Tag Archives: Bernard Herrmann

Sound/Music in Film

King Kong (1933) – One of the first films to utilize sound effects to create a fantasy world, as well as the movie soundtrack as we know it today

Have you ever seen that movie where the musical score seems to be carrying the entire emotional burden of the film? That scene where a character is starring off into the distance while the music does the actual emoting? Or even that scene where the music feels superfluous?

I used to consider music an integral part of the emotional make-up of a film, but I’ve begun to realize that cinema offers many options when it comes to creating an emotional, aural, and visual landscape.

Yasujiro Ozu is acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of cinema, but he has a very unique approach to the use of music. The music in his films often does not provide any obvious emotional cues for the audience. There is a steadiness, sometimes even a cheerfulness, a serenity to the music he employs, even during dramatic situations. It contributes to the sense overall in his films that life goes on and that we must all move on, no matter what happens, but it also leaves the emotional cues to come from the actors, the story itself, and the framing.

Even when Ozu made silent films, he said that he preferred that the music have no connection with the plot itself. No use of music to highlight a tense moment, a romantic moment, to cue the audience on how they should feel. It all must come from within the screen itself.

Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to have been quite comfortable with fairly dramatic, romantic, and tense music and Hitchcock films have produced some of the most memorable movie soundtracks we have today: PsychoMarnieNorth By NorthwestVertigo. But he also experimented with an electronic score in The Birds, which employed simulated sound effects, such as the shrieks of birds. I recently watched Rear WIndow and realized that the film almost exclusively employs diegetic music, music and sound coming from the apartment building complex’s different rooms. There is a scene in the 1956 The Man who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart believes himself to be followed and hears footsteps behind him. It is the footsteps, not music, that creates the tension.

I think the point is that Hitchcock used music to complement his films, never to overshadow. The emotion is already inherent in his films, augmented with sound, even without the musical scores, but the music makes those images all that more potent and memorable.

In 2018, I discovered two French directors and comedians, Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati. They made their films in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tati began in mime, Etaix worked with Tati, before going out on his own. They are very different comedians, but their films are rooted in the visual comedy of the silent era and they also make superb use of sound effects.

Beginning at around 3:05 into the video, there is a discussion of Tati’s use of sound to build a gag. But Pierre Etaix also uses exaggerated sound effects of common objects around him to hilarious effect. It creates an internal rhythm to the comedy, rhythm apart from music, that makes one aware of the rhythm of sounds all around us. For me, in my life, it might be the rhythm of keys on a keyboard, footsteps, a clock, the whistling of a water pot, the cycles of a washer machine, rustlings created when one moves in a chair, running water, birds singing, rain falling, wind blowing, cars driving by, even the sound of my cat stretching or of her little paw pads sinking into the carpet as she walks.

Another director who makes notable use of sound is Andrei Tarkovsky. He singles out certain sounds and heightens them to create emotion (a discussion begins at 4:40 into the video below).

Interestingly, pre-code cinema (cinema made between 1929-1933) almost never employs a musical score. It was thought, when sound films were first made, that audiences would not be able to accept the sudden intrusion of music with no discernible source. The result is that nearly the only music one hears in a pre-code film is diegetic music, music from a visible source within the screen, like a radio, record player, singer, or band. Early sound films are not noted for their music, then, but their talking and the sound effects.

I actually think this contributes to a pre-code film’s energy and vitality. Think of the scene where James Cagney stands in the rain before going into a building to shoot up some gangsters in The Public Enemy. We hear the sound of the rain, of the car breaking to a stop, the sound of voices (and actors like Cagney or William Powell often speak in a rabid patter during these early years that has a rhythm and tone all its own). One almost has the feeling one could stick one’s hand into the frame and it would come out wet.

For me, the absence of music and the judicious use of sound effects gives a film a more tactile sense. Music, I think, can flatten the world, create a kind of distance between the audience and the image that is seen, because of the very unreality of non-diegetic music. This is why I think musical scores work so well for fantasy. Think of Lord of the Ring or Star Wars (a space opera, though I always appreciate the aural world created in those films: lightsabers, TIE fighters, blasters, Darth Vader’s breathing).

