Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: Bernard Herrmann, musical genius

Bernard Herrmann is the musical genius behind scores for films as diverse as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver.

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

A résumé that begins with Citizen Kane and ends with Taxi Driver could reasonably be considered one of the best of all time even if it featured nothing else between. Composer-conductor Bernard Herrmann’s résumé begins and ends with those two classics but also features four Oscar nominations, including one win, an endless list of some of the greatest films of all time, and maybe the most famous musical sting in film history.

It would be impossible to list them all – and you can visit his page at IMDB for a complete list, which I encourage you to do – but here is a brief rundown of the films he worked on: The Devil and Daniel Webster (for which he won his only Oscar); The Magnificent Ambersons; The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Twilight Zone (the television series); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; and Cape Fear.

If you know Herrmann’s work from anything, though, it would be from his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, and Vertigo. The most famous piece Herrmann wrote – properly known as “The Murder” but colloquially known as the music in the shower scene in Psycho – effectively ended their working relationship.

Hitchcock worked tirelessly to get the sound of the stabbing in the shower correct and wanted no music over the scene. Herrmann wrote his instantly recognizable violin sting anyway – the entire score for the film is strings, by the way; no percussion, brass, woodwind, or anything else – and anyone familiar with the scene knows it does not work without the music. Even Hitchcock had to admit begrudgingly the music was better, which is why it appears in the film, but not one to be upstaged, Hitchcock worked with Herrmann only twice more, on Marnie and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour several years later.

It is likely you also know Herrmann’s work from his composition “Twisted Nerve” from the film of the same name. Though that film proved fairly forgettable, “Twisted Nerve” was used to great effect in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. You will know it better as the eerie tune whistled throughout the soundtrack.

I could keep running down the list of films and compositions of his that entered the cultural lexicon, but you get the idea. For me, nothing tops his work on Taxi Driver, which I consider the greatest film score ever written. Not many will share that view, but its inherent greatness cannot be denied. Famous for his swirling strings and the dynamic way he shifted between the quiet and the loud, Herrmann’s score for Martin Scorsese’s existential masterpiece is like nothing else he ever did.

The booming percussion makes it sound as though the armies of hell are marching forth on New York City. Then the brass kicks in like an assault. At its core, Taxi Driver is a film about a Vietnam War veteran who has seen the worst of humanity and is looking for any reason to lash out, and Herrmann’s music never lets us forget the war raging in the city, in the streets, and in Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) mind.

For all that, his greatest achievement, to my mind, is “Betsy’s Theme.” Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is Travis’ salvation, or so he believes. His romantic feelings for her are tangled up in his hatred for everything else and his savior complex. He will rescue her from the filth, whether she wants to be rescued or not. Herrmann’s music, which stands out on the rest of the soundtrack as a romantic, jazzy interlude, reflects this. When the horn kicks in, a little less than a minute into the track, it is clear you are hearing not just the greatest film score of all time but a musical composition that ranks with Bach or Beethoven.

Apologies if I come across as breathlessly enamored of Herrmann’s work, but I find its beauty stunning. Perhaps I am overselling it, but the wonderful thing about music is it needs no selling. Listen for yourself. Herrmann died Dec. 24, 1975, the very night he completed work on Taxi Driver. His legacy will live on, however, as long as staccato strings have the power to terrify, an eerie whistle the power to unnerve, and a lonely horn the power to inspire awe.

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