Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Hitchcock sound

Often and with good reason we identify Bernard Herrmann as the author of the characteristic music of suspense for Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Herrmann wrote the scores for The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (the 1956 version), The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and Marnie. The Birds has no music track, but Herrmann was one of its sound consultants. Herrmann wrote music for 17 episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and in further 17 episodes stock music composed by Herrmann was used. None of those episodes were directed by Hitchcock. Herrmann also wrote an excellent score for Torn Curtain (released later on dvd bonus materials), but as Hitchcock rejected it, their collaboration ended.

Yet there was a characteristic Hitchcock sound in his movies also before and after Herrmann. The turning-point was Hitchcock's first American movie Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock's first fully scored movie, and interestingly, it may have been the producer David O. Selznick who pushed the music to its place of prominence. Hitchcock (on another occasion, discussing Spellbound, also produced by Selznick) derided the Hollywood convention of emphatic violins in love scenes, but since Rebecca, music became essential in his work.

Franz Waxman was the first great Hitchcockian composer, in Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case, and Rear Window.

Dimitri Tiomkin was the second great Hitchcock composer, responsible for the scores for Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, I Confess, and Dial M for Murder.

Alfred Newman's single Hitchcock score was for Foreign Correspondent.

Universal's Frank Skinner wrote the score for Saboteur only.

Miklos Rozsa only wrote the inspired score for Spellbound.

RKO's Roy Webb also composed only one Hitchcock score, for Notorious. (He was also the uncredited musical director for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but not its composer.)

Also Richard Addinsell only composed for Hitchcock once, in Under Capricorn. Its orchestrator Leighton Lucas composed the score for Stage Fright.

After Herrmann, John Addison wrote a new score for Torn Curtain. Maurice Jarre did Topaz, Ron Goodwin composed Frenzy, and John Williams was in charge of the score of Family Plot.

There is no non-diegetic score music during the narrative of Lifeboat or Rope.

This amounts to a list of many of the best composers of Hollywood movies in the studio era and a few key names afterwards. Bernard Herrmann's significance is incontrovertible and his versatility is remarkable with quite different approaches for, say, Vertigo (Wagner), North by Northwest (fandango), and Psycho (string-bound minimalism).

Yet within such a wide array of composers and musical approaches the continuity of the Hitchcock sound is unmistakable.

Posthumously, Neil Brand has made an exciting contribution to the Hitchcock musical legacy with his 2008 score for the silent Blackmail. Neil Brand's original score is also fascinating in its insight in the essence of the Hitchcock sound.

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