December 6, 2016


On November 14th Leon Russell passed away at the age of 74, after a remarkable career in music. He started as a sought-after studio session ace, working on everything from the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra to the “Monster Mash.” Drawn to roots music of all kinds, when he started his rock band it played an ecstatic blend of country-blues-R&B (known as the “Tulsa Sound”) that became one of the top touring acts of the 1970s. In 1972 Les Blank started filming a documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person, that would follow one of Russell’s tours as well as the recording process of what would become the album Hank Wilson’s Back. It was shot over two years, and has the vibrancy and surprise of Blank’s improvisatory style. He captures anything, whether it’s an intense studio session or a random girl singing a Three Dog Night tune before a wedding. A Poem Was a Naked Person was not a traditional concert doc, so due to creative differences and contractual snags, it did not see the light of the projector for decades. But it was finally released by Janus Films in 2015, and is now available to stream on FilmStruck.

““It looks more like a travelogue than a Leon movie”, is what Leon Russell told Rolling Stone’s Eric Hynes in 2015, right before A Poem is a Naked Person was released into theaters. It was the reason he refused to sign off on its release in the first place. Russell first became a star after he appeared in the concert film of Joe Cocker’s tour, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, on which Russell arranged Cocker’s backing band of the same name. With his mane of gray hair and top hat, and the moniker “The Master of Space and Time,” he cut quite a counterculture figure, and the Poem was expected to be another extension of that. Instead he got a film that pauses to take in the world around him.


In 1979 Les Blank described his approach to filming people: “I’ve seen a lot of cameramen go in and treat the subjects like so many guinea pigs. I think the people pick up on my very protective feelings toward them, and they aren’t self-conscious about what they do or say, and they try to show the inner light about themselves that I find so attractive.” His films contain exuberant portraits of musicians, cooks, artists and other proponents of the good life, including blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins (The Blues According To… [1970]), guitarist Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life [1972]), and filmmaker Werner Herzog (Burden of Dreams [1982]), all of which are available on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck. He finds the inner light in each, just by letting them alone. He focuses so much on other distractions – friends, family, picnic tables, the sky – that people get comfortable and open up. He often lived with them for weeks before and during filming.

That intimacy did not exist between Blank and Russell. Russell told Hynes, “He was good at what he did…he was just kind of a jerk sometimes. But I guess I was kind of a jerk too.” That distance might be the secret gift of the film, as it gives Blank even freer reign to veer from his subject. Neither wanted to be near the other, so Blank decided to go off and explore. So we get gracious details like two of Russell’s Oklahoma neighbors, an old couple enjoying the celebrity in their midst. The woman is enamored with Russell’s long hair, and encourages her husband to keep it growing. The love just beams out of them. Then there are long segments of artist Jim Mitchell, one painting Russell’s pool floor into a kaleidoscopic aquarium of octopi, and another in which he feeds a chick to his pet snake, an image which Blank returns to throughout the film and seems to shapeshift meanings – first as a blunt image of capitalism, and by the end, as Kent Jones notes in his Criterion essay, “about the snake as a model consumer, eating only when it’s famished, and about consumption itself as a basic fact of human existence.”

Jim Franklin Swimming Pool Photo Les Blank 90008.jpg

Leon Russell seems exhausted throughout, coasting on the high of his ride to fame, one which he would retreat from in the final decades of his life. He is something of a structuring absence in the movie, the reason the film exists but missing for large stretches, or at least a recessive presence, listening attentively in a corner. The musical highlight for me is a performance by George Jones. Jones stops by the recording studio drinking a Budweiser and smoking a cigarette, and casually sings a gorgeously weary version of “Take Me.” This is contrasted with the nervous, enigmatic, and effortful Russell, a reluctant showman and awkward carnival barker. The top hat became his trademark, and would hang on a hook above the stage until the close of one of the shows. The atmosphere feels like that of a revival tent, with Blank fixing his camera on fans dancing with ecstatic intensity, giving themselves over to the music.


