By Jessica Pickens
Film composer Bernard Herrmann is best known for his film collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. He created the frightening strings-only score in Psycho (1960) — which later inspired The Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby.” His swirling Vertigo (1958) score sets the mood to a strange story, and his music puts energy and intrigue into North by Northwest (1959); propelling the story forward.
But outside of the eight films with Hitchcock, Herrmann created other memorable scores that you should get to know:
After newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) dies, journalists try to determine what Rosebud is to decipher his final words. The film is a retrospective, as sources share stories on Kane’s childhood, marriages and political admissions.
After working with Orson Welles on radio, Bernard Herrmann’s first film project was Citizen Kane, considered by some the best film of all time. Herrmann’s music creates atmosphere and helps set moods of the character. For example, there is a montage of scenes where Kane and his wife Emily are sitting down to the breakfast table. In each vignette, time passes and the relationship of the husband and wife changes. Herrmann uses the same waltz theme for each scene, but varies it, making it darker and icier as time passes.
New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) and his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) are down on their luck financially. To be more successful, Jabez makes a deal with Mr. Scratch (Walter Houston), or the Devil. Jabez is prosperous but also selfish and dastardly—alienating his wife and his other old friends. When Congressman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) visits, Mary and Jabez beg for his help and, Jabez’s soul goes to trial with Mr. Scratch.
The title of this film is also sometimes known as All That Money Can Buy, so it wouldn’t be confused with another film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Bernard Herrmann won his only Academy Award for Best Music for this score. Herrmann used some innovative techniques in his score. For example, while Mr. Scratch is luring Jabez at a barn dance, he plays a frantic and crazed version of “Pop Goes the Weasel” on his fiddle. The music sounds crazy and like it’s getting faster and faster. A violinist playing variations of the song and then overdubbing the versions on top of them achieved this. Another interesting feature is the weird, eerie sound achieved when Mr. Scratch first enters. This was the hum of phone lines that a crew recorded in the early morning.
George Harvey Bone (Laird Cregar) is a classical pianist working on a concerto. Under the stress of his work, Bone blacks out with no memory of what he did during this time period, and then learns of murders. Music hall singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) gets interested in Bone, because his music could be beneficial to her work; manipulating him not knowing she could be in danger.
Before Hangover Square premiered in February 1945, the film’s star Laird Cregar died of a heart attack on Dec. 9, 1944, at age 30. His death adds to the strange and tragic tale.
Herrmann’s music is macabre and sets the tone for the tragic and tumultuous film-noir. In a 2010 NPR interview, composer Stephen Sondheim noted that Herrmann’s piano concerto in Hangover Square influenced his score for Sweeney Todd.
In 1862, Anna Owens (Irene Dunne) travels to Siam to be the tutor for the children of King Mongkut (Rex Harrison). Anna and the King clash over cultural differences. The King respects and befriends Anna for standing up to him.
The score for Anna and the King of Siam is Bernard Herrmann’s last Academy Award nominated score until 1976. For this score, Herrmann did extensive research on Asian music so that it would have an accurate geographical tone. Herrmann later wrote that the score was based on authentic Siamese scales and melodic fragments. His purpose in the score was to serve as musical scenery, rather than to provide emotion.
In 1900, widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to move to a seaside home with her young daughter (Natalie Wood) to avoid her late husband’s in-laws. She finds the home already inhabited… by a ghost. The home’s former owner was sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). After he tries to scare her out of the home, the two become friends.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is Bernard Herrmann’s favorite score, and he considered it his best score; saying it was “poetic, unique, highly personal.” He jokingly called it his “Max Steiner score.” The score uses woodwinds to describe the sea’s motion. It’s romantic and wistful for an ethereal story.
An alien (Michael Rennie) lands on Earth to warn the population that they need to live peacefully or be destroyed.
To give the music an unusual, space sound, Bernard Herrmann selected unusual instruments. Most notably, Herrmann uses one of the first theremin electric instruments in a motion picture score. He also used an electric violin, cello, and bass.
Max Cody (Robert Mitchum) serves eight years in jail after lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) testifies against him. When Cody is released, he stalks Bowden and his family (Polly Bergen, Lori Martin).
In some films, Bernard Herrmann creates prominent and menacing themes for the antagonist that you hear throughout the film. Max Cody has a musical theme that appears each time he shows up. Herrmann’s score also is used to exhibit Cody’s anger and violence towards the Bowden family.
The 1991 remake utilities Herrmann’s original score for the 1962 film.
Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is a mentally unstable man who becomes a night taxi driver because he can’t sleep. His becomes obsessed with a woman (Cybill Shepherd), who is a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, and also turns his violent nature towards the pimp of a prostitute (Jodie Foster).
Like Cape Fear, Bernard Herrmann uses a prominent theme for the main character. Herrmann uses violent percussion to illustrate the instability of Travis Bickle. The lonely, romantic saxophone theme that plays throughout the film is atmospheric; portraying the loneliness of New York City and being one among millions of people. This was one of Bernard Herrmann’s last films. Herrmann died in December 1975 and Taxi Driver was released in February 1976. Herrmann was nominated posthumously for an Academy Award for Best Score.
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.