Friday, October 21, 2011

Happy Hundred, Herrmie!

Werth: Hey Wise—Film Forum is at it again!

Wise: Did you bribe the programming director to schedule another Joan festival? 

Werth: Starting today, Friday October 21st, Film Forum is celebrating the centennial of legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann by showing 22 of his most famous films!

Wise: Wow! That's a lot of Herrmann!

Werth: Starting off with a bang in 1941, NYC native Herrmann composed the soundtrack to Orson Welles' mammoth film standard, Citizen Kane, and proceeded to churn out soundtracks for 34 years for unforgettable films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Cape Fear (1962) and even Taxi Driver (1976).

Wise: You left out all the great movies he scored for Alfred Hitchcock.

Werth: I saved the best for last. Herrmann scored some of Hitchcock's best including The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North By Northwest (1959) and perhaps his most innovative and memorable score, Hitch's masterpiece, Psycho (1960).

Wise: I thought Hitchcock's masterpiece was Vertigo (1958).

Werth: Herrmann did that soundtrack too—but for my money Hitchcock was at his most clever and visually innovative in Psycho, and Herrmann's soundtrack was an integral part of the film's brilliance. 

To synopsize Psycho is pointless. It is one of the most well-known films in the world and its matchless shower scene a source of horror and parody worldwide.

Wise: And also the reason why I keep all the wigs and chocolate syrup under lock and key at my house. 

Werth: Brilliant shower scene aside, the rest of the movie is one smart, thrilling cookie. Clever shot set-ups that make inanimate objects living arbiters of fate; startling close-ups on impassive and horrified faces; the use of point-of-view to make us believe we have learned a secret, when in fact, like a master of cinematic sleight-of-hand, the truth is still concealed.  
Psycho is about the act of watching: the sunglass-ed highway cop (Mort Mills), Anthony Perkins' peeping Norman Bates, and the windows of the Bates House that gaze out like empty eyes—all for the most important voyeur—us. Herrmann's all-string orchestrations are critical to the schizophrenic pace of the film—at one moment manic and discordant, the next silent, conspicuous by its absence. 
It's said that Hitchcock originally wanted the shower scene sans music, but after he heard Herrmann's ideas, he literally changed his tune and now the screaming violins are inseparable from the iconic images of Janet Leigh soapily meeting her maker.

Wise: I'm a fan of Perkins as the ultimate momma's boy.

Werth: He was stellar as the pitiful Norman whose attempts to be normal are so neurotic they're creepy. Unfortunately it was a performance so memorable that audiences couldn't forget it, and Perkins never seemed to emerge from the shadow of the Bates Motel.

Wise: Shadows also play an important role in one of Herrmann's earlier works: the score for Jane Eyre (1943) starring Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine— 

Werth: She is very titular...

Wise: And a perplexing Orson Welles as her tormentor and lover Edward Rochester.  The film began as a radio play adapted by John Houseman for Welles' Mercury Theatre and was adapted again for the screen at 20th Century Fox using many of the same actors.  
Legend has it that Welles was the one to suggest emphasizing the noir aspects of the film—filling the screen with shadows, fog and murky vistas—which preserved the more Gothic aspects of Charlotte Brontë's novel and saved the movie from the rosier, more traditional Hollywood approach to classics.  

Werth: If only someone could have saved Welles' waistline.

Wise: Welles nails Rochester's brooding demeanor, although his plump, boy genius face seems entirely wrong for Brontë's haunted hero.  

Fontaine has an easier time of it, using many of the same tricks she perfected in Hitchcock's Rebecca: mostly a lot of trembling and hesitating, although the ferocity and devotion expressed through her eyes is fantastic.  Mercury regular Agnes Moorehead has a juicy turn as Jane's wicked aunt, and even an uncredited Elizabeth Taylor in her first screen appearance does a creditable job as Jane's sickly schoolfriend.  

Werth: "These Kleenex have always brought me luck."

Wise: But it is Herrmann's score that really brings all these elements together, combining the sweeping romanticism of strings with frequent tumbles into dissonance.  His music is both eerie and ecstatic, and the perfect compliment to the film.  

Werth: I'm ecstatic that we get to see so many of Herrmann's film's on the big screen.  

Wise: You have until November 3, to watch his best, and in the meantime we'll orchestrate plenty more Film Gab.  

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