It’s understandable why Russell was disappointed with the film – he phrased it as, “I got into the movie and wanted to be like James Dean and I ended up being like Jimmy Dean.” Thankfully he was able to look back on it with humor, and allow Les Blank’s son Harrod to shepherd A Poem is a Naked Person back into the world. For in the end it is not a film about Leon Russell, but about the power and exhaustion of creating, whether it’s onstage in front of thousands, or in front of a camera for an audience of one.


November 29, 2016


Ornette Coleman’s symphony “Skies of America” was conceived in 1965, recorded in 1972, and performed intermittently in the ensuing decades. It was something of a grand introduction to Coleman’s “harmolodic” compositional method, the term a portmanteau of harmony, motion and melody, and required a full orchestra alongside Coleman’s working jazz quartet. Due to budget limitations the recording eliminated the quartet (Coleman played solo) and cut out a third of the symphony, due to the length limitations of vinyl. Coleman sought to realize the original vision of the piece over the ensuing decades. Shirley Clarke’s hyperkinetic documentary Ornette: Made in America (1985), is an attempt to track the artistic evolution of the project from the sixties into the eighties, using a performance of “Skies of America” in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas as the fulcrum. Available to view on FilmStruck, or on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films, it eschews historical context for the immediacy of performance, making it more of a piece for fans rather than newcomers to Coleman’s work. But it is a rare peek into Coleman’s artistic process – which means it is a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.


Ornette: Made in America was the last completed film by Shirley Clarke, brilliant iconoclast in her own right. She was a choreographer-turned independent filmmaker with an eye for self-destructive showmen, as seen in her narrative debut of heroin-addicted jazzmen, The Connection (1961). She is not able to dig very far under Coleman’s notoriously sphinx-like personality. Prone to speaking in aphorisms and reluctant to speak about his personal life, instead he talks about Buckminster Fuller and his desire to be castrated. A shy man who speaks with a soft-spoken lisp, Coleman radiates a calm mystery that is transfixing whenever he speaks on screen. One wishes for a long fixed camera interview with Coleman, but it’s unlikely he would have ever submitted to such a self-revealing interrogation (as Clarke was able to do with hustler Jason Holliday in Portrait of Jason [1967]). Instead we get a mosaic approach, with Clarke editing to the tempo of the music, in rapid-fire montage that flickers from performances, Buckminster Fuller architecture, and historical re-enactments. It is an attempt to match the film’s style with Coleman’s music, which I found both instructive and irritating. In a concert inside of one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, Clarke matches the angular construction to that of the music, her edits keeping time with the composition. It works less well during interviews, when Coleman’s oracular statements, which are already hard to parse, are cut to shreds in the editing bay.

This was her intent all along, as she told the Los Angeles Times: “‘I wasn’t trying to make a ‘documentary’ of Ornette Coleman,’ said director Shirley Clarke in her room at the Chateau Marmont. ‘I hope nobody goes to this film expecting a record of Ornette’s musical life because that’s not what it is. We wanted people to come away feeling a certain way about somebody and knowing a little bit about his music and its relation to him. Ornette is not violently well known (outside the jazz world) and that had something to do with my choosing to make a film that could appeal to people who just want to see this kind of filmmaking and don’t have to know it’s about Ornette.’”


The project originated in the late sixties, when Clarke began shooting a documentary about Coleman’s decision to use his 11-year-old son Denardo as the drummer in his trio with bassist Charlie Haden. It fell apart in 1969, “when the producer disliked a partially completed version of the film. Clarke engineered her firing from the project to avoid being liable for $40,000 in expenses and the footage spent the next dozen years gathering dust under people’s beds.” In 1983 the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth booked Coleman’s first hometown performance in 25 years – which also happened to be his latest iteration of “Skies of America,” performed with the Fort Worth symphony (conducted by John Giordano) and his current band, Prime Time.  Largely ignored by Fort Worth previously, now he was to receive a key to the city and other celebrations for a local boy done good. When producer Kathelin Hoffman suggested a documentary be made about the event, Coleman suggested that Clarke direct it.


