The sound of music

Bernard Herrmann's soundtracks proved too good for Alfred Hitchcock

"As usual, the music does most of the acting, with the customary distribution of parts: horns for moments of grandeur, skittish woodwinds for interludes of domestic lyricism, sweeping violins to enliven transitional bits in which nothing much is going to happen, and unresolved chords on any combination of instruments to indicate menace," observed Kenneth Tynan of The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a Second World War action film starring Kirk Douglas venturing behind enemy lines. Given that Douglas could make drinking a cup of coffee look fraught with repressed histrionics, you have to wonder quite how much acting Malcolm Arnold's music was doing, but Tynan's point still stands. A good soundtrack can redeem a bad picture, and it can make a good picture great.

No film-maker knew that better than Alfred Hitchcock. When MGM studio bosses told him they'd hired Sammy Cahn to pen a "hit theme", "The Man on Lincoln's Nose", for North by Northwest (1959), the master of suspense grew distinctly sniffy. For the past few years Hitchcock's pictures had all been scored by the same man, and despite MGM's pleadings for a more "Gershwinesque" sound, he intended to stick with him. This man's music had, after all, blackened and blurred the comedy in what would otherwise have been the too-sunny-by-half Trouble With Harry (1955). It had exposed the fractures in the seemingly contented marriage of Doris Day and James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) far more suggestively than the actors alone could have managed. And it had made of Vertigo (1958), in many ways Hitchcock's most nonsensical farrago, a work of sublime bleakness and lyrical terror.

The man in question was Bernard Herrmann, and 30 years after his death the greatest composer for the movies is being honoured with a month-long retrospective at the National Film Theatre in London. The season is made up of only 24 pictures - little more than a quarter of Herrmann's output - yet it manages to include most of his masterworks.

Herrmann hit the big time aged 30 with Citizen Kane (1941), his debut score. But he did not, as this picture's director, Orson Welles, would later joke of himself, "begin at the top and work my way down". While Hitchcock relied on Herr mann to lend thrust to his often broken-backed storylines, Kane is a tale told from many angles. Rather than unify the film's overall pattern, Herrmann's soundtrack is required to parody various styles - grand opera, death march, jaunty singalong - and understandably it never finds a single mood, let alone a rhythm. Not so Welles's next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which Herrmann's repetitions and leitmotifs helped make a tormented Wagnerian tragedy.

For all the fame of his work with Welles and Hitchcock, however, Herrmann's greatest score may have been for one of Hollywood's also-rans: Joseph L Mankiewicz. The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) would be little more than a romcom about the impossible love between its titular characters were it not for its, yes, haunting score. Even that most overwrought of clichés in the iconography of passion, the sturdy rock battered by the boiling sea, is redeemed by the accompanying music. Herrmann makes of Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney's spectral romance the American cinema's most probing investigation of love and its desire for death's seal. Forget Mankiewicz. The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a Herrmann picture.

Certainly that's what Herrmann would have said. And Hitchcock might well have agreed. After a decade of relying on Herrmann, he sacked him, ostensibly for not having written the requested pop-style soundtrack for Torn Curtain (1966). A likelier cause was that while the critics had been hard on Hitchcock's most recent pictures - Psycho, The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964) - they had said nice things about Herrmann's scores for them. In other words, Hitchcock was cutting off his nose to spite his face.

But then, the auteur theory was just beginning to go over big, François Truffaut had invited Hitchcock to be the subject of a book-length interview (the first such publication), and the master of suspense was determined to put himself across as master of all he surveyed. When Herr mann told a journalist that "[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60 per cent. I have to finish it for him", things couldn't help but end bloodily. Herrmann, unbelievably, fetched up as conductor of the Northern Dance Orchestra, not returning to greatness until Martin Scorsese asked him to score Taxi Driver. He died within hours of conducting the movie's last note in 1975.

The Bernard Herrmann season runs at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, until 31 July. For more details call: 020 7928 3232 or log on to:

Film soundtracks - a history
By Daniel Miller

1908 - The first ever film score, a musical accompaniment to L'assassinat du duc de Guise, is written by Camille Saint-Saëns.

1930 - Josef von Sternberg hires the young musician Friedrich Hollander to compose an original soundtrack for his film The Blue Angel. His darkly sexy "I'm Built for Love from Head to Foot" captured the mood of the Weimar Republic, and became a breakthrough hit for the film's vampish star, Marlene Dietrich.

Post-1945 - With Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock created a new unity of image and sound, influenced by both Wagner and Freud.

1960s - European directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick began to experiment with more avant-garde forms of film sound. Godard left "dirty sound" - traffic noises, overheard conversations and snatches of radio static - on his soundtrack.

Kubrick made use of contemporary composers, such as György Ligeti, as well as subversively appropriating older pieces by classical composers, most famously when he used Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" at the beginning of 2001: a space odyssey.

1970s - In late-Seventies Hollywood, Jaws and Star Wars gave birth to the summer blockbuster, and along with it the neo-Romantic soundtracks of John Williams.

1980s - Tim Burton popularises Danny Elfman's postmodern pastiches in films such as Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves