinking of, I believe, in that phrase was precisely the equivalent of Dickens’s ‘the meanest of them’, those people who are up against it, whom society marginalizes and whom governments sometimes do not even acknowledge as a statistic, but in whom (both Dickens and Chaplin would insist) there is still a mystery and depth that deserve recognition. The Tramp is the kind of figure Society would ignore or even disdain, but, as James Agee asserted in his classic essay on silent film comedy, ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’, the Tramp character in Chaplin’s hands was ‘as centrally representative of humanity, and as many-sided and mysterious as Hamlet’.7 In Modern Times, the Tramp is an assembly-line worker who is being driven progressively mad by the repetitive routine of his job. In an early sequence in the film, an inventor has visited the plant with his revolutionary contraption: an automatic feeding-machine that will eliminate the lunch-hour (and hence accelerate production and maximise worker efficiency) by feeding the worker whilst he continues to work at his job. The manager is impressed but insists that the machine be tried out on one of the workers. Inevitably the Tramp is chosen for the demonstration, and chaos ensues, with the contraption attacking the man before self-destructing.

Reviewing the film at the time, Graham Greene thought that that was the best scene Chaplin had ever done; and, with typical scrupulousness, he described it as ‘horrifyingly funny’. Greene rarely used adverbs so his use of ‘horrifyingly’ there is doubly striking: he recognises the human horror behind the comic conceit. The scene is essentially about the depersonalisation of the individual; and whereas the breakdown of the machine is comical, the kind of managerial strategy it exemplifies is not, and could lead to human breakdown – which in the film it does.

I think you’ll see from what I’ve said about Hard Times and Modern Times that another similarity that Dickens and Chaplin shared was their social and political outlook; and indeed it has been discussed in very similar terms by the critics. Both of them have been described and even derided as sentimental radicals who were not great political thinkers or men of ideas and who advocated a change of heart more than a change of system. Carlyle was quite disdainful about Dickens’s political ideas: ‘He thinks men ought to be buttered up, and the world made soft and accommodating for them, and all sorts of fellows have turkey for their Christmas dinner.’ Curiously, when Modern Times was re-released in 1972, George Melly in The Observer wrote about Chaplin in very similar terms: ‘He’s always been appalled by inhumanity but has nothing to propose beyond mere kindness. His dream is petit-bourgeois: a chicken in the pot, grapes against the wall.’ Still, in an unjust, intolerant and oppressive society, even basic decency can sound menacing. Lenin might have been appalled by what he called Dickens’s bourgeois sentiment, but Tolstoy wasn’t; and George Bernard Shaw said that Little Dorrit alone had converted him to Socialism. George Melly might have found Chaplin’s social ideas ‘petit-bourgeois’, but they were deemed sufficiently subversive to prompt the FBI to open a file on him in 1922 that eventually ran for around 2,000 pages and which subsequently led to his exile from America for 20 years.

When discussing the social ideas of Dickens, George Orwell was critical of those kindly benefactor figures, like Brownlow in Oliver Twist or Jarndyce in Bleak House, who help without dirtying their fingernails, as it were, or without doing anything to question the basic fabric of their society. As Orwell said, ‘Even Dickens must have reflected occasionally that anyone who was so anxious to give his money away would never have acquired it in the first place.’ But clearly Dickens did reflect on this: there’s that sardonic comment in Hard Times, when Gradgrind’s mean-spiritedness is encapsulated by his thought that ‘the Good Samaritan was a bad economist’: and in Great Expectations, Dickens will take the whole idea of the legacy and the benefactor to grotesque tragic-comic extremes. Similarly Chaplin, in one of his greatest films, City Lights, does his own brilliant variation on the benefactor theme when the Tramp, who has rescued a millionaire from drowning and is showered with money by the man when he’s drunk but treated with contempt when the man is sober, uses the money to finance the eye operation of a blind flower-seller, with whom he has fallen in love but who has deduced he is a gentleman. Like Magwitch in Great Expectations, he will wind up in prison (the millionaire will accuse him of theft); but when he comes out and passes the flower-shop in utter destitution he notices that the flower-girl can now see; and she, intrigued by this tramp figure who seems so interested in her, invites him in. It’s when they touch that she realises who her benefactor is; and it really is like the moment when Pip slowly recognises that his benefactor is the convict Magwitch and can barely conceal his dismay. If you know City Lights, you will never have forgotten the ending: when the flower-girl says, ‘You?’, and the film closes on one of the greatest close-ups in film history: the Tramp’s face at the point of recognition- apologetic, apprehensive, smiling his delight that she can see, but, unnervingly, through her reaction, also seeing himself.