Clarke dug up all the old film from the abandoned sixties project, and incorporated it into the new footage to create a mini-arc of Coleman’s career, at least since his working relationship with his son Denardo, who he felt had a direct connection to the music – a path uncluttered by education, rather similar to how Bresson used untrained “models” as his actors. Denardo is not pressed on how performing at such a young age affected him, though he clearly adores and cares for his father. This comes through when Denardo discusses his father’s performance space and community center in NYC’s lower east side, on Rivington St. Ornette Coleman bought an abandoned schoolhouse with a vision of turning it into a cultural center – but he kept getting mugged and eventually had his lung punctured during one horrific beating. Denardo fears for his safety as he continues to practice and create in the dangerous crack-infested locale (now one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city). The role of Denardo in Coleman’s band is a fascinating one – from the glimpses we get he is the loving, earthbound anchor to Ornette’s spiritual, ghostly presence. But we only get a brief peek behind the curtain – as the music is the thing. And “Skies of America” is an imposingly complicated construction. Orchestral waves buffet the squall of Prime Time’s improvisations, which both cut against and flow with the symphony’s tide. Before a 1997 performance of the piece, Ben Ratliff described the symphony’s origins for the New York Times:

“It was so cold,” [Coleman] said of that time in Montana. ”It must have been 2 or 3 below zero, and when I saw the American Indians praying, doing their purity ritual, they looked like their bodies were transparent. All of a sudden, I saw the American Indian and the sky as the same people. It taught me something about religion, race, wealth, poverty, commerce. I said: ‘Oh, I’m going to go over to the other side. I only want to be on the side of the consciousness that comes to people naturally.”’

What he came up with was a gargantuan metaphor: just as every person sees the sky his own way, every musician produces a note in his own voice. But the sky, and the notes, are always there, unchanging: the sky has seen war and famine; the notes have seen Gregorian chant and jazz. The intended result was that in ”Skies of America,” the thick bed of the orchestra, with its deep blend of colors in great parallel melodies, would be the sky, and the improvising soloists the Americans.

Clarke doesn’t bother trying to explicate the enormity of Ornette Coleman’s musical project, but instead lets it represent itself. Coleman is a man and a personality who lets the music speak for him, so Clarke does the same in Ornette: Made in America. She lets the symphony play, and it is up to us to listen.


July 7, 2015


“The color overshadows the plot.” – Frank Borzage on I’ve Always Loved You (’46)

In 1945 Frank Borzage signed a lavish five-year deal with the penurious Republic Pictures, and it granted him unusual autonomy over his projects.  I’ve Always Loved You was the first film he made for Republic, and he invested it with the full force of his religious romanticism, where love is the one true savior. Limited only by the restraints of the Production Code, the film has the barest of plots, its three main characters floating around each other on a plane of pure feeling, their shifting passions expressed through music and color scheme – it was the only film ever shot in three-strip Technicolor for Republic. Set in and around the classical music world of Carnegie Hall, the most impassioned contact occurs during cross-cutting between separate renditions of Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto”. If you give yourself over to it (and you can on the Olive Films Blu-ray, out now), the last act miracle achieves an emotional intensity akin to that of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy. French filmmaker and critic  Luc Moullet wrote it was “perhaps Borzage’s masterpiece….The excess of insipidness and sentimentality exceeds all allowable limits and annihilates the power of criticism and reflection, giving way to pure beauty.” In Film Comment, Kent Jones described it as an “extreme film brought to the brink of madness.” Beauty and madness are the son and the Holy Spirit in Borzage’s trinity, in which God is love.