It does not seem like an accident that the first movie to make use of a musical score in much the same way movies do today should be the 1933 King Kong, a fantasy/adventure/romance (he film was also notable for its use of sound effects to create the unique roar of Kong or the other dinosaurs). Or think of Gone With the Wind, a lush romance that bears little resemblance to reality.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Or think of Vertigo or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with scores by Bernard Herrmann, which create a dreamlike, visual tone-poem feeling for the audience.

What ultimately prompted these thoughts was watching Dunkirk, which had a score so overwhelming that it irritated me and seemed to put the audience at a remove from the battle taking place before us. It submerged all the sounds of the engines of planes, gunfire, shouts of men, the water and waves and caused a certain muddiness and overwhelming of the senses.

Though music can also be used to turn carnage into elegy, as Mel Gibson did in the film Hacksaw Ridge. It was a movie that I quickly realized I should not eat while watching, but I was also astonished at how Gibson could portray scenes of such wretched human suffering and overlay it with music, so that the scene then became an elegy to the suffering of the men. But it was achieved by using music to put a slight distance between the audience and the suffering of the men so that the audience could step out of their initial gut horror and think about the nature of their suffering. It was a very curious affect.

I have been extremely curious to know what other people think on this topic? Are there scores your love, scores that drive you up the wall, favorite sound effects from movies?


Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Movies


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Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

vertigo_soundtrack_coverWhen I first saw Vertigo I was not at all sure I liked it. I knew nothing about it before viewing and I was surprised and made a little uncomfortable by the story. But it wouldn’t leave my mind and I had to watch it a second time soon after, just to get a better handle on the story.

I watched it again, recently, and there’s something about it that I find impossible to shake. It sticks with you like few movies do. Haunting, aching, longing, dreamlike…

There are many things you could say Vertigo is about: obsession, a revelation of Hitchcock’s own obsessions and desires regarding the blonde leads in his own films; but at its most basic core, Vertigo is about longing. Especially longing for something that does not exist or cannot be attained. All people have it. What Scottie has is the mad desire to try bring it about, no matter the cost to other people. Most of us simply accept it.

It really stood out to me when I last watched Vertigo, how Scottie becomes completely absorbed in the story of Madeleine. He even seems to forget about Gavin Elster, the supposed husband. He’s consumed with Madeleine and her story…a story that is entirely made up. He can’t even see Midge, who is real and warm and solid and always there for him. In Vertigo, reality seems just as much of a dream to Scottie as the dream that Scottie falls for.

(Random aside: my sister and I wondered why Midge had broken off her engagement with Scottie all those years before. Was it because she knew he never loved her, could never love her, or did she sense there was something a little off about him, that something in him that leads him to prefer the illusion of Madeleine over the very real love of Midge and Judy?)


Hitchcock and Herrmann

It was also interesting to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s achingly beautiful score for Vertigo in isolation from the film and visuals. What is interesting is how the obsession of the film takes a back seat and the longing comes strongly to the fore. It almost aches to listen to the soundtrack. Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker, points out how tonally rootless the score is. It never finds it’s footing, tonally, leaving the listener feeling a bit lost. He also writes about the sequence where Scottie follows Madeleine. It is an extended, virtually a silent sequence, only accompanied by Herrmann’s score

Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases…The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

For Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’amour,’ he took inspiration from Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” from the opera Tristan und Isolde. Liebestod apparently means “love-death,” which seems very fitting for Vertigo. The specter of death practically drenches the movie.

There is, apparently, some controversy about the title of “Liebestod.” The title is usually used to refer to the aria Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body, but Wagner evidently never referred to it as such. He called it “Verklärung” (Transfiguration). There is apparently some question about whether or not Isolde dies in the opera, as well. But Wagner referred to the prelude at the beginning of the first act as “Liebestod.” Either way, Herrmann has seemed to derive inspiration from both pieces of music.

Here is “Scene D’Amour,” where Scottie first sees Judy completely transformed into Madeleine.

And an orchestral version of the aria Isolde sings from Tristan und Isold. Compare 3:00 of “Scene D’Amour” with 4:00 of “Liebestod.”

The Prelude, which apparently is the real “Liebestod.”