So how do you change or improve society so that children are properly housed and fed and all people have the chance to fulfil their potential? Both Dickens and Chaplin were preoccupied with this question. Both of them shrank from the thought of Revolution. When the Tramp finds himself at the head of a Communist rally in Modern Times, he is so entirely by accident (though it is an ominous foretaste of the political accusations that were to be made against him in the following decades). And if you think of the Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities and his ambivalence about the French Revolution and the violent overthrow of tyranny: it was the best of times but it was also the worst of times. As he put it, ‘the aristocrats deserved all they got but the passion engendered in the people by misery and starvation replaced one set of oppressors by another.’

A key issue in both Dickens and Chaplin is essentially: how do you prevent power from being abused? The ferocity of their social attack is directed not so much at the law-breakers as the law administrators. In Oliver Twist, for example, Fagin and Co. are certainly crooks but Dickens shows them more sympathy than he shows for the workhouse authorities. (Fagin was actually named after Dickens’s best friend at the blacking-factory, Bob Fagin, which suggests that in Dickens’s eyes, for all his villainy and corruption, there are some redeeming features in that character. Incidentally, David Lean’s film catches this brilliantly in just one detail after Oliver has been taken into Fagin’s lair by the Artful Dodger and Fagin is jokily demonstrating how to pick pockets, and Oliver starts to laugh: and it’s a really strange high-pitched sound and it startles even him- and you suddenly realise that this must be the first time the little lad will have laughed in his entire life.) Fagin and Co are criminals but they’re not hypocrites. Dickens reserves his most savage indignation and irony for those who perpetuate cruelty and injustice in the name of fairness and good: Bumble in Oliver Twist; the superficially self-made man Bounderby in Hard Times, of whom Dickens says ‘there was a moral infection of claptrap in him’; or the law in Bleak House, whose primary interest, says Dickens, is not in justice but in lining its own pockets or, to use his specific phrase, in ‘making business for itself.’ Chaplin’s Tramp also finds that his most persistent enemies are policemen, magistrates, the courts. There is no identification in Dickens and Chaplin between the forces of law and the forces of good: indeed in Great Expectations, Pip’s growing maturity is mainly signalled through his increasing sympathy with the ex-convict Magwitch, whom the law regards as an irredeemable criminal deserving to be hanged. In Chaplin too, the poor must, in every sense, help themselves. In Modern Times, which is a comedy but also a gruelling look at the effects of the Depression in 30s America (unemployment, followed by strikes, riots, police brutality, imprisonment – a not unfamiliar sequence of events) there’s a moment when the Tramp, who’s got a job at a department store as a night watchman, disturbs some robbers and recognises one of them as a friend he met when both were in prison. ‘We ain’t burglars,’ the friend says to him. ‘We’re hungry.’ In Chaplin’s eyes- and he would have learnt this as a child – theft is preferable to starvation. The crime is not in the act of stealing but in the cause of that necessity. And still on the subject of theft, starvation and justice, this is a diary entry of Dickens in May 1852: ‘Two little children whose heads scarcely reached the top of the desk were charged at Bow Street on the seventh with stealing a loaf out of a baker’s shop. They said in defence that they were starving, and their appearance showed that they were speaking the truth. They were sentenced to be whipped in the House of Correction. To be whipped! Woe, Woe! can the State devise no better sentence for its little children?’ And he underlines the following: ‘will it never sentence them to be taught?’ I have no doubt Chaplin would have cheered that sentiment. He was self-taught, and, in his autobiography, he writes: ‘I wanted to know, not for the love of knowledge but as a defence against the world’s contempt for the ignorant.’8

In the second film extract for discussion, I want to draw some connections between Chaplin’s film, The Kid, made in 1921 and Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It’s a film full of overt autobiography, and full of parallels to the Dickens novel. As mentioned earlier, Oliver Twist was the first book Chaplin ever read and it remained his favourite novel throughout his life. He would read it to his children, and it was the novel he was reading and re-reading, apparently, during the last year of his life, young Oliver’s experience in the orphanage approximating and reminding him of his childhood.

