Bright Lights Film Journal

Herrmann’s Vertigo

It’s official now. According to Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo “belongs among the great musical works of the century.” And surely, if Herrmann’s Vertigo is among the great musical works of the last century, Herrmann’s highly influential, formally radical, strings-only score for Psycho is there as well.

Herrmann’s ability to add layers of color, emotion, and meaning to the films he scored is evident even when he worked with lesser auteurs. See, e.g., Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Nathan Juran, 1958). Not to mention the scores he did for Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons), Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), and other distinguished collaborators. Would Scorsese’s Taxi Driver be one half as effective without the noirish solo Herrmann composed for saxophone, his percussive punctuation, and those brooding strings?

Herrmann’s stature among 20th Century composers should no longer be a matter of controversy – particularly when one is looking at the second half of the century. The American Minimalists, for example, (Philip Glass, John Adams, et al.) owe him everything.