Jump to: navigation, search

The Times (29/Jun/2006) - Hitch shoots, Herrmann scores

(c) The Times (29/Jun/2006)

Hitch shoots, Herrmann scores

John Russell Taylor recalls his unlikely friendship in London in the Sixties with Alfred Hitchcock's favourite film composer

The first time that Bernard Herrmann visited Alfred Hitchcock's personal block at Universal Studios was in 1954, in connection with the idea that he should write the score for Hitch's current production, The Trouble with Harry. As he was leaving, Alma Hitchcock turned up. After a few moments of polite conversation with this new addition to her husband's team, she left.

Gazing ruminatively after her diminutive retreating figure, Herrmann observed cheerfully to Peggy Robertson, Hitch's PA: "There will be trouble. Believe me, that woman is absolutely consumed with jealousy."

Not, perhaps, the happiest note on which to start a new collaboration. But of course nobody dared to pass on this observation to Hitch, and the collaboration continued happily enough for seven of Hitchcock's eight subsequent films. It reached its climax with Vertigo and Psycho, both of which, along with five other Hitchcocks, are included in the July season of Herrmann's films at the National Film Theatre.

And the eighth? Well, the falling-out of Hitchcock and Herrmann on Torn Curtain in 1966 is the stuff of legend. Hitchcock prided himself on not losing his temper, and Robertson, who had probably been through more maddening situations with him than anybody else, said she had seen him lose it only twice, the second time being at the recording of Herrmann's score for Torn Curtain.

Against heavy studio pressure to pick a composer who could come up with a lightweight score and possibly a theme song, Hitch had stood out for Herrmann.

When Herrmann played him his first sketches, Hitch objected that for contrast he needed the first scenes, with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews making love in the fjords, to be jolly and unmenacing.

Herrmann insisted that he understood, but when the time for recording came, the title music and first scene proved to be unusually dark and brooding. As Hitch listened he grew white with fury, and at the end he said: "I trusted you and you betrayed me. It's my fault: I shall pay for this out of my own pocket. You are dismissed from the film."

Hitchcock and Herrmann never met again.

As will be gathered, Herrmann was not the easiest man to deal with, even at the best of times. And his closest friends would attest that those best, or even reasonable, times were few and far between. When I first met him, in 1964, it was certainly not during one of them.

He was living in London, pursuing his alternative career as a conductor. I was spending the day with my old friend John Houseman, who had been producing a film called In the Cool of the Day over here. When I arrived that morning, Houseman said: "Would you mind very much if we have lunch with Bernard Herrmann? I must warn you, he's in a terrible mood. His wife's just left him."

Needless to say, I was eager to meet the composer of Citizen Kane and Psycho, whatever his state. We found him in chastened mood. Glum rather than vituperative, he brightened up a bit when I started to ask him questions about how he had "orchestrated" the sounds in The Birds, a film with no written score.

He even found it possible, in his newly deprived state, to talk sympathetically about Hitchcock's "erotic obsession" with Tippi Hedren. He was then scoring Marnie, thought that Hitch's judgment had totally deserted him in casting Hedren, and predicted commercial disaster for the movie.

To my surprise, after Houseman had returned to America, Herrmann kept inviting me to events that he was involved with, notably concerts and the occasional lunch or dinner. Mostly the lunches were occasions for letting off a volley of complaints about how badly everyone treated him. Would I believe it, but he had been dropped from the latest Ray Harryhausen special effects movie The First Men on the Moon -- after he had scored the previous four to universal acclaim -- just because he wanted a bit more money?

How much more, I wondered. "Well, twice as much. But then I deserve it. Don't you realise how much of the success of that schlock is owing entirely to me?"

Not everything was quite so anger-fuelled. For example, there was the chamber concert in 1966 at which his Echoes for string quartet, his first work for the concert hall since 1943, was given its premiere. It is a curious, largely elegiac, work with, I believed, clear reminiscences of the music for Vertigo and Psycho. "Well," he said. "There was no point in wasting it all on mere movies."

And did he mean that? No, I don't think so. It seems to me that he was really fascinated by the movie medium and believed that his film work was as important as anything else. No tolerator of what he saw as rivals, he could be scathing about Korngold's habit of recycling film material into concerto and symphony. It is a wonder that he managed to work so effectively, not only with routine commercial film-makers, but also with larger-than-life creators such as Welles and Hitchcock.

And he went on to work with the likes of Truffaut on The Bride Wore Black and Scorsese on Taxi Driver. There are, after all, some advantages to surviving until a younger generation reveres you and is willing to take you at your own estimation.

The season of 24 films scored by Bernard Herrmann at the National Film Theatre begins on Saturday with Citizen Kane, All That Money Can Buy and The Magnificent Ambersons, and runs until July 27