They shoot, he scores

Pub date May 29, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

FILM Even if you’ve never heard of the composer Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975), it’s a safe bet that you’ve quoted him at some point in your life. He’s the coauthor of the widely recognized shorthand for murder and mayhem, the mimed downward thrust of a knife accompanied by the high-pitched squeal, "Wee! Wee! Wee!" His collaborator on this contribution to the pop lexicon was Alfred Hitchcock, and its place of origin is, of course, 1960’s Psycho.

Herrmann, one of the most influential composers ever to work in the film industry, actually ignored Hitchcock’s instruction to leave the shower scene untouched. Hitchcock thought Janet Leigh’s death would be scarier without music but immediately relented on listening to Herrmann’s strings tear into human flesh. (He wasn’t so dazzled six years later when Herrmann pulled the same shit with Torn Curtain‘s score; Hitch dismissed the orchestra in a rage when he discovered the composer recording music for a fight scene intended to be left alone.) Though he’s most popularly associated with Hitchcock — he also worked on The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, and North by Northwest — Herrmann wrote dozens of scores for other directors and for television. I am partial to his theme for the first season of The Twilight Zone (though he didn’t write the "doo doo doo doo" that is the widely recognized shorthand for weird and creepy — that was introduced in the second season).

The Castro Theatre is giving Herrmann the same treatment it gave Ennio Morricone in April, programming a generous sampling of films featuring the composer’s work. Among the selections is his first Hollywood gig, a little picture called Citizen Kane. Herrmann, who followed Orson Welles to Hollywood, had already been working as composer for Welles’s radio anthology, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, for which Herrmann provided musical accompaniment to the mass hysteria of the famous War of the Worlds broadcast. Other inclusions in the Castro’s program are three Ray Harryhausen projects, Brian de Palma’s Vertigo-inspired Obsession, and the last film Herrmann ever scored, Taxi Driver.

His uncharacteristically sax-heavy score for Martin Scorsese’s film has never really been my cup of tea, to be honest. My favorites are the overture to 1962’s Cape Fear (which film composer Elmer Bernstein adapted and conducted for Scorsese’s remake), Psycho‘s Prelude (an obvious but unavoidable choice, all the more so thanks to Busta Rhymes’s "Gimme Some More"), the spiraling freefall of Vertigo‘s Prelude, and Fahrenheit 451‘s "Suite for Strings."


June 1–7, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120