Strung With Suspense: The Collaborations of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock

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One of the more memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful North By Northwest features a drunken Cary Grant set adrift in a moving vehicle by a nefarious band of spies. As he weaves down a winding cliffside road, perilously close to dumping over the edge into a roiling ocean, a chaotic soundtrack mirrors the on-screen action with a frantic symphony of ominous strings, off-kilter horns, and psychotic percussion.

These very same sounds poured from my car’s speakers during a white-knuckled drive down steep, windy Topanga Canyon Boulevard one recent pitch-black evening. At each tightly carved bend in the road, I flinched as approaching headlights seemed to veer straight for my car, only to blaze past at the edge of the curve. With each mile, the tension grew and suddenly I was Cary Grant (albeit a sober, female version) making that suspenseful drive.

From the opening “Overture,” Bernard Hermann’s exceptional score is so intrinsically linked to Hitchock’s classic that it’s impossible to imagine the film’s iconic scenes – the groundbreaking title sequence, the drunken joyride, the climactic chase on Mt. Rushmore – without the accompanying soundtrack. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the sound of Hitchcock’s movies in general without thinking of Hermann’s legendary work with the famous director.

I’m a huge Hitchcock nerd, going way back to my elementary school years when I discovered the book The Alfred Hitchcock Album in the library at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club; I checked it out so often that they eventually just gave it to me. North By Northwest has been my favorite Hitchcock film for as long as I can remember and the soundtrack is an absolutely central part of that adoration. Therefore, it made complete sense for me to focus on Bernard Herrmann to knock out requirement #4 for the Music Appreciation badge:

Choose any four works of a great composer and hear them as often as you can until you feel that you are well acquainted with them and with the composer.

Hitch and Herrmann worked together for just over a decade, beginning with the dark comedy The Trouble With Harry, through the political thriller Torn Curtain.

Well…sort of.

Let me back up. Over the years, the two became super tight and the composer was given free reign on his films with the director. This led to some incredible moments in film music history, including the now-legendary score for Vertigo. From the opening note of the main title, the music parallels the descent into confusion – and eventually, madness – that befalls its lead characters. It’s circular, cyclical– and it fits perfectly with the title sequence’s spiral graphics, courtesy another longtime Hitchcock collaborator, designer Saul Bass. You still get those moments of fermata, where Herrmann draws out notes for a doom-and-gloom effect, but the music of Vertigo swirls into shimmering dreamlike states and flirts with the edges of sanity in looping dramatics. It’s a perfect mirror of the story onscreen, implying both romance and darkness. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto compares Hermann’s work here to “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, and after a listen, I can’t disagree.

Some of Herrmann’s most intense work was on the strings-only score for Psycho, which Spoto compares to Jean Sibelius’ moody Fourth Symphony and to the work of Gustav Mahler (which is probably why I enjoyed his Fifth so much). In the film’s classic shower scene, the screeching, shrieking violins – re! re! re! re! (“glissandos,” in music parlance) – are almost more central than the action itself. It’s hard to believe that Hitchcock actually wanted to play that scene dry – no music, no sound – and it took some heavy convincing on Herrmann’s part to get the director to agree to what would become one of the most iconic moments in film – and film music – history. Word is, Hitchcock loved that piece (“The Murder”) so much that he doubled the composer’s salary!

But not all was roses and rainbows for the duo. When it came time to work on Hitchcock’s 11th film, Torn Curtain, he once again requested that Herrmann compose the score, but both the director and the studio wanted him to take a more modern, lighter tone with the music. Unaccustomed to having restrictions placed on his work, Herrmann instead created music filled with what was now his signature “Hitchcock sound” – moody, ominous, and bombastic. For this, he was booted from the production and his friendship with the director was irrevocably damaged.

Last year, I bought Herrmann’s Torn Curtain score on vinyl, without realizing that his version never made it into the film. It’s fascinating to compare his vision with the actual soundtrack (by British composer John Addison), which indeed sounds more contemporary and at times, even whimsical – not your typical Hitchcock fare.

If you’ve read through this and have yet to hear any of Herrmann’s work (besides re! re! re! re!), get thee to a YouTube channel or record store immediately. His work outside of the Hitchcock realm is just as legendary (Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver) and his influence can be felt far and wide. In fact, if you saw The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s exquisitely crafted homage to Hitchockian thrillers, you’d hear composer Alexandre Desplat pay equal homage to Herrmann’s work, especially in cues like “Suspicion,” which takes us back to the classic sounds of Vertigo:

Now, what are you waiting for? Shoo! You have great music to check out!

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