Film Studies: And the Oscar should have gone to... Bernard Herrmann

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The Independent Culture

Now, if you as a film-maker happened to be bewildered by this description of the nature of cinema - if you thought it was excessive, romantic, self-indulgent, and too much of an excuse for putting the music first - then Herrmann was likely to be difficult. Or if, somehow, your film wasn't very good and didn't quite achieve that synchronicity of its soul with the beating heart of the medium itself, well then Herrmann was inclined to be a pain. He said that in all his career he had only one director who could talk to him about music - and that was Orson Welles.

To put it another way, from 1958-60, Herrmann wrote three of the greatest scores ever done for the movies, and in all three the music is the mood and mind of the film, it is the exact expression of the struggle between sanity and insanity (call it obsession and lucidity) in Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho (below). And in those years, the Oscar for best dramatic score went to Dimitri Tiomkin for The Old Man and the Sea; Miklos Rozsa for Ben-Hur and Ernest Gold for Exodus.

Now, I'm not dismissing those gentlemen. Tiomkin wrote some excellent film music, but nothing covered up the stink of dead fish on the Hemingway picture. Rozsa was an heroic composer, but Ben-Hur was winning everything that year. And Exodus? Well, it has a rousing theme, but that's about all. In those same three years, Bernard Herrmann was not even nominated for his Hitchcock films. This can make a man arrogant, unreachable and difficult.

And Bernard Herrmann did have the reputation in the club of movie composers of being too lofty. But this latest season, 2005-6, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas didn't do the music from The Old Man and the Sea, it played the Vertigo suite.

Which would undoubtedly have upset Bernard Herrmann. A tribute? Thank you, very nice, but no cigar. Why are you playing the music without the movie? Don't you get it - they are married. They want to be in bed together.

So don't think that in paying tribute to a film composer in July the National Film Theatre will be providing blindfolds so connoisseurs may sit in the dark responding to just the music cues. No, you are going to get the film and the music and feel the intercourse. And long before the end of the season, I suspect you'll find that - far from difficult - Herrmann made life easier for good films. It would be a fine thing if, one night in the season, the opening few minutes of the Mercury Theatre's The War of the Worlds was played.

That is the October 30 1938 broadcast that shocked America and made Orson Welles an international celebrity. It is the radio dramatization of H G Wells's novel done in such a way that a gullible public might think New Jersey was under real attack from space aliens. In those first few moments, it is Herrmann conducting the CBS Radio Orchestra in grandiose introduction from Tchaikovsky (the show's theme), and then it is Herrmann labelled as Ramon Raquello doing the Latin dance music at the Park Plaza hotel before the "interruption" begins. That's how playful and funny Herrmann could be; that's the man who saw that Norman Bates had a recording of Beethoven's Eroica in Psycho so threw in a quick pastiche of that classic.

So was it just the Hitchcock films on which he came to glory? No, he did the music for Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He did Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground, he did Hangover Square (about a crazed composer). He also wrote scores for Francois Truffaut which aren't in this season: Fahrenheit 451 and The Bride Wore Black.

But here's the final test, and here isolating the film from the music does help explain Herrmann. In 1975, he was asked to write the score for a New York story about a man who goes on a killing rampage. He's an odd guy, violent but strangely tender. And the film is about the end of the world, and yet it's about a kind of religious hope for cleansing it. OK, it's a crazy, impossible, difficult film. But it's full of killings and the streets at night in the mid 1970s. It's Taxi Driver.

Martin Scorsese knew his music. From Mean Streets to GoodFellas, his films are anthologies of contemporary music. Yet Scorsese believed his film had a rare soul that the music might indicate. Look at Taxi Driver, without the sound. You know the story, you know the talk. Feel the paranoia, the violence, the jittery dread. Then turn on the sound track and sink into the deep, wounded romanticism of that saxophone score. In the turn of the dial, Travis Bickle has changed - he is a damaged man trying to save his city. With music, the film has gone from a bloody slice of life in 1970s New York to an opera with libretto by Dostoyevsky.

That's so hard to do, it takes genius. And it may require a difficult man.

A season of films scored by Bernard Herrmann is being screened at the National Film Theatre, SE1, 1- 31 July, 020 7928 3232