Republic Pictures was born as a conglomeration of six smaller Poverty Row studios, making money off of adventure serials and quickie B-pictures that cost little and turned modest profits. But as they grew they experimented with A-features, bringing in top talents for a couple of “Premiere” pictures a year, which were budgeted around $1 million. A few years later John Ford (The Quiet Man) and Orson Welles (Macbeth) would sign with studio head Herbert J. Yates. According to Herve Dumont’s biography Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic, Borzage’s five-year contract called for him to make one Premiere picture a year, “conceived in complete artistic freedom”, with a maximum budget of $1.5 million. He would be given his own production unit, with his choice of actors and technicians (he hired Tony Gaudio as DP, whom he last worked with on 1924′s Secrets), while his brother Lew Borzage was named associate producer. The most amazing part of the deal is that Borzage had an opt-out at the end of each year, so Yates had plenty of incentive to keep him happy. The first project Frank Borzage was attached to was the John Wayne Western Dakota, intended to be filmed in three-strip Technicolor. That project was eventually downsized to B&W and was directed by their “Deluxe”($300,000 budgets) filmmaker Joseph Kane.


Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a biography of Frederic Chopin, was a recent hit for Columbia, so Yates and Borzage settled on a story set in the classical milieu. They also trucked $40,000 to Arthur Rubinstein to curate and play every piano performance heard in the film (he is credited as “The World’s Greatest Pianist”). They chose to adapt a short story by Borden Chase, entitled “Concerto”, first published in 1937 for American magazine. A former Brooklyn cab driver, Chase had written some WWII screenplays (The Fighting Seabees) and would go on to write classic Westerns like Red River (’48), so he was an unlikely chronicler of high culture. But it was personal for Chase, as he based the story on his wife, pianist Leah Keith, who had performed at Carnegie Hall at the age of eight. Borzage hired him to adapt his story into a screenplay – his advice was to “make me cry.” Concerto was the working title of the film late into the production, but in October 1945 Borzage and Yates decided to change it because, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the majority of exhibitors polled “were afraid the public wouldn’t know what ‘concerto’ means.”


The story concerns Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod, plucked from MGM bit players), a beautiful young piano prodigy who is discovered by the revered maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn, a pre-WWII star in Germany), who whisks her away from her rural American home to the capitals of Europe with his mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) and assistant Nikolas (a fastidiously hilarious Fritz Feld). Eventually the sexist Goronoff becomes threatened by Hassman’s talent, and humiliates her at her Carnegie Hall debut. She is thrown out of Goronoff’s circle, and she returns home to marry her childhood sweetheart George (William Carter), a sympathetic slab of All-American blonde beef who recognizes that Goronoff – and her professional dreams – will always have a place in her heart. Their daughter Georgette (Vanessa Brown) shows some talent at the keys, and so Myra is thrust back into the classical world, ready for one last duet with Goronoff and a resolution to her divided self.


The majority of action in the film are men and women standing in rooms and auditoriums either standing next to or caressing a piano. When they are not playing the piano they are eyeing it ravenously. It is the only means of communication – in the film it replaces speech as well as sex. Goronoff is entranced by Myra at an audition after she rejects his suggestion to play Rachmaninoff, and performs Beethoven’s “Appassionata” instead. She wears a light blue frock over a white blouse, her attire blending into the similarly colored wall. Their attraction is never stated, but envisioned as a combative creative union on stage, when at Carnegie Hall Goronoff drowns Myra out with his orchestra. He demands submissiveness, and Myra’s brilliant performance challenges his authority. As critic David Phelps noted to me, there is something of Dracula in Philip Dorn’s florid, hypnotic performance (and in the way Nikolas repeatedly refers to him as “Master” in a Renfield-ian manner). In this initial battle Myra is wearing blossoming pink chiffon against a wall of dark green. She literally stands out, and for one night becomes a star.  But she still yearns for approval, the sequence a series of desperate close-ups of Myra staring at Goronoff, desperate to know what set off this rage. After her split from Goronoff, his mother says of Myra, “her voice is the piano.” Borzage then cuts back and forth between Goronoff performing the Rachmaninoff Concerto on stage with Myra playing the same composition at home, their two renditions blending into one temporary bliss. That is, until George grabs Myra’s hands, and the link is broken. Goronoff is a shadow who only has power through his art, while George is artless but physically present – in the non-professional William Carter’s performance, he’s almost nailed to the ground.