Posted by on October 12, 2016 in Music


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The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

downloadBefore I watched King Kong I was not familiar with stop-motion animation or with its creator, Willis O’Brien, nor with the man who was most influenced by Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen. However, after watching King Kong, despite initially being unimpressed, the more I learned about the process of making stop motion animation the less cheesy the film seemed and the more extraordinary. It looked incredible and creative and I was in awe of the pathos and feeling they could generate from a mere puppet and the way he interacted with the live characters. So as a natural next step from King Kong, I watched Mighty Joe Young, where Ray Harryhausen worked with Willis O’Brien on the stop motion animation. And then to The 7th Voyage of Sinabd, where Harryhausen not only created the monsters, but also produced the film.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a hodge-podge of story elements from Greek poetry (The Odyssey), One Thousand and One Nights, monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla and even, if I stretch a point, fairy tales.

Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) is taking his fiance, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant), to his home in Baghdad, where their marriage will cement an alliance between Baghdad and her land in Persia. However, they make a pit stop at Colossa, where they encounter an angry cyclops and a magician named Sokurah (Torin Thatcher). They escape from the angry cyclops and bring along the magician, though he loses his magic lamp in the process.

an angry cyclops

an angry cyclops

He begs Sinbad to go back so he can recover the lamp, and even offers a large reward, but Sinbad refuses and returns to Baghdad to prepare for his wedding. The continued refusal of the Caliph of Baghdad to send Sokurah back to Colossa with a ship and crew pushes him to desperate measures. He shrinks the princess to roughly the size of Thumbalina and tells Sinbad that only at Colossa are there the necessary ingredients for him to make a potion to bring the princess back to original size.

They set out with a murderous crew (because criminals are the only ones brave enough to risk their lives, since they have nothing to lose) with Sinbad carrying his beloved in a small, cushioned box. He must face mutiny, more cyclops, Roc birds (whose egg shells they must steal a piece of for Sokurah’s potion), starvation, more treachery from the crew and Sokurah, a dragon, and a skeleton that comes to life and wields a sword.

The original story of Sinbad is first found in a later edition of the One Thousand and One Nights and is not considered part of the original collection of stories. There are seven voyages of Sinbad, many of which do not have much in common with the movie, though the Roc birds apparently show up in the 5th Voyage.

What the movie really made me think of was the Odyssey, which is cited as one possible influence on the original Sinbad stories. There are screaming demons that drive people mad and force them to dash their ships against the rocks. To prevent himself from going mad, Sinbad stuffs wax in his ears (think Sirens). The cyclops captures the crew and almost eats them and then gets blinded. And even, for good measure, there are bits of Aladdin (another story added later to the One Thousand and One Nights tales), with a genie in a lamp and Sokurah making a pretty convincing Jaffar-like figure. You could even see shades of Pinocchio, with the genie being only a child who just wants to be free and to be a boy and not a genie. Maybe I’m stretching for that one a bit.

imagesAnd then there are the monsters. The cyclops, of course. There is also the unforgettable cobra lady, created when Sokurah transforms Parisa’s handmaiden into a part cobra, part lady who does a dance. The Roc birds. The sword-fighting skeleton Sinbad must battle (the skeleton was a big hit with audiences, which I can understand. How exciting is that? Long before Pirates of the Caribbean). But my personal favorite is the dragon who guards Sokurah’s castle.

One of the things that made King Kong so great was the poignancy of the monster himself. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad doesn’t have quite that level of emotional connection for the monsters. They are there mostly for the coolness factor – and they are cool. However, I like to think that a little of that King Kong pathos makes it into the dragon. He’s chained to the wall of the entrance and he looks so pathetic there, you can’t help but feel what a sad existence he must lead. And then, when he escapes and after he fights a cyclops (and wins!) he is pierced with several arrows and instead of just dropping dead, the movie actually pauses to watch him die in an extended scene.

Of course, the reason I was able to feel such a deep connection for a briefly appearing monster is that none of the actors command much sympathy. The acting can best be described as…well, just sort of there. Kerwin Mathews is suitably heroic, but not particularly expressive or interesting. Parisa is unrelentingly perky. Sokurah is not that expressive, either, though gets by with a general aura of menace. But one does not watch the movie for the acting.

images (1)It’s a fun film, an adventure/fantasy, and there are not enough of those around. It’s the kind of film I would have liked even more if I had first seen it as a child, but you don’t have to be a child to enjoy it. And the music is fantastic, scored by Bernard Herrmann. Next up, I think, will be Jason and the Argonauts. My understanding is that instead of one skeleton, there is an army of them, and that it contains yet another score by Bernard Herrmann. One can’t have too much of that!

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Posted by on July 22, 2015 in Movies


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