CINEMA / The sounds of a visionary: Bernard Herrmann made good films better. Robert Hanks on the man who gave Welles, Hitchcock and Scorsese their greatest hits

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The Independent Culture
PERHAPS the best way to begin is like Citizen Kane, Bernard Herrmann's first film: that's to say, at the end. The final frame of the closing credits for Taxi Driver, his last film, reads: 'Our gratitude and respect, Bernard Herrmann, June 29, 1911-December 24, 1975'. That at least gives you the most basic facts.

And then you can follow up with a newsreel- style summary of his life - born in New York; favourite son of Jewish immigrants who had prospered in the optician's trade; trained (briefly) at the Juilliard and New York University; early days as a conductor before being plucked off to Hollywood by Orson Welles.

And then a swift montage of significant moments in his career: De Niro prowling through New York by night, eyeing the hookers and the pimps, to the unwinding of a sleazy, Ellingtonian blues. The shower scene in Psycho, Anthony Perkins slashing at Janet Leigh while violins shriek. Kim Novak, in Vertigo, emerging from the bathroom the living image of James Stewart's dead love, while the soundtrack swells into unashamed Wagnerian pastiche. Or the bit in North by Northwest when the cropduster swoops across the wide, blank prairies and straight at Cary Grant's head, and in the background the orchestra is playing . . . nothing at all, actually.

Now that's a Herrmann moment. The thing about Bernard Herrmann wasn't just that he could rescue a scene, even an entire film, with great music; he also knew when to leave well alone. Elmer Bernstein, who conducts the RPO on a new album of Herrmann's film music, From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, struggling to categorise his talent settles for: 'He was - and this you can't describe - he was just a superior dramatist.'

Maybe you can't describe it, but you can observe it at work. Take Psycho (1960), the Hitchcock film that has the least dialogue and relies most on music for effect. When the film was finished but still unscored, the director was in despair, seriously contemplating slashing it down to an hour and selling it to television. Herrmann persuaded Hitchcock to let him record the music before he did anything rash: and he transformed it.

There are a number of remarkable things about the Psycho soundtrack. Apart from anything else, it's probably the only film that has ever been scored for strings alone - Herrmann said that he wanted to find an equivalent for the black and white of the film, a kind of aural monochrome. And, of course, there is the shower scene, where the stabbing chords don't merely imitate the

murderer and the victim, but also refer to the stuffed birds that Norman keeps in his parlour. (Hitchcock originally insisted that there should be no music for the murders. Herrmann argued, and proved his point.)

But other, less exciting sequences are even more impressive for the way that Herrmann sustains the tension: the scene where Janet Leigh is packing in her room, debating with herself whether she should take her boss's dollars 40,000 and run, or the whole sequence that comes right after, when she is driving away from town, constantly checking in her rear-view mirror. Taken together, these two sequences take up nearly 10 minutes of screen-time. Replay the video with the sound turned down and they're long minutes: what you see is a pretty, vaguely worried-looking girl creasing her eyebrows and blinking a lot, an unimpressive shorthand for internal torture. The music adds a missing dimension of anxiety, turning the drive into a journey into fear.

You can see the force of Herrmann's assertion, in an interview tacked on at the end of the new disc, that film needs music to live. If you don't believe him, 'all you'd have to do would be to look at any film without music, and it would be almost unbearable to look at it'. But reverse that, play the music without the images, and you can see how this cuts both ways. The 'Scene d'Amour' from Vertigo (1958) - re-used to terrific effect in Stephen Daldry's recent National Theatre production of An Inspector Calls - offers a couple of wonderful climactic moments, never mind that they're blatantly ripped off from the Liebestod in Tristan. But, to borrow Rossini's famous crack about Wagner, there are some awful quarter hours. To be strictly accurate, the Vertigo music actually only makes you wait about three minutes for the main action; but it feels much, much longer because virtually nothing happens, nothing develops.

In the cinema, though, it works. While Herrmann seems to be marking time, he's freezing a moment, an emotion, and making it last forever. Bernstein speaks admiringly of 'his ability to spin an entire score out of relatively few notes': take the main theme for North by Northwest (1959) - a frantic fandango, alternating 3/4 and 6/8, supposed by Herrmann to hint at the 'mad dance with the world' that Cary Grant leads through the film. According to Bernstein, 'It's just amazing when you analyse that piece and break it down: it seems to be based on almost nothing.'

In the concert hall that ability to spin things out was probably a handicap. Herrmann was a serious musician, with serious ambitions and tastes - as a staff conductor at CBS radio in the Thirties and early Forties, he championed Charles Ives and little-known British composers such as Delius and Rubbra. But his own work - the early cantata Moby Dick and the four-act opera Wuthering Heights, for instance - tends to be rambling and unsatisfactory. Elmer Bernstein suggests that 'Had he not done film, his concert works would probably have been better compositions.'

But you can see how repetition and economy worked for him in the cinema right from the start. After he had worked with Welles on dozens of radio shows, including the legendary, panic-inducing broadcast of War of the Worlds, he was asked to score Citizen Kane (1941). The integration of music and drama was revolutionary. There's plenty of variety, but the body of the music comes from just a couple of brief motifs which follow Kane around, commenting on him and offering hints to the audience. In the opening shots of Xanadu, you can hear a short theme played on vibraphone as the camera pauses on a sled marooned among Kane's junk. The same notes recur as the dying Kane gasps 'Rosebud'; and again, blared out by full orchestra, when the sled is consigned to the furnace at the end. Everything comes full circle. It's satisfyingly neat.

Bernstein thinks that Herrmann was the first truly American film composer, and there is a lot of American music in his first two films, Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), which won him his only Oscar. But after that, the Americanisms aren't so obvious; Christopher Palmer, his assistant on Taxi Driver, says (in his book The Composer in Hollywood) that Herrmann was essentially European in outlook. Certainly he always had a strong Anglophile streak, apparently sparked by boyhood reading of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes. And he spent his last years in London, work having more or less dried up in Hollywood after the split with Hitchcock - which happened, sadly, over the mediocre Cold War thriller Torn Curtain (1966), a project unworthy of either of their talents. Instead, he scored a succession of mediocre British films, including a dull adaptation of Agatha Christie's Endless Night (1971), before returning to Hollywood one last time for Taxi Driver. The music here is not all his own - he was unwell by this time - but there's the same economy, and the same sense of neatness, of things coming full circle. Here, the jazzy theme that announces Cybill Shepherd reappears in distorted form after the big shoot-out, to let you know that it's sex that has brought Travis Bickle to this pass.

He died the night that recording finished. But he ended his career the way he'd begun, with two Oscar nominations in the same year - Taxi Driver and Brian De Palma's Obsession. Things came full circle. That was neat. He'd have liked that.

'From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver' (Milan) is released on Thurs. We have 20 copies to give away to the first 20 readers to tell us which of Herrmann's scores was updated by Elmer Bernstein for a film released in 1991. Answers on a postcard to: Herrmann, Arts Desk, Independent on Sunday, 40 City Rd, London EC1Y 2DB by Mon 22 Nov. Usual competition rules apply; the editor's decision is final.

(Photographs omitted)