Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. In that entry, I argued that Hermann’s scores dramatically impact the films they accompany to the extent that we should question the status of auteur imparted upon these films’ famous directors.
One of the films I discussed at length was Psycho, whose director I need not mention by name. Of all the films Herrmann scored, Psycho represents his most memorable contribution, if slightly less brilliant than his haunting composition for Taxi Driver. It was with great pleasure, then, that I attended a screening of Psycho tonight at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, with the Oregon Symphony performing the score live. The screening offered a rare opportunity for the audience by mixing of live performance with the moving image, and I am so glad that I took advantage.
For one, it made me think about what it must have been like for movie audiences over a hundred years ago when musicians regularly performed the music for otherwise silent films. The liveness of the music contrasts the fixity of the film, reminding us of that film must be produced–musicians must sit in a room for hours on end, rehearsing the sheet music before them, and then record it, hitting their cues and maintaining the tempo. The score, which so often seems invisible, becomes visible through live performance.
Beyond the novelty of seeing the score performed live, it was also a pleasure to see the film in a public setting. I’ve seen Psycho so many times, but never in a room full of strangers. It was fascinating to note how often we laughed at lines of dialog that seemed dated as well as those intended to be funny (“Teddy was furious when he found out I’d taken tranquilizers!”). On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience members cried out and screamed not during the famed shower scene but over the second killing of the private investigator, Arbogast. My theory: that audience members are primed for the shower kill and, knowing less about it, get taken by surprise during that second kill. The final scenes, though, didn’t seem to terrify anyone–the big reveal of the corpse mother was met with laughter as was Norman in drag.
All of this is to say that experiences such as the one offered tonight by the Oregon Symphony remind us to continually look at film classics from a different angle. Just when you think you know a film front-to-back, you see it again and realize you missed something the first hundred times you saw it.
In film studies proper as well as everyday discussion, the concept of the auteur (or director as author) persists despite the knowledge that filmmaking requires the collaboration of multiple parties. Moreover, both academic and journalistic writers can overlook the impact of industrial concerns such as monetary resources and profit motivations when attributing authorship to the director. Even as someone conscious of these limitations to authorship, I regularly refer to directors of films and sometimes neglect to mention the writers, rarely if ever mention the producers, and often fail to credit important players in the film making process, such as cinematographers, set and costumer designers, and editors. In short, I sometimes perpetuate the concept of the auteur in spite of my awareness of its fallacy.
In an effort to counter this tendency, I am kick-starting a series called Undermining Auteurism. The idea of the project is to identify artists that have played an important role in shaping the horror genre but do not hold the title of director. The first example I bring forward: Bernard Herrmann, the highly influential composer whose Psycho score remains highly influential in the genre. Other films of note: the original Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and Sisters. Notice that several of these films have big-name directors at the helm such as Brian de Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorcese, directors who regularly get authorial credit for their work. Yet, Hermann’s work in each of these films can be credited for dramatically impacting the mood by generating tension. Here are a few choice examples:
Of course, one could not discuss Bernard Herrmann in relation to horror without talking about Psycho, a film which has often been described as a precursor to the slasher genre. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the squealing strings characteristic of the soundtrack have become musical shorthand for terror and psychological instability. Just watch the Psycho title sequence:
Now, here is the sequence for the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator:
The latter bears an uncanny resemblance to the former. Other slashers, such as Friday the 13th, also draw heavily from Herrmann’s style. Just watch the beginning of The Final Chapter (scored by Harry Manfredini) alongside the shower scene from Psycho.
The comparison demonstrates the powerful influence of Herrmann’s work on the horror genre, particularly the slasher sub-genre. Still, the same way that Herrmann’s role as a composer undermines Hitchcock’s status as an auteur, it would be a mistake to oversimplify Herrmann’s power as a composer. In other words, the composition could not come to fruition without the labor of studio musicians, sound technicians, and orchestrators.
I hope that by looking beyond the director’s credit, this series reveals the intricacies of the filmmaking process. In particular, I expect that these entries will show that the shapers of the horror genre need not only be its directors, but also those who play more particular roles in shaping these films.