The Kid was Chaplin’s biggest artistic risk at that time. It was three times longer than any film he had previously made; it was expensive to make, the ratio of used film (i.e. that which is seen in the completed film) to unused film being 1:53, which was high even by Chaplin’s perfectionist standards. It also had two ingredients that had not been so overt before – pathos (the opening title reads, ‘a picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear’) and social criticism, directed at the way society treats its unfortunates, here an unmarried mother, a tramp who stumbles across an abandoned baby and after initial reluctance looks after it, and a kid with no socially sanctioned parents. Like Oliver Twist, it begins with the tragedy of the unmarried mother and the child abandoned to its fate. As it develops, the relationship between the Tramp and the kid becomes a genial variation on that between Fagin and the Artful Dodger as they go into business together: the kid will break people’s windows and five minutes later the Tramp will innocently come along to offer his services as a glazier. Also, in both The Kid and Oliver Twist, the big set-pieces are roof-top chases – in Dickens, to trap Bill Sikes after the murder of Nancy; and in Chaplin, the Tramp’s endeavour to rescue the little boy when he has been taken from him by the authorities. Prior to the sequence the little boy, played by Jackie Coogan, has been ill and the Tramp has sent for the doctor, which is when the trouble starts. As we will see, the authorities attempt to take the boy from the Tramp, who is roused to desperate measures to rescue the boy from a tragic fate.

[Extract starts at 31:42]

In David Robinson’s superb biography of Chaplin, he writes that the attic setting might be ‘an illustration to Oliver Twist, with its sloping ceiling, peeling walls, bare boards, maimed furniture…’but adds that is also an autobiographical recollection of the attic in Pownall terrace where Chaplin lived as a child and where he remembered that every time he sat up in bed, he bumped his head on the ceiling.’9 There are a number of significant points about that sequence:

I would argue that even Chaplin’s use of the intertitles there is very Dickensian: that is, when a sequence is introduced with the title ‘The Proper Care and Attention’, it is fundamentally ironic and critical, because what we are about to see is anything but; and I think he picked that up from Dickens and Oliver Twist, for Dickens’ critique of the workhouse authorities very often takes that same sarcastic form: for example, when he refers to ‘juvenile offenders without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing’; or when he refers to Oliver’s ‘auspicious and comfortable surroundings’ when the boy has been thrown into a small dark room after being flogged for asking for ‘more’. What Dickens is doing is parodying the workhouse authorities’ own language, their own justification for their actions, and irony and parody can be particularly effective tools for exposing and emphasising hypocrisy. This is exactly what Chaplin does in The Kid. ‘Proper care and attention’ is the Doctor’s phrase and we see in reality what that means. The brusque music and the pompous manner of the authorities emphasise that they are acting out of simple officiousness rather than out of any sense of care. This was a very painful scene for Chaplin to film because it brought back all his childhood terror of officials like welfare workers, doctors, the police, as well as a specific incident when he was seven years old and brutally separated from his mother who was forced to move to Lambeth Workhouse whilst Chaplin and his half-brother Sydney were carted off to the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children.

The roof-top chase would have struck audiences at the time as an unusual sequence in a Chaplin movie. Chaplin as a rule didn’t like chase sequences and this was one of the reasons why he left the Mack Sennett organisation: ‘does everything have to end in a chase?’ he moaned. But this is a chase scene with a difference: the emphasis is not on slapstick but on suspense. Audiences would have recognised that sending the kid to the orphanage was a potential death sentence, and that’s emphasised by the way the kid is thrown into the back of the truck as if he were an animal on the way to the slaughterhouse.

