Undermining Auteurism #1: Bernard Herrmann

21 January 2010 at 22:24 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

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.

Hitchcock and an exhausted Hermann. Image taken from thethunderchild.com.

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.



  1. Alyx Vesey said,

    I’m tremendously supportive of this new series of posts and look forward to your readings of other folks’ contributions to film in an effort to undermine auteurism.

    I think a lot of film music scholars would also favor your reading of Herrmann, though I’m glad you take care to avoid recasting him as another auteur by pointing out the collaborative nature of the film-making process. Some of the earlier scholarship I’ve read on film scores fail to acknowledge this. Thus, I recommend Jeff Smith’s Sounds of Commerce because it looks at film music both as a means of understanding and interpretting film texts and as part of a larger production culture.

    Also, as but one example of the collaborative nature of film-making, I like the story that Hitchcock apparently wanted the shower scene in Psycho to be unscored. Herrmann clearly convinced the director otherwise, and I feel the music he composed is just as much responsible for the terror that scene elicits as shot composition, angles, lighting, and pacing.

  2. Psycho and the Symphony « Dark Room said,

    […] in the year, I wrote a piece for my “Undermining Auteurism” series about the famed film composer, Bernard Herrmann. […]

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