Nobody sounds like Bernard Herrmann and no one ever will. A true original, he changed the sound of film music, and less than a decade after Max Steiner’s KING KONG brought modern film music to the fore in 1933. While his behavioral quirks made him a prickly pear, you can’t deny the overwhelming talent and originality in his music. Herrmann is one of the few composers to have a strong online presence and an active fan base with the Bernard Herrmann Society, and one of the few composers who crosses party lines, with equally great work in Hollywood’s Golden Age and beyond.
Like all the other composers in the series, this list is ultimately an exercise in futility. But with Herrmann, more than any other composer, you could maneuver any of the nine selections below–or nearly any other score he wrote–in the top slot and there would be no debating the quality of the music. It all comes down to a case of personal preference.
9. ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)
An underappreciated film starring Robert Ryan as a hard-boiled cop who falls in love with blind Ida Lupino, the sister of the murderer and rapist he is sent to capture. Though nothing matches Lupino’s sensitive theme on the viola d’amore, the highlights in the score come from the exciting chase music. The climactic “Death Hunt,” with its steel plate in the percussion and eight virtuoso French horns, is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. (In this YouTube video from a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, tell me that timpani player is not Herrmann himself back from the beyond!)
8. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
Herrmann prematurely swore off Hollywood for good in 1948 to focus on his concert works. But he returned in 1951 with this sci-fi classic and set the musical tone for the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. The churning sixteenth notes in the main theme signal a world flirting with the brink of disaster. But it’s Herrmann’s use of the other-worldly theremin that gives this great score its eerie glow.
7. ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941)
Stephen Vincent Benet’s Faustian tale is better known today under its current title, THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER. Walter Huston gives a devilish performance as Mr. Scratch accompanied by Herrmann’s warped Americana. Inspired by the compositions of Charles Ives, Herrmann weaves American folk melodies with experimental electronic effects. For Scratch’s first appearance in the barn, sound editor James G. Stewart went to San Fernando in the middle of the night to record humming telephone wires. At the harvest dance, Herrmann “had to have a fiddle reel that no one else could play. So I had an idea. I simply imposed a series of tracks on top of each other. We had a violinist who played a version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ then he played another version, another one, another one, and another one. Then these were all combined to make one violin playing the most impossible things that no one violinist could play.” Herrmann turned his Oscar-winning score into a delightful five-movement suite. This is one score that demands a re-recording.
6. CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Orson Welles brought Herrmann with him from CBS to Hollywood and changed the way films were made forever. I appreciate the film and its place in film history, but I don’t agree that it’s the finest film ever made. Still, Welles, like Hitchcock, brought out the best in Herrmann. From the short melodic and rhythmic cells to the brief cues that went against the Hollywood tradition of film scoring, Herrmann’s music works seamlessly into the fabric of Welles’s artistic vision. Because of the nature of the story, the score is a bit more disjointed than other Herrmann scores. But that does not detract from the craft and the numerous classic musical moments, including my favorite Herrmann cue: “Salaambo’s Aria.” Herrmann combined cues from this score with cues from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for his orchestral suite Welles Raises Kane. No matter the craft on ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY, this should have been Herrmann’s Oscar.
5. FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966)
Francois Truffaut’s film butchered Ray Bradbury’s classic book-burning novel to the point I wanted to set myself aflame. But underneath the smoking rubble of celluloid detritus is a truly haunting score, particularly in Herrmann’s use of the harps. Much of the music sounds like it is borne on the windswept smoke of man’s fear of knowledge and the written word. I’d never read the book, seen the movie, or heard this score before Tribute Film Classic’s released their re-recording last year. What a discovery that purchase turned out to be! Bradbury later approached Herrmann to discuss adapting his play LEVIATHAN 99: MOBY DICK IN SPACE into an opera, but Herrman never got back to him. “It’s a great shame,” said Bradbury. “I think we could have done something quite wonderful.” Indeed.
4. PSYCHO (1960)
Who needs winds, brass, and percussion with Herrmann at the helm? Benny’s experimental score, written for strings only, sounds just as fresh and frightening today as it must have in 1960. One of the few scores to crossover into popular culture, the music has been championed, lampooned, and satirized for nearly 50 years. Though the shrieking violins may be the most famous elements of the score, the music contains many beautiful, tender moments. The numerous re-recordings and suites, no matter how well performed, still can’t match the ferocious quality of Herrmann’s original performance.
Love, loss, and loneliness haunt Hitchcock’s masterpiece and Herrmann’s score. The hypnotic arpeggiated strings and harp perfectly capture the dizzying effect of Saul Bass’s title art. Trills and tremolos convey madness and fear set against the passion of the elongated main theme. I get lost in Herrmann’s score, unsure of where I am or where I’m going. And much like Kim Novak in the film, I’m willing to give myself over completely to a stronger force as the music subtly manipulates me into a state of hypnotic bliss.
2. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
The famous opening fandango dances around Cary Grant’s lithe and effortless performance. The heartbreaking love theme soars without a trace of sentimentality. The film and the score move at breakneck speed. And just when you think you can catch a breath, that fandango reasserts itself to keep you off-balance. My favorite Hitchcock film and probably the most fun you’ll ever have with a Herrmann score.
1. THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is a special film for me. The fantastical story of a widow (Gene Tierney) who falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) haunting her English cottage enchanted me immediately, thanks in no small part to Herrmann’s passionate score. If Benny ever showed a soft side, here it is, as the score churns with unspoken emotion. Back in my days as a budding musical theater composer, this was the property I wanted to adapt. I still think it would make a damn good musical, but in far more talented compositional hands than mine. This was Herrmann’s favorite score, mine too.