"THE KID" First National, 1921, Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan
When the Tramp and the kid are re-united, it is noticeable that they are both crying; and, as Jackie Coogan was later to say, ‘for audiences at the time, to see this great clown, this mischievous tramp really crying was a considerable shock.’ There was a tangle of emotions at play here. Prior to making this film, Chaplin’s first child, a boy, had been born malformed and died within three days; and the boy’s mother, Chaplin’s first wife, said later that one of the few things she remembered about their disastrous marriage was that ‘Charlie cried when the child died.’ During the making of The Kid, Chaplin had become very fond of little Jackie Coogan and, when preparing this scene, dreaded having to make the lad cry and called in the parents for help. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the dad, and apparently, said to the boy: ‘Look, you little runt, you do what Mr Chaplin wants or I’ll send you to the orphanage myself!’ In fact, Coogan was the best co-star Chaplin ever had, for two reasons: firstly, he worshipped Chaplin, which always helped; and also he was a brilliant mimic. As Coogan was to say later, the problem for Chaplin was always that he wanted to play all the parts himself and could probably play them all better than anyone else, so his idea of direction was to demonstrate to the actor what he wanted, in order for the actor then to imitate what he had demonstrated. That worked a treat with the five-year-old Coogan but it didn’t go down so well with, say, Marlon Brando (in Chaplin’s last film, The Countess of Hong Kong). The Kid was to make Coogan a big star, and the search was on for a vehicle that would exploit his talents. One might have guessed what would turn out to be his first big starring role: Oliver Twist.

The final thing I want to pick up on The Kid and its Dickensian quality is its mood, particularly evident in that scene: the pathos, the sentiment. Both Dickens and Chaplin have been likewise criticised for what has been described as their gross sentimentality. When he wants to wring your heart, Dickens assaults you with an armoury of Biblical effusions, most notoriously when describing the death of little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, about which Oscar Wilde famously said: ‘Only a heart of stone could read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Chaplin pours on his own music, which is tender or treacly according to taste: e.g. ‘Smile, though your heart is breaking’ in Modern Times. How you respond to all this is very personal, but I always think that what’s behind it, the subconscious source of it, in both cases, is a kind of social revenge: they want to make society weep for having made them weep. And, in both cases, I don’t think the sentiment is ever cynically or externally applied: it’s fundamentally rooted in who they are. They can be maudlin and self-indulgent, but I would contend that they are never insincere. They are, after all, dealing upfront with the primary human emotions- hunger, fear, joy, envy, love, sadness- and I’m not sure understatement would be a lot of help there and might even induce complacency; and the thing I like most about their irony is not its wit but its anger. They were sophisticated in their art, but feeling was always as important as intellect, and sentiment as important as sophistication. The advice that Billy Wilder used to give to aspiring young screenwriters was: ‘Make the subtleties obvious’. That’s something I love in Dickens and Chaplin: they make their subtleties obvious. And I think what popular audiences responded to instinctively in both was that they sensed the authenticity behind the artistry: that Dickens’s social indignation is not manufactured, it arises out of bitter memory of early first-hand experience of social deprivation; and Chaplin’s Tramp, similarly, whilst a creation of his imagination, is also the sum of his observation as a child walking the streets of London and taking everything in. He always said that the Tramp’s walk was inspired by a beggar he saw who was walking in shoes too small for him but who couldn’t afford a new pair; and there’s a wonderful phrase by a local reporter in Chicago, Gene Morgan, who described interviewing Chaplin in his Tramp’s costume and said: ‘You can’t keep your eyes off his feet. Those big shoes are buttoned with 50 million eyes….’10

As they grew older, their work grew darker, to the dismay of many of their critics. In the case of Dickens, one Victorian critic, E.B. Hamley was representative of many when he wailed: ‘In the wilderness of Little Dorrit we sit down and weep when we remember thee, O Pickwick!’ Why aim to be profound when you can just be funny? And, of course, exactly the same criticism was levelled at Chaplin when he finally opened his mouth in the Talkies in The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), for me two of his greatest films. So many critics complained: who wants to hear your political opinions when you have the gift of laughter? Yet a young François Truffaut, in his notoriously combative days as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, had the answer to that when he reviewed a reissue of The Great Dictator in 1957: ‘I despise the set mind that rejects the ambitious from someone who’s supposed to be a comic….If Chaplin has been told that he is a poet or a philosopher, it’s because it’s true and he was right to believe what he heard. Without willing it or knowing it, he helped men live; later, when he became aware of it, would it not have been criminal to stop trying to help them even more?’11 Up until the middle of the last century, Dickens was always being accused of exaggeration, but the critic Lionel Trilling was one who thought that people who said that had no eyes or ears. ‘We who have seen Hitler, Goering, Goebbels on the stage of history,’ he wrote, ‘are in no position to suppose that Dickens exaggerated in the least the extravagance of madness, absurdity, malevolence in the world- or, conversely, when we consider the resistance to those qualities, the goodness.’12 And, of course, it was the Nazi threat in Europe which persuaded Chaplin finally to break his silence in the Talkies era and to make his anti-Fascist satire, The Great Dictator, exploiting surely the most bizarre resemblance of modern history (even to the extent of almost the same birth-date): that between Chaplin and Hitler. The great French critic André Bazin called it a settling of accounts: Chaplin’s revenge, he said, on Hitler’s double crime of elevating himself to a god and stealing Charlie’s moustache. The film is a funny but ferocious attack on totalitarianism, holding it up to ridicule in the noble, if perhaps forlorn, hope that the ensuing laughter would make it impossible for such a political philosophy ever to be taken seriously again. It did not work contemporaneously, but Milos Forman has since commented how spiritually liberating he found the film when he was allowed to see it after the end of the war.

