Everybody’s favorite Hollywood film composer, Bernard Herrmann, receives exceptionally intelligent treatment in this first-class analytical docu. Film scholar and casual fan alike will learn a great deal from this look at a man who professed disgruntlement with his work but turned out an inordinate number of great motion picture scores. At 60 minutes, pic is obviously designed for TV broadcast, but would also find welcome at fests or other venues receptive to film-oriented documentaries.
Adeptly weaving vastly entertaining clips with perceptive interviews and a healthy share of rare footage of the late composer himself, filmmaker Joshua Waletzky (“Image Before My Eyes,””Partisans of Vilna,””Heavy Petting”) vividly illustrates how Herrmann revolutionized film scoring with his emotional power, non-linear approach and belief that the picture should dictate musical structure.
Kicking off with the stunning title sequence to “North by Northwest” and continuing through the likes of “Citizen Kane,””The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,””On Dangerous Ground,””The Man Who Knew Too Much,””Sisters” and “Taxi Driver,” Waletzky, a former music student, has no trouble exciting the viewer about his subject’s talent.
Significantly, however, he has found admirers who can lucidly explicate Herrmann’s accomplishments for the layman. Elmer Bernstein, who recently adapted Herrmann’s “Cape Fear” score for Martin Scorsese’s remake, sits at a piano explaining the simplicity of his predecessor’s art.
Also at the keyboard, professor Royal S. Brown superbly illustrates Herrmann’s use of thirds in parallels, his repetitions, and his refusal to resolve a musical phrase in order to achieve greater suspense. As one observer puts it, his music never “calms down.”
Along the way, pic traces Herrmann’s early experience as a CBS Radio orchestra conductor beginning in 1934, his involvement in Aaron Copland’s circle , his move to Hollywood at the behest of Orson Welles for “Kane,” his stated hatred for Hollywood and his paradoxical inability to cope after the collapse of the old studio system, which hastened his move to the U.K. in the 1960s.
Home movies and interviews done in Paris and London helpfully put the man himself into the picture and some of his colleagues don’t hesitate to describe Herrmann’s contrariness. Dubbed “a 19th-century manic depressive” by one, another states that he was a major egotist who was nasty to people, concluding, “He was not a rational man.”
Although he had composed a symphony and an opera by the time he was 40, Herrmann, in an archival interview, admits frustration at “my own lack of achievement” and complains that “I never had time for my own reflection and work.” His ex-wife allows that he probably would have been happiest as a classical symphony conductor.
Highlight of Herrmann’s career was his eight-film, 11-year collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, and Waletzky strikingly demonstrates how much Herrmann contributed to the director’s work by showing the sequence from “Psycho” of Janet Leigh driving through the rain with and without music.
Sans score, the images are remarkably plain, drab and without tension; once the music is added, the scene overflows with anxiety and brewing panic. Saul Bass’ storyboards for the shower sequence are also edited together and presented with Herrmann’s shrieking violins.
Of greatest interest to buffs will be an excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” shown, for the first time, with Herrmann’s score.
Colleague Norman Corwin observes that Herrmann “was gravely wounded” when Hitchcock rejected the composer’s work for the film and abruptly ended their relationship. Immediately thereafter, however, Herrmann was hired by Hitchcock fan Francois Truffaut, and some fascinating documentary footage features the composer-conductor with the French director at a scoring session for “The Bride Wore Black.”
In a very tight hour, this film convincingly demonstrates why its subject was important, and reveals how an outstanding score can add immeasurably to the emotional and psychological impact of a picture.
At very least, this is a documentary with a lot of great music in it.