Tag Archives: Cary Grant

John Wilson on Bernard Herrmann

The zombies of Brad Pitt’s new movie may have left Glasgow but there are going to be some traumatised souls wandering around the city centre again next Saturday. Why? Because – as part of a weekend centenary celebration of the music of film composer Bernard Herrmann – the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho is being screened at the City Halls, with its iconic, nerve-jangling music being performed live by the BBC SSO.

The tension in the audience is likely to be tangible according to conductor John Wilson, whose last visit to Glasgow was with his own orchestra and their joyous concert of songs from MGM musicals. Raising his arm as if about to impersonate the knife-wielding psycho of the film, he explains: “I’ve done this before and during the build-up to the shower scene, the tension was absolutely palpable. I could hear people whimpering behind me when I was poised to give the downbeat to this shrieking, stabbing violin quote.”

Even seasoned viewers of the film are likely to feel renewed tension from the live performance of the score. And there’s certainly plenty of stress involved for Wilson whose job it will be to synchronise the orchestra’s playing with the action on the screen. He’ll be relying on an analogue clock to keep him right. “I prefer to do it that way,” he explains. “You have a timecode on the score and you have a clock which is synchronised to the film.” Which is exactly how Herrmann probably recorded the original score with his studio orchestra? “Yes, but they had lots of attemps at it till they got it spot-on. We’ve got one!”

Won’t he be a nervous wreck, especially given how unsettling and edgy the music is? “It is stressful,” he admits, “but it won’t be anything like as bad as when I did The Wizard of Oz – and I had Munchkins to deal with! There was no margin of error there because I had singing as well as dialogue to synchronise with, and only an eighth of a second to play with. It takes that time for the eyes and ears to notice that if the music and the image are not in synch. Psycho is more straightforward – and the music is less technical, though very effective.”

Indeed, there are few Hollywood composers whose work is as effective or as integral to a film’s artistic success as Bernard Herrmann – especially where his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are concerned. In those films, a Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is almost always a partner to the action onscreen. It’s impossible to recall Vertigo without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme or its eerie arpegios (recently quoted in – of all things – the hit TV cop show New Tricks), or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest, or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho, without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

So integral was Herrmann’s contribution to his films that Hitchcock would tell him: “I’ve left reel three for you”. And the composer would fill it with music which, as Wilson says, gave you everything you couldn’t see. “He seemed to have an unerring instinct for catching the mood of a film, right up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his last score, and he was so technically adroit in so many different styles that he could pinpoint musically exactly what the subtext of a scene was. He never took you in the wrong direction, as it were.”

You only need to watch Janet Leigh’s car journey in Psycho to understand this element of the power of a Herrmann score. If you play the scene without sound, Leigh could be en route to the supermarket or to pick her kids up from school; turn the volume on, and it’s immediately apparent that something very, very bad is going to happen. The music unnerves and unsettles. “It’s that unresolved harmony,” says Wilson. “It’s completely ambiguous. There’s lots of that in Herrmann’s music – you get shifting blocks of unresolved harmony, harmony that can never go anywhere.”

Herrmann – who started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane – used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and help the audience understand their troubled minds. Did he change the function of film music?

“I think he did, in a number of ways,” says Wilson. “He was so determined and serious-minded, such a craftsman, that he raised the status of film music. Don’t forget Herrmann was a very, very highly regarded conductor and he had a career as a legitimate composer for the concert hall. He viewed the art of writing film music very seriously and he was a perfectionist. He was completely uncompromising in his choice of timbre and choice of instruments and he wouldn’t be dictated to by directors. He talked himself out of many jobs. But he fought for the cause of film music and was very erudite and articulate about it. He dragged the art of composing for the movies up a notch.”

At the same time, argues Wilson, Herrmann moved film music on from “that very opulent, late-romantic, Wagnerian/Straussian sort of sound” that the first generation of Hollywood composers, led by Max Steiner, had established. “I guess Herrmann was the first to incorporate into that style a leaner, more angular, more sparsely scored, less generic sort of sound.”

Wilson was first captivated by Herrmann’s music when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. “In my first year, I got all these LPs out of the library – LPs by Charles Gerhart and the National Philharmonic. He recorded a series on RCA of Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rosza – all those film composers – and there was a Herrrmann one in there called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef or something like that. It had nine harps in it. Then I read about one he’d written with five organs.. and I was intrigued. Round about the same time I saw Vertigo for the first time, and I loved it. I love all those Hitchcock films.”

The best of those Hitchcock scores will be played in the second concert of the Herrmann centenary celebration weekend in Glasgow, along with music by some of his colleagues, among them David Raksin (Laura) and Alfred Newman (All About Eve). Wilson explains: “Herrmann is the singlemost effective composer of music for films but it doesn’t always stand up as well on its own in concerts – it’s too repetitive, it hasn’t any organic development in it and it’s so married to the films. Things like Vertigo occupy such a unique sort of sound world that you can give them an airing because people have the images in their heads already – but a lot of film music doesn’t stand up on its own in concerts.”

