June 29: Bernard Herrmann and Ray Harryhausen

29 Jun

Composer Bernard Herrmann and special effects creator Ray Harryhausen shared a birthday–June 29. Herrmann was born in 1911 and died in 1975, while Harryhausen was born in 1920 and died in 2013. (I did a tribute to Harryhausen here.) The two artists collaborated on four films. My first exposure to both men was THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, which I saw in a theater when I was five years old. It took a few years for me to learn their names, but I became a huge fan of both by the time I was an adolescent. Following SINBAD, they collaborated on THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963). I saw GULLIVER and JASON in theaters when they came out as well, but I would have to wait till a TV showing on Thanksgiving in 1964 to catch MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, which became my favorite of the four. I would eventually see all of Harryhausen’s films and all but two of those that Herrmann composed the scores for.

Seven years ago, I did a piece on Herrmann’s centennial on the J-pop blog I was doing then. Harryhausen was still alive at the time. I’ve pasted that piece here in its entirety:

Bernard Herrmann Centennial—my favorite movie music composer

I’m going to take a step back from J-pop for a moment and celebrate an earlier body of musical work that had a profound impact on me. Bernard Herrmann would have turned 100 today—June 29, 2011. He’s been my favorite movie music composer since at least college, maybe longer. He’s most famous for composing the scores for films by Orson Welles (CITIZEN KANE, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) and Alfred Hitchcock (VERTIGO, PSYCHO and five others), but he also composed the scores for four fantasy films featuring model animation effects by Ray Harryhausen (THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and three others), who also celebrates his birthday today. It’s those four films that first made me a fan.
When I was a child I saw both THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and THE THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER in the movies, but I was too young to appreciate the music in those movies at the time. When JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) came out, the opening theme music was one of the most grandiose pieces of music I’d yet heard in the movies. The orchestration made you feel like you were on the famous ship, the Argo, with the heroes of Greece pulling the oars and sailing to the edge of the world to find the Golden Fleece. The film’s music gripped me from the start and took me into the film’s setting of the ancient world and the regions of Thessaly and Colchis and Mount Olympus where the legendary tale took place.I didn’t know the composer’s name yet, but in a couple of years I would when I saw another Harryhausen film, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), during a junior high school screening and this time I noted the composer’s name and somehow knew or learned soon after that he had composed the music for the other three Harryhausen films also. Then at some point, I learned he’d done the Hitchcock films. I’d seen PSYCHO in a theater as an adolescent, but would see all the others in college. The first Herrmann LP I bought was a collection of his scores for Hitchcock.

Herrmann’s music touched me on an emotional level in a consistent way that few other composers matched for me. He knew how to use the right instrumentation to create a note, usually with strings, and then hold it long enough to propel the scene in the emotional direction it needed to go in. I’m not knowledgeable enough to use the right musical terms for this, nor can I always pick out the exact array of instruments used, but they’re often quite an unusual combination–all to get the right sound for the scene. Most film composers just lather on some strings or brass to make the obvious points, but Herrmann buried deeper into the scene and the emotions. The only other film composers I would put on Herrmann’s level are Miklos Rozsa (BEN-HUR) and Ennio Morricone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST), both of whom created soundtracks that, like Herrmann’s, you could readily identify as theirs.
When Herrmann worked for the best filmmakers, there was a perfect conjunction of image and sound. Harryhausen’s mythical landscapes and fantasy settings were every bit as otherworldly as Herrmann’s scores, whether it’s the dragon’s cave and Roc’s nest in SINBAD, the world of giants in GULLIVER, the lost volcanic island with the giant animals in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND or the site where the glittering golden fleece is guarded by the eight-headed hydra in JASON. Even in modern-day settings in Hitchcock’s films, there’s a sense of otherworldly currents thanks to Hitchcock’s masterful imagery and Herrmann’s music. In VERTIGO, there are long passages where the protagonist, an investigator, follows a woman on her mysterious comings and goings through a museum and an old house in San Francisco once occupied by the Spanish lady from 100 years earlier whom the woman is obsessed with. The camera moves with the characters and the music underscores the mystery of it all and the turbulent history summoned up by this journey into both the historic past and the psychological states of the various characters.
This morning I woke up early and decided right then to watch the film I’d planned to use to celebrate Herrmann’s centennial, JANE EYRE (1943), starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, based on Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel. I’ve seen it many times, but not in many years. It’s a beautifully filmed rendition of a gothic romance, with superb acting, writing, cinematography, and production design.The music carries us through the strong emotions engendered by the relationship of these two wounded, sensitive souls, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, amidst a cold, heartless society that has little place for them and harsh, uncaring authority figures who try to squelch their zest for living. The music captures every one of the story’s nuances. It’s one of the best Hollywood films I’ve ever seen.

