Bright Lights Film Journal

Bernard Herrmann’s The Twilight Zone on CD

Serling’s groundbreaking series was also a warm haven for Hollywood’s greatest composer

Last weekend I purchased the Herrmann Twilight Zone double-CD, and I’ve played it about ten times by now – which shows you right there how much I like it. What The White Album is to Beatles fans, this should become for those who love the music of Bernard Herrmann.

I have some quibbles with Joel McNeely’s interpretation of the music. Three out of the seven complete scores included here (“Where is Everybody?”, “Walking Distance,” and “The Lonely”) have appeared in monaural original soundtrack versions on the Twilight Zone albums produced for Rhino by the legendary Risty, and it’s interesting to compare Herrmann’s own interpretation of his material with McNeely’s. Compared to Herrmann, McNeely tends to stretch things out so you hear each single note and every tiny harmonic change. (Herrmann’s version of the title track is 70 seconds long; McNeely stretches his out to 82!) This has its good and bad sides. In striving for texture, McNeely sometimes makes the music seem draggy and overcalculated (particularly on “Where is Everybody?” and “Walking Distance”). Herrmann’s interpretations have a more natural emotional flow that reflects and enhances the moods and atmospheres of what he was scoring. Still, I think I prefer McNeely’s interpretation of “The Lonely,” which lends itself well to a textural approach.

But far more important than the conducting of it is the music itself – and this is some of the best music that Herrmann ever wrote. From Citizen Kane to Psycho, Herrmann was most inspired by themes of loneliness, isolation, and alienation. Throw in a little otherworldliness, and you have quintessential Bernard Herrmann. At least five of the Twilight Zone scores included here – “Where Is Everybody?,” “Walking Distance,” “The Lonely,” “Eye of the Beholder,” and “Little Girl Lost” – are variations on the theme of isolation. The result? Five Herrmann masterpieces.

Herrmann is the first and greatest of the Minimalists. The aesthetic of that group – which includes people like Philip Glass, John Adams, Michael Nyman, and Steve Reich – is based on small ensembles and the hypnotic repetition of simple musical structures with minor variations. Which, for the Twilight Zone, was Herrmann’s typical modus operandi. Take “Where is Everybody?”, a three-note melody (!) rung through an endless number of changes to communicate an astounding variety of complex, subtle, and abstract moods. How does he do it? Or “Living Doll” (that’s the one where Telly Savalas is persecuted by a doll who says “My name is Talky Tina and I’m going to kill you!”). That one is scored for only four instruments – a bass clarinet to represent the sinister and obtuse masculinity of the abusive Savalas character, plus two harps and a celeste to stand in for the inscrutable feminine forces (wife, daughter, and living doll) arrayed against him. Or who else but Herrmann at his most avant-garde could convincingly re-create the Fourth Dimension (in “Little Girl Lost”) using only two harps, a flute and piccolo, and some well-placed percussion?

The only score I haven’t mentioned is “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” which, based on one of the weakest of the Rod Serling episodes (Ed Wynn and the grandfather clock), is relatively minor. Technically, this double CD is a superb recording with great separation and three-dimensionality.