In the final performance, Myra once again joins Goronoff in the Concerto. Her hair is piled high, setting off her cheekbones, above a pink form-fitting gown. No more girlish chiffon. When Goronoff stares her away, she focuses on her hands or the crowd, communing with the music herself, secure in her own talents for the first time. Goronoff is humbled, and defers to her through his posture and orchestration. The concluding scenes, in which Myra actualizes her pianistic talents and declares her true love are intensely moving. She who could only speak through music, finally finds the words.


March 16, 2010


After completing production on Halloween, which had yet to make him a household name, John Carpenter moved on to direct one of his career curiosities, a massive 3 hour TV bio-pic of Elvis Presley. Produced by Dick Clark two years after the King’s death, it was a prestige project slotted for ratings, Emmys and an overseas theatrical run, not really an item suited to Carpenter’s talents. Up until this point, he had made the no-budget sci-fi comedy Dark Star (1974), the violent siege film Assault on Precinct 13, and the ur-slasher Halloween. All are self-reflexive genre pieces with mordant humor, slow-burn set-pieces, and a good deal of blood.  So how did he land this straight-faced gig? On the rambunctious audio commentary track for Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter claims that when the suits heard he composed his own score for Halloween, they said, “he knows music, so he should know about Elvis.”

It’s as likely an explanation as any, but whether it was studio idiocy or a canny evaluation of Carpenter’s visual style, it succeeded in pairing him with Kurt Russell for the first time.  One of the most entertaining actor-director duos of the last three decades (Escape From New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China) it’s been near-impossible to see their debut together until Shout Factory! released the DVD last week. Russell was just emerging from his Disney child-star phase, appearing in the Western TV series The Quest(1976) with Tim Matheson along with a few scattered spots on Hawaii Five-O and the immortal tele-film Christmas Miracle in Caulfield, U.S.A (1977).

Elvis was his first big break as an adult, and he attacks the easily caricatured part with a feline physicality (his singing voice is dubbed by Ronnie McDowell). There’s little of the parodic machismo that marks his other work with Carpenter, but he nails a fatalistic kind of charisma ideal for the role. Russell’s Elvis is a split personality – absolute freedom on the stage, and morbid self-destructiveness off of it. That his stage gyrations are violent and his self-destructiveness a form of freedom, well, that just speaks to the complexity of the performance.  While the script avoids the seediest aspects of Elvis’ fall (it ends at his Vegas comeback tour in ’69), it is not a simple hagiography, positing his narcissism as the cause for his divorce and a death-wish at the heart of his personality (he frequently talks to his shadow as Jessie, his twin who died at birth). Tony Williams claims this complex portrait as a parallel to Citizen Kane in his essay in The Cinema of John Carpenter anthology. Graceland acts a bit like Xanadu in cutting Elvis off from humanity, and there is a dining room scene that is a nod to the breakfast montage in Kane, but I don’t know how much explanatory power these references hold aside from underlining Carpenter’s grasp of film history.

Carpenter aids Russell’s brooding take on the role with some clever visual patterning that turns Elvis into a man beseiged. It’s set up in Elvis’ first appearance. In a series of slow tracking shots, through an ornate casino floor and down a blood-red hallway, the camera stalks its way up to his shadow. The dark outline of his head fills the room, until there is a pan to the King himself. He’s shown watching a cowboy movie on TV, his hand twitching to the gunfire on-screen. Then there’s a shot of arrows flying straight at the TV camera, and in turn right at Elvis.

