Bernard Herrmann was a path-breaking composer for much of 20th-century American cinema, boasting a body of work that ranged from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver. Even though most of his discography was popularized by his intense, thrilling scores, he was a man of many moods. Some of his films like Fahrenheit 451 and Obsession brought out his sentimental side too.
While he won an Oscar for the aforementioned Citizen Kane, fans can argue that Herrmann’s career peaked with his many collaborations with director Alfred Hitchock. His suspense-filled compositions for Psycho, North By Northwest, and Vertigo are widely recognized as some of the best cinematic scores.
10 Psycho (1960)
Today, Psycho‘s chilling score is considered to be Bernard Herrmann’s magnum opus. And this can be justified given how a large chunk of atmospheric tension in the film is, with the screeching violin arrangement on the famous shower scene’s music. The piece titled “The Murder” is probably the most imitated horror scores of all time and sets a high benchmark in the genre.
Even though Herrmann didn’t earn any accolades at the award ceremonies back then, the legacy of his work for Psycho remains. Currently, Psycho ranks as the fourth-best score in American cinema on AFI’S 100 Years of Film Scores list.
9 Citizen Kane (1941)
Claimed as one of the best films of all time, Citizen Kane was not the first collaboration between Herrmann and actor/director Orson Welles as he had also composed for Welles’ radio broadcasts. Citizen Kane was definitely a high point for the then-upcoming composer as it was his first motion picture project.
To put it simply, the film’s score was grandiose and orchestral that didn’t only suit the time of its release but also went well with the ambitious rise and downfall of Welles’ titular character. Herrmann also scored himself an Oscar nomination for his debut.
8 Vertigo (1958)
In one of his many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann scored nearly 70 minutes of the film, with over 42 cues. Vertigo is a quintessential Hitchcockian thriller with several twists and turns. The music goes hand in hand to convey the secrets that the protagonist Johnny Ferguson (James Stewart) unearths while pursuing the mysterious Judy (Kim Novak).
It’s one of Herrmann’s most ominous scores that has also been subjected to several re-recordings with the film’s eventual restored versions. Like Psycho‘s shower scene, the music crescendoes in Vertigo during scenes that highlight Ferguson’s acrophobia.
7 The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941)
An adaptation of the short story of the same name (which, in turn, was inspired by Goethe’s Faust), The Devil and Daniel Webster offered Herrmann the only Oscar of his career. He was previously well-versed with the film’s source material as he had also composed author Charles R Jackson’s radio rendition of the story.
It was indeed an innovative score for the thriller genre and Herrmann also relied on non-musical implements to create a sinister soundscape. For instance, the devilish Mr. Scratch’s appearance was scored with the help of humming telephone wires.
6 North By Northwest (1959)
An energetic and flamboyant score adorns one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best suspense films. At the same time, a few scenes featured Herrmann at his sentimental best. The dancing fandango is clearly identifiable over the years as it’s constantly attached to the most popular scene from North By Northwest, the one featuring Richard Hannay (Cary Grant) running away from a plane hell-bent on killing him.
The same music also plays in the spy thriller’s opening credits that are immortalized for the title sequence, designed by graphic designer Saul Bass. The tense, dramatic piece complements Hannay’s cluelessness at the murderous conspiracy behind him.
5 The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
The philosophical sci-fi drama The Day The Earth Stood Still found Herrmann yet again experimenting with unconventional music influences. For a large part of the score, he relied on electric variants of violins and bass, along with the theremin. Today, the theremin has become a staple in films that delve into futuristic society or extraterrestrial life.
The title theme’s legacy lived on, as 20th Century Fox later reused the music for the pilot episode of the 1965 space exploration series, Lost In Space.
4 Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Based on the iconic novel by Ray Bradbury, the dystopian drama, Fahrenheit 451, found Herrmann working on what became the only English film by noted French director François Truffaut. Strings, harps, and percussion were used in abundance for a melodious score that largely excluded any wind or brass elements.
Apart from the aforementioned instruments, Herrmann also made use of the xylophone and the marimba. A particularly dramatic part is towards the third act when the ‘Book People start reciting a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The music, much like the ending, offers optimism in bleak times.
3 Obsession (1976)
Obsession is one of the early films of Brian De Palma, a self-professed fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s works. Herrmann’s score for the neo-noir mystery was one of his final ones, along with Martin Scorseses’ Taxi Driver. In fact, despite the film’s mixed critical response, Herrmann cited it as ‘the finest film of my musical life.’
As the title suggests, the narrative focuses on a man’s obsessive love for a woman, who resembles his dead wife. Such extreme human emotion and sentimentality are then conveyed via the church-like choral arrangements, organ pieces, and airy strings. Despite the thriller having its chilling parts, Herrmann didn’t rely on his usual Hitchcockian tropes.
2 Anna And The King Of Siam (1946)
As a film on its own, Anna and the King Of Siam has not aged that well due to its historical inaccuracies and racist stereotypes. However, audiences and critics did enjoy Herrmann’s compositions.
Given the film’s geographical setting, he tried to incorporate Thai traditional court music in the style known as the mahori style. This basically involves the usage of the Ranat Ek, a Thai percussion instrument that vaguely resembles a xylophone. The drama earned him his third Oscar nomination for Original Score.
1 Taxi Driver (1976)
Taxi Driver was a monumental film for both leading man Robert De Niro and director Martin Scorsese. Another hugely memorable aspect is Herrmann’s jazz-infused final score. De Niro’s Travis Bickle explores the dark side of New York’s city life every night as a melancholic saxophone sets the ambiance.
However, as Bickle’s solitary and troubled nature triggers a descent into vigilantism, the score also takes a chaotic turn. The trumpets grow louder and a harsher harp joins in to evoke a sense of fear and uncertainty in Bickle’s actions ultimately building up to the climactic finale. Released after his death, Taxi Driver was dedicated to Herrmann.
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