Let me conclude on a note of speculation. What did Chaplin think Dickens would have made of the 20th century? And, if he had known him, what kind of moving death-bed scene might Dickens have contrived for Chaplin? Actually I can give the answer to the first question. A Birthday Dinner was given by the Dickens Fellowship at the Café Royal in London in 1955 in which Chaplin was Guest of Honour. Their choice of principal guest was very deliberate. Members of the Fellowship had asked themselves which great artist would best pay tribute to Dickens, and indeed who might Dickens himself have chosen for such an occasion. They came to the conclusion that the ideal person was Charlie Chaplin who, as the President of the Fellowship said, ‘was a great artist who, like Dickens, has shown a great interest in his fellow man and a profound concern at the direction in which the world was going.’ In his response, Chaplin ventured to suggest that, if he were alive today, Dickens would have been dismayed by many aspects of our western democracy: its hypocrisy and double-talk about peace and armaments; the paranoia of the cold war; by scientific irresponsibility about nuclear weapons; and would have called for a better balance between cleverness and kindness, intellect and feeling.13

If that was Chaplin’s tribute to Dickens, what might Dickens have reciprocated for Chaplin? Surely an emotional death-bed scene, in which a revered old man, surrounded by his devoted family, dies peacefully in his sleep. Oh yes, and as an extra touch: make it Christmas Day. And, of course, that is precisely what happened: Chaplin died on the Christmas Day of 1977. As well as the sentiment, though, Dickens, with his love of the macabre, might even have provided the slightly grotesque epilogue to this event: namely, that Chaplin’s coffin was later stolen by two pathetically incompetent kidnappers who demanded a ransom for its return but who were quickly caught and the coffin recovered.

Dickens and Chaplin – both artists of genius who preserved an unquenchable sympathy for society’s victims, and an equally unquenchable suspicion of society’s administrators and leaders, whom they fearlessly assailed with an inimitable blend of mockery and indignation in a ceaseless endeavour to reverse and rectify abuse and injustice. Both found and maintained their own equilibrium through a combination of comic and character observation so piercing that it forever embedded itself in the popular consciousness. They made singular contributions towards a recognition of their respective popular forms- the novel, the cinema- as genuine art forms, but both transcended even that, belonging not simply to literature and to film, but to history and to the air we all breathe. What Jacques Tati said of Chaplin is equally true of Dickens: ‘his work is always contemporary, yet always eternal.’

Neil Sinyard

This is a slightly expanded version of a lecture given at the ‘Adapting Dickens’ Conference at de Montfort University on 27 February 2013.

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  1. Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94. 

  2. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964), p. 48. 

  3. Robinson, p. 443. 

  4. Quoted in James Wood’s review of Peter Ackroyd’s biography, Guardian, 6 September 1990. 

  5. Louis Giannetti, Masters of the American Cinema (1981), p. 80. 

  6. Simon Louvish, Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey (2009), p. 245. 

  7. James Agee, Agee on Film, p. 9. 

  8. Chaplin, p. 134. 

  9. David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985), pp. 253-4. 

  10. Robinson, p. 136. 

  11. François Truffaut, The Films in My Life (1978), p. 55. 

  12. Quoted by Angus Calder in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Great Expectations. 

  13. The occasion is described in detail in The Dickensian, Summer,1955. 

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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