The last film Herrmann worked on was Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976). He completed recording the score the night before he died of a heart attack—on December 24, 1975. The story hit the papers on Christmas morning which is when I read it, at a family gathering. My heart sank at reading the news. As a film student at the time, my great dream and ambition was to someday make a film, like former film student Scorsese, and hire Herrmann to compose the score.
When TAXI DRIVER came out a few months later, a friend who saw it called me up and said, “You would like this even if, God forbid, you were blind.” It was a whole new type of score for Herrmann, with a jazzy saxophone solo dominating the soundtrack and a smaller orchestral sound, with greater use of percussion. It perfectly captured Scorsese’s stylized depiction of the mean streets of Manhattan in the mid-1970s, as seen through the distorted gaze of a wounded soul, whose cry for attention is a desperate, violent attempt to make a difference.
It’s quite unlike the other films Herrmann’s most famous for, but certainly of a piece with them for the way the music is integrated so keenly into the film’s emotional, psychological and visual fabric.
Other Herrmann films I like:
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947) – a tale of a romance between a young widow and the ghost of an old sea captain who narrates his story to her. A grand romantic score to bridge the distance between the world of the living and that just beyond.
Francois Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966) – Based on the book by Ray Bradbury, a tale of a future where the printed word is forbidden and secret caches of books are sought out and put to the torch by firemen. One fireman’s life is changed when he smuggles a copy of “David Copperfield” out of a stash he’s about to burn and begins reading it. One of Herrmann’s most beautiful scores.
Robert Wise’s THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) – Classic science fiction about an alien ambassador from outer space who makes what appears to be a futile plea for peace with the warlike inhabitants of Earth. Herrmann’s score used new kinds of electronic instruments to create a futuristic sound to underscore an alien’s journey in a new and strange environment (Washington, DC).
J. Lee Thompson’s CAPE FEAR (1962) – a thriller about a lawyer’s picture-perfect American family in an idyllic southern small town that is disrupted when an ex-con arrives to harass the lawyer and his family as payback for the lawyer’s role in getting the ex-con convicted. It’s almost like a horror film at times despite the casting of two Hollywood icons, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, in the lead roles, and Herrmann’s music underscores he lawyer’s terror and the ex-con’s increasingly unpredictable and unstable behavior. The music was later reworked and re-used in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake with TAXI DRIVER’s Robert De Niro in the Mitchum role of the ex-con.
Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) – Hitchcock originally wanted to be done with the film and release it straight to television. Herrmann convinced him to let him try an all-string score, including that famous shrieking violin sound for the legendary shower scene. And the rest is history.
There are tons more.
I’ve seen every movie Herrmann scored, except for two—IT LIVES AGAIN (1978—a rehash of his score for IT’S ALIVE, 1974) and BEZETEN – HET GAT IN DE MUUR, a Dutch/West German film known in the U.S. as OBSESSIONS (1969), not to be confused with Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, OBSESSION, for which Herrmann also composed the score. He also scored a lot of TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s, but the only ones I’ve seen have been various episodes of “The Twilight Zone” from the early ’60s.He also composed a lot of concert music, most of which was very hard to find when I started buying Herrmann LPs. When CDs became the dominant format, I found a lot of Herrmann concert scores, including the hauntingly beautiful clarinet quintet, “Souvenirs de Voyage.” So, long after he died, I continued to discover new Herrmann music.
Herrmann was nominated five times for Oscars. He won only once—in 1941 for THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, the same year he was nominated for CITIZEN KANE. He was also nominated for ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM (1946), a non-musical version of the true story later adapted as “The King and I.” Herrmann’s score here used a lot of Asian motifs, but it’s not one of my favorite scores of his. He was nominated twice posthumously in 1976—for TAXI DRIVER and OBSESSION, but didn’t win. I’m assuming the Herrmann voters canceled each other out and Jerry Goldsmith won for THE OMEN.The best way I know how to celebrate Herrmann’s centennial is to watch some of the films with Herrmann’s best scores. (Right now, I’ve got TAXI DRIVER on in the background.) So let me stop and go do that.

One Response to “June 29: Bernard Herrmann and Ray Harryhausen”

  1. Emily Galvin July 12, 2018 at 7:05 PM #

    Man I loved those special effects when I was young. I probably saw the movies with you.

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