Monthly Archives: June 2011

Bernard Herrmann Centenary: June 29, 2011

When it comes to great movie composers, they don’t come much hipper than Bernard Herrmann, whose centenary falls today. During his lifetime and in the 30 years before his death, Herrmann has regularly been rediscovered and championed by younger film and music aficionados.

How many long-dead composers have had their work recycled for a Quentin Tarantino? Bernard Herrmann did: his theme for the 1968 British film Twisted Nerve featured in Kill Bill Volume 1, in 2003.

While movies such as Psycho and Cape Fear have been remade for new audiences, their Herrmann-penned scores have been considered sacrosanct. Suites of timeless music for these films and other from the voluminous Herrmann back catalogue are regularly performed in concert halls.

But what is it about Herrmann’s music that has made it so enchanting and so enduring? It is catchy and memorable, but more importantly, it is an integral part of a movie. It is as much of a factor in the artistic success of a film as the image. A Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is always a partner to the action onscreen.

It’s impossible to recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme, or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest (1959), or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho (1960), without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on eight movies, the others being The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956) , Psycho, The Birds (1963; on which Herrmann worked as a sound designer) and Marnie (1964). Torn Curtain (1966), the first Hitchcock film in a decade to not have a Herrmann score – or indeed any music during its extended music scene – was a flop.

What made Herrmann the ideal partner for Hitchcock was his groundbreaking way of using music. When he started in Hollywood, most film composers were churning out post-Romantic style scores, and the conventional function of music was to communicate intellectual ideas to the viewer in a shorthand form. Music could suggest  period of a place; it could comment on the image onscreen, or hint at trouble immediately ahead.

Herrmann started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane, and it was an apt debut because the young composer, like the young director, wrote his own rules.

He used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters. Period and place didn’t enter into it. (After all, what has the fandango, a Spanish dance form, got to do with the plot of North by Northwest? Absolutely nothing.) In some films, such as the beguiling supernatural romance The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), the romance between a young widow and a dead sea captain is almost entirely created by the score which conveys longing and desire in a way that couldn’t work in the script.

Herrmann helped Hitchcock’s audience better understand the troubled minds of the characters they were watching onscreen. James Stewart’s obsession in both The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he’s on a race against time to find his kidnapped son and prevent an assassination, and in Vertigo, in which his obsession with Kim Novak is fuelled by guilt and lust, is not only underlined by the repetitive, eerie score; it is partly evoked by it.

Herrmann  started his career at the top – and he ended it there too. His last film was Martin Scorsese’s psychological study Taxi Driver, one of the most important movies of the 1970s.

In the years running up to his unexpected death, aged 64 in 1975, Herrmann, that most modern of movie composers, was enjoying collaborations with many rising stars of modern cinema. Since then, and thanks to them, his music has rarely been out of fashion.

* I’ll be discussing Bernard Herrmann’s work on the Movie Cafe, BBC Radio Scotland on Thursday at 1.15pm, and The Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh is showing a terrific season of Herrmann-scored films from today.

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The Unsung Marilyn

Today would have been the 85th birthday of movie legend Marilyn Monroe – and I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate a less feted aspect of her career: her singing.

Monroe may have sung in more than a quarter of her films – including some of her best-loved ones – but her singing is rarely mentioned in any of the potted biogs written about her. And yet, her sultry, soulful and sumptuous vocals contributed enormously to her overall sex appeal (witness the fact that songs were shoehorned even into the western River of No Return) – it’s just that everyone has been distracted by her visual voluptuousness..

Nevertheless, her singing abilities were recognised by her employers almost from the word go. She sang various numbers in her first notable role – in Ladies of the Chorus, in 1949, and memorably crooned along to a record of Kiss in the thriller Niagara (1953).

Thereafter, Monroe gave a string of iconic musical performances. As Lorelei Lee, the archetypal gold-digging blonde, in the sparkling Howard Hawks comedy-musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), she guaranteed herself a place in the pantheon of great Hollywood musical moments when she sang Diamonds Are  Girl’s Best Friend.

While Marilyn got to prance around in Schiaparelli-pink satin as debonair dancers draped diamonds on her, poor old Jane Russell (as her best pal, Dorothy) had as her featured number Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love. The song was okay, though hardly Hoagy Carmichael’s finest, but Russell had to perform it with a particularly camp-looking crew of scrawny, knobbly-kneed dancers who did not look in the slightest bit interested in her or her impressively upholstered chest.

Monroe and Russell actually made a pretty good team, both comically and musically: they duetted memorably on Hoagy Carmichael’s When Love Goes Wrong (Nothing Goes Right), and Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s Bye Bye Baby and A Little Girl From Little Rock.

There’s No Business Like Showbusiness (1954) also made good use of Monroe’s singing skills – notably on the sizzling Heat Wave.

But easily the most sexually charged of her musical performances were to be found in Some Like It Hot. As Sugar Kane, the emotionally fragile yet effervescent singer with Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, Monroe only sang a trio of songs (Runnin’ Wild, I Wanna Be Loved By You and I’m Through With Love) but they make an indelible impression: indeed, she pretty much ruined them for anyone else. Even those who had sung them first..

I Wanna Be Loved By You may have been associated with another Kane – Helen, the original boop-boop-a-doop girl from the 1920s (and many a Betty Boop cartoon), but from 1959 onwards, it was Marilyn’s grown-up, sensual version that first sprang to minds, and poor old Helen’s girlish boop-boop-a-doops were forgotten.

The piece de la resistance was Monroe’s I’m Through With Love, the perfect song choice for a character who’s been bruised by bad love affairs before (and now thinks she’s in love with an impotent and somewhat camp millionaire with a Cary Grant voice). It’s difficult to conceive of a more exquisite reading of that song (though Goldie Hawn’s in Everyone Says I Love You comes a very close second): Monroe was never more vulnerable or more exposed. And I’m not just talking about the way she’s dressed.

Only one more musical outing remained for the doomed star: the pretty awful Let’s Make Love (1960) which has as its redeeming factor Monroe’s often-forgotten, but utterly fab, version of Cole Porter’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of Marilyn Monroe on compact disc  – just the afore-mentioned songs, plus a few other goodies (including a dreamy take on the Gershwins’ Do It Again which seems to have been recorded independently of any film), which are available on any number of cheap compilations. Still, they’re cheap compilations worth having.

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