The frame erupts with Elvis’ own images of martyrdom – and unable to shake them off, he takes his trigger finger and shoots the screen dead. Not that this helps. Throughout the movie he’ll predict that Lee Harvey Oswald will kill him, and becomes increasingly alienated and alone, shedding his wife Priscilla (Season Hubley), and continually firing and re-hiring his band (including the smiling Ed Begley, Jr. and Joe Mantegna). Within the context of a standard movie bio-pic, Carpenter achieves some impressive effects here, and muddies the tone considerably with the help of DP Donald Morgan (who went on to work on Christine and Starman with Carpenter), for despite the film’s longeurs, it is always darkly handsome. They are able to stretch out on the musical sequences, working the same tension-release pattern that would soon rocket Halloween into the pantheon. Morgan’s camera frames the stage in long shot, tracking slowly back and forth to set the scene, prowling as insistently as Russell.  A select few insert shots are included to ratchet up the cutting speed as Elvis starts his crotch rotations, but the majority is shot from a distance, allowing Russell to command the stage as a complete physical presence. The high production values seem like something of a miracle considering Carpenter’s claim that they filmed the 3-hour behemoth (which included 16 songs, 188 speaking parts, and 150 locations) in 33 days.

With the amount of pages they had to burn through each day, there are inevitably some quality control issues. The childhood scenes are particularly cringe-inducing, with an overwhelmed kid actor  (Randy Gray) over-enunciating cornball dialogue in a studio-clean backwoods shack. It’s a sequence straight out of Walk Hard. But at least Shelley Winters is there as Presley’s Mom, warm and forgiving as ever. She’s given the thankless role as the only woman Elvis ever loved, so she’s saddled with pieties and overburdened with symbolism (Elvis dyes his hair the same color). But she injects a lightness to this creaky role that is a delight to watch, especially during her jumpy little dance when Elvis gets his first song on the radio. It’s a simple gesture that immediately captures the joyful nervousness of the moment.

The film rarely reaches the richness of the opening sequences again, but it’s loaded with great musical performances, a bewilderingly large cast (also including Pat Hingle as Colonel Tom Parker and Bing Russell (Kurt’s Dad) as Elvis’ father Vernon), and a fearless Kurt Russell at its center, tearing through the cliched script with carnivorous intensity.


September 1, 2009


Every Tuesday night in September, starting tonight, TCM will be screening a diverse selection of films (23 in all) scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. As an appetizer, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite Herrmann scores, from radio, TV, and film. It’s easy to forget, but Herrmann was a master of radio orchestration before he created those distinctive tonalities for the screen. He had an innate sense of how to adapt his musical ideas to different formats, sounding more descriptive on the radio, and increasingly atmospheric and emotional on the screen. His work wasn’t merely music added to images – he composed out of these images, creating an organic whole that lifted the films he worked on into another level of artistry. How can one think of The Mercury Theater, Citizen Kane, or Hitchcock without him?

10. Taxi Driver1976

Biographer Steven C. Smith (buy his Hermann study, A Heart at Fire’s Center, here!) relates that after Scorsese pitched Herrmann on the idea of scoring Taxi Driver, the composer snapped, “I don’t know anything about taxi drivers.” After reading the script, and being particularly impressed that Bickle ate cereal with peach brandy, he signed on. Thus this swooningly melancholic score was created, with a little help from his friends. That opening theme, with its ebb and flow of muted trumpets, riding cymbal, insistent snare and pizzicato bass, is the low key entree to Bickle’s tortured psyche. Herrmann asked friend and collaborator Christopher Palmer to adapt an older piece of his for a jazz melody he needed for a scene with Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster. Smith says Palmer, “took the first four bars of the soprano solo “As the Wind Bloweth” from The King of Schnorrers, then continued the melody line in a piece he titled “So Close to Me Blues.” Hermann was so delighted with the result that the theme became a key part of the score.”

9.  DraculaMercury Theater on the Air. Aired July 11th, 1938 on CBS Radio.

Bernard Herrmann was “reluctantly assigned” to Orson Welles’ landmark radio program. He had a terrible experience working with Welles a year earlier, on the Columbia Workshop radio production of Macbeth. Producer John Houseman relates that Welles arrived onto set with a script twice as long as expected, and so Herrmann’s score was useless. Welles brought along a bagpiper and conducted his own music cues throughout the show, while Bernard stood helplessly at his podium. The second time ’round, while still creatively fraught, was far more productive. Hermann himself looked back with fondness:

Welles’ radio quality…was essentially one of spontaneity. At the start of every broadcast Orson was an unknown quantity. As he went along his mood would assert itself and the temperature would start to increase till the point of incandescence…. Even when his shows weren’t good they were better than other people’s successes.