Having said that, Wilson remembers that he’ll be conducting some music from Marnie, the only Hitchcock film which is outclassed by its score. “Oh, the music in Marnie is sumptuous. I love the unrestrained romanticism of it,” sighs Wilson. “It would be difficult for any film to come up to the level of that score. It’s one of my favourites.”

* Psycho is showing at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Saturday 17 at 7.30pm. The Music to be Murdered By concert takes place at the City Halls on Sunday 18 at 3pm.


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A Hawks Eye View

The names of many of the great directors of the golden age of Hollywood movies are synonymous with the types of films they made. Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense, Billy Wilder was the king of comedy, and John Ford was the storyteller who turned the western into an art form. But Howard Hawks, the subject of a magnificent, 14-movie, retrospective which starts at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse tomorrow, is the odd man out – a great director whose name variously evokes a certain tough attitude, a spirit of camaraderie, an unpretentious style, brilliant storytelling, great entertainment and a terrific sense of humour.

You only have to look at the list of titles that will be screened in Edinburgh over the next two months to see that his name can’t be synonymous with one category of film because he made great films in pretty much every genre – and some of them were among the very best of their type. Hawks’s His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep, Red River and Rio Bravo are among the best films ever to come out of Hollywood during his time in the director’s chair.

And the others – including Ball of Fire, Sergeant York and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – are among the most entertaining. He gave us such memorable moments as Lauren Bacall instructing Humphrey Bogart in the art of whistling (“You put your lips together and blow..”) in To Have and Have Not, and hoodlum George Raft’s iconic tossing of a coin in Scarface.

Hawks’s films are also high points in the careers of such stars as Grant, Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, Lauren Bacall, whom he discovered and moulded into a screen personality. He had a gift for teasing the most fantastic performances from actors (just look at Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire compared with most of her other comedies, or Marilyn Monroe in the films she made before Hawks’s Monkey Business) and making characters come alive on screen.

Not only that, but – as one of his snappy dialogue writers might have said – he got in on the ground floor of such of-the-moment genres as the gangster movie (Scarface), the screwball comedy (Twentieth Century) and the film noir (The Big Sleep), and helped shape them.

For most of his career, Indiana-born Hawks  – a charismatic, dash-cutting figure who balanced out a bookish side with a passion for aviation and racing cars – was generally regarded within the movie business as a terrific storyteller, a reliable pair of hands in which to place a film. He didn’t have aspirations to innovate, he didn’t pose deep questions or make “important” movies, and he didn’t go in for fancy flourishes in his films. Rather, he made straight-forward, un-pretentious movies which interested him – being an independent director-producer most of the time, he was able to pick and choose.

Born in 1896, Hawks began his Hollywood career as a prop man. He first tried his hand at directing in 1917, when silent era movie sweetheart Mary Pickford asked him to fill in for the drunken director of her picture The Little Princess. After briefly serving in the First World War and working as an aviator, an airplane builder and a race car driver, he returned to Hollywood to direct and produce a number of comedy shorts before joining the story department of Paramount in 1922.

His name began to appear as director from 1926 but he directed more movies than he received credit for. As talking pictures came in, Hawks came into his own – he appreciated good dialogue and hired such top writers as Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, William Faulkner  – and turned out hit after hit. He developed a way of handling dialogue so that it moved along briskly and naturally, and in no film was this more effective than in the fast-talking newspaper comedy His Girl Friday in which Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell routinely talk over each other in their excited, sexy, banter – but not a laugh gets lost in the process.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s, when serious film criticism became fashionable, that Hawks’s genius began to be widely appreciated. The French film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, which counted such leading lights of French cinema as Francois Truffaut among its contributors, named Hawks as the embodiment of its newly-evolved auteur theory – the idea that the authorship of a film, the artistic credit, should be attributed to its director, and that an auteur’s body of work is unified by recurring themes, regardless of genre.

Film theory took off in a big way in the States in the 1960s and in the decade before his death, in 1977, Hawks found himself being interviewed extensively – and regularly – by film students and critics who had pored over his life’s work and come to the conclusion that his films did feature numerous recurring themes.

Strong, feisty, ahead-of-their-time women – most memorably Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby – who got the guy on their own terms were celebrated in of Hawks’s films. (This was, he later explained, the exact type of woman he found attractive himself.) Groups of professionals, usually men, working together on a common cause, was another theme which is evident in many of his films notably the westerns Red River and Rio Bravo, the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings and in the glorious romantic comedy Ball of Fire, which was based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The threat that women pose to male relationships – also evident in Ball of Fire, in which a brassy gangster’s moll hides out in a household of professors working on an encyclopaedia – pops up in film after film, from the 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings onwards. And there are various recurring motifs which the theorists have also identified through Hawks’s work – cross-dressing (usually by Cary Grant – see Bringing Up Baby and I Was a Male War Bride) and communal singsongs (Hawks often gathered his cast round a piano or inserted some jazz greats into the proceedings), to name but two.

At the end of the day, however, what Hawks’s films offer is pure, unadulterated entertainment of the highest order. That’s what he set out to make – and that’s why the films are still so fresh and popular.

