The Rear-View Mirror: Bernard Herrmann (1911)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You don’t have to be into movies all that much to have been scared by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). He started composing when still a teenager and also worked as an orchestrator and conductor later on. One of his first notable contributions was for Orson Welles’ original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Hermann’s music must have had a hand in the fact that so many listeners thought that the Martians were really coming.

Herrmann went on to write the score for Welles’ movies Citizen Kane and The Magnificient Ambersons. While we make our way from the entrance gate to the hall of the great Kane, the ominous music lets us expect nothing too cheerful, but there is a dash of curiosity in it as well, and so we keep going, until someone, probably the man himself, utters his famous last word. Ambersons got butchered by the studio who thought a re-edit would greatly improve the film. It didn’t, and Herrmann, among others, withdrew his name from the movie.

And then, of course, Herrmann started working for Hitchcock. The title theme of Vertigo is based on a constant up-and-down scale, which, to people like me suffering from high anxiety, is a pretty good representation of not being cut out for heights. On a bad day, the theme alone can be vertigo-inducing to me.

And so we come to the very apex of movie themes. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) starts with that hurried, panicky theme that has many layers to it – you could say the theme itself is schizophrenic. It tries to signal to the faint of heart: get out of this movie while you still can, you’ve been warned. On the one hand, there are those repetitive strings that make a sentient thought somehow impossible, and on the other, there is that more standard theme that might be from someone who has stolen money from a safe and is thinking about putting it back while that is still an option, but the window is closing.

Herrmann’s score for Psycho culminates in the moment where those strings are at their most hectic, close to breaking point, maybe not in the way of speed, but in the way of fear. I always felt that this was the sound that my nerves made while watching that shower scene. Something gives. And that bit of movie score is so famous that even people who have never seen a movie in their lives are somehow familiar with it.

Herrmann also wrote the original theme for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone that premiered in 1959. It’s not the famous four-tone classic that is mostly associated with the series; that is by Marius Constant and was used from the second season onward. Herrmann’s score also creates dread and even disorientation, but somewhere beneath that is a sense of wonder at all the strangeness. It is long for an intro to a series, but Rod Serling took advantage of that and explained all about the Zone, at the start of every episode.

1962 saw the release of Cape Fear, for which Herrmann wrote a score that seems to come at you with the inevitability of a steam train. Martin Scorsese did a remake of that film in 1991, but there is a more direct connection between the two men, because Herrmann wrote the main theme for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the one with that pressuring dread and weird drum beats leading nowhere, a beginning that belies the smooth jazz that follows a moment later. Those jazz moments want to make us believe that this is the big-city loneliness of a taxi driver that will end if he only could bring himself to ask the girl out on a date. Herrmann’s score destroys any kind of hope in that direction, and gives us a bit of the unmoored mind beneath.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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