All of the Mercury radio productions are worth a listen, but the first is still my favorite. Herrmann’s work is spare and mournful.  Steven C. Smith, isolates his instrumentation as “muted brass and graveyard bell”, and that alone gives a sense of its haunted grandeur. Paired with Welles’ tour-de-force performances of the majority of the roles, it’s an unforgettable listen. Most of the episodes are available for download here, as well as anywhere else you care to look.

8. On Dangerous Ground1952

I’ll let the work speak for itself here, one of the most galvanizing themes of all time.

7. Cape Fear, 1962

Simplicity itself. A descending figure of four notes, with slight variations to freak you out. The repetition never resolves itself into a theme, but suspends in an air of uncertainty, putting you off center as the credits roll. When the swirling strings kick in, you think you’re losing your mind. Scorsese hired Elmer Bernstein to incorporate this theme into his 1991 remake. Bernstein told The Bernard Herrman society that Herrmann would “have killed me, he would have yelled and screamed with no question.” This theme was memorably used in The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare”, in which Sideshow Bob takes the Mitchum/DeNiro role.

6. North By Northwest1959

Herrmann takes a fandango figure, repeats it over and over again, and helps to create one of the most suspenseful sequences in film history. This is what they call genius.

5. Citizen Kane1941

Ok. You’re sick of seeing Citizen Kane on lists. I understand. But do you realize how important Bernard Herrmann was to the film’s success? Part of Orson Welles’ genius was his ability to surround himself with other geniuses, so he was able to wrangle Herrmann and Gregg Toland onto his first feature. Music is of paramount importance to the film, and Hermann carried over many tricks from their radio days, with a complex series of musical cues joining scenes, commenting on the action, and helping to tip Kane into hysteria, in his words, “unorthodox instrumental combinations…sound effects blended with music, music used in place of soundtrack.” (quoted in Simon Callow’s Orson WellesThe Road to Xanadu) Herrmann was given the luxury of composing music before editing began, so Welles could form the picture around the score’s rhythms. In short, Herrmann’s contribution to this inexhaustible work of art is immeasurable.

4. Twisted Nerve1969

You have Quentin Tarantion to blame for this one. This remarkable theme, of a childlike whistle couched against some soothing vibes, has a gothic, Ennio Morricone feel. I only became aware of it through Tarantino’s use of it in Kill Bill, when Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver whistles it as she attempts to fatally inject Uma Thurman. I have never seen Twisted Nerve, and have no idea of its value as cinema, but this theme has wound its way into my cerebral cortex, and I don’t think it’s ever going to leave.

3. The Twilight Zone, 1959

Self-explanatory. Possibly his most famous musical phrase, again utilizing a simple repeated melody to create an overwhelming sense of unease, and then the swirling strings take you away.

2. Psycho, 1960

Those slashing violins open up your veins and let loose fear. As often as it has been parodied, it still retains its power to shock and awe.

1. Vertigo, 1958

Jack Sullivan, in his book Hitchcock’s Music, nails it straight off:

Vertigo opens with triplets spiraling in contrary motion, plunging the audience into cinema’s most beautiful nightmare. Obsession receives its definitive sound in Hermann’s endless circlings, re-circlings, and suspensions.

The opening theme is seductive, hypnotic, and romantic. One wishes to get lost in its grandiloquent tremors, an artistic height that Jimmy Stewart will peer down from, causing his psychological breakdown. Blame Herrmann. Which in this case, means celebrating him. The greatness of Vertigo is inseperable from this score, which would be enough to put him in the pantheon. But as I hoped to have sketched out here…there is so much more.