* The Howard Hawks retrospective kicks off at The Filmhouse (www.filmhousecinema,com) today with a week’s run of The Big Sleep.


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The Bishop’s Wife

We all have our own little Christmas rituals. Pre-children, mine involved cramming as many Christmas movies as possible in to the run-up to December 24 – and topping them off with It’s a Wonderful Life in the wee small hours of Christmas morning.

In recent years, however, my guilty, pre-Christmas pleasure has been to sneak off to the GFT for its now-annual screening of a much less well-remembered movie of pretty much the same vintage as IAWL. The Bishop’s Wife is its title, and it stars Cary Grant as a suave angel who comes to earth one snowy Christmas to help a harassed bishop who has been neglecting his family while he devotes himself to fundraising for new cathedral. It doesn’t sound particularly prepossessing on paper, but with

Gregg Toland's signature "deep focus" photography

Cary Grant and Loretta Young’s star personalities and chemistry, a witty script, a supporting cast of delightful character actors, beautiful music and sumptuous cinematography (by Citizen Kane’s Gregg Toland, no less), it is a feast for the eyes and ears.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels that there’s magic in this movie. Those other GFT regulars who play hooky from their Christmas shopping to be bedazzled by Cary and co are similarly smitten. Indeed, given that we’re now in the fifth year of it taking up a brief residence alongside the Capra classic in Glasgow, is it fair to say that it’s now established as part of the film theatre’s own Christmas tradition.

“Absolutely,” says Allison Gardner, the GFT’s head of programming. Indeed, so strongly is the film now associated with a GFT Christmas that Gardner had to book the print back in the summer. “There’s only one print – and we didn’t want to disappoint people.”

So why has this 1947 movie captured the hearts of Glaswegian movie fans? Gardner believes it’s simply because it’s a great film. But it’s more than that. For one thing, I’m sure that, like me, many film fans who have overdosed on the Capra classic over the years welcome the choice of an alternative – and one that still has something cultish about it.

For another, The Bishop’s Wife is a grown-up Christmas movie – and the perfect antidote to the sugar-coated confections that swamp TV screens at this time of year. It’s not a film to take the family to see; it’s one for the adults because it’s essentially about a marriage. Although there is humour, a dusting of special effects, and a couple of cute kids (It’s a Wonderful Life’s ZuZu and young George no less), it doesn’t cater for a juvenile audience.

Which is probably why I remembered it – from my own childhood – as being
talky and dull when I first spotted it in the GFT programme back in December 2006. But, always eager to grab the chance to watch an old movie in a cinema, I went along to see it and, within seconds of the titles having rolled, I – like everyone on the screen – was totally beguiled by  the debonair Dudley, who leaves a trail of swooning females behind him wherever he goes. If there was ever a masterclass in how to charm the ladies, the super-attentive Dudley gives it in The Bishop’s Wife. Even Queenie, the family’s St Bernard, is left with her jaw hanging open after Dudley has glided by.

Nick Varley, of the Glasgow-based company Park Circus which distributes The Bishop’s Wife, agrees that the film has a quintessential grown-up appeal. “I think it’s popular here because is because Glasgow loves a good story.” Varley believes that had The Bishop’s Wife fallen into the public domain, in the way that IAWL did, it would enjoy a similar mainstream status. As it is, he struggles to persuade cinemas to take a chance on it – though when the GFT was approached following Varley’s discovery of a print back in 2006, a Dudley-style intervention seems to have taken place as it turned out that Jaki McDougall, the cinema’s director, had long been hoping to be able to screen it in honour of her head of finance, Marion Pearson, whose favourite movie it is.

IT may not be as well remembered as the Capra classic, but The Bishop’s Wife did very well when it was first released in December 1947. However, it was not the easiest film to make. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was riding high on the success of his multi-Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives when he optioned Robert Nathan’s popular novel, but the production was plagued with setback.
First, the original director was replaced by the German emigre Henry Koster, whose whimsical touch – which came to the fore again two years later on the much-loved James Stewart comedy Harvey – Goldwyn knew was what the picture needed. Then, when the script, by Robert Sherwood, was found to be riddled with problems, Goldwyn had to draft in the crack writing team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (who’d written Ball of Fire for him). Meanwhile, Cary Grant, who had originally been cast as the bishop, and Niven swapped roles so that Grant took on Dudley’s heavenly mantle.
It was probably as well that Niven was relegated to the part of the downtrodden bishop: after all, having recently lost his young wife in a terrible freak accident, he was not ready to take on a light romantic role. Meanwhile, Loretta Young and Cary Grant vied with each other to ensure that their “best side” was shown to the camera – no easy feat when they both felt that their left profile showed their good looks to better advantage. It’s testimony to Koster’s diplomatic skills that he found a way round this, though Goldwyn later told both stars: “From now on, both of you guys get only half your salary if I can only use half your faces.” Now that’s definitely the kind of logic that would be appreciated in Glasgow .
* The Bishop’s Wife is showing at the GFT from Sunday-Wed, and at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh on Thursday 23rd and Christmas Eve


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