Herrmann's Perfume

Bernard Herrmann

Above: Portrait of Bernard Herrmann circa 1966. Courtesy Photofest.

A couple weeks ago I was talking to Notebook contributor Paul Clipson, who was in town to show some of his films at the New York Film Festival's Views from the Avant-Garde, about—what else?—film soundtracks.  One of our favorite composers came up, John Barry, and the pleasure of his interstitial music for the James Bond films—not the main themes or title music, but just the little melodies and tones used to help the films express something in less direct moments.  Paul had a wonderful phrase for this, a kind of "perfume," soundtrack music that despite its brevity and perhaps simplicity casts a lingering sense, an aural sense, a flavor, a suggestive, almost secretive and sidelong tone of atmosphere and emotion.

I immediately thought of my favorite interstitial piece by Bernard Herrmann, who is getting a retrospective at New York's Film Forum in honor of the composer's centennial.  It is from François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 (1966), a film I haven't seen since I read the book a decade ago and subsequently have no memory of—yet this short piece, titled "Pills in Bed" (which is combined abruptly with another, and mediocre, snippet on the soundtrack, "Pills in Bed - The Fireman") has always stayed with me.  In its brief seconds (it's a 27 second long piece) it strikes me as essential and essentially Herrmann: romantic, longing, full of melancholy and loss.

Fahrenheit 451 plays on November 3 in a double feature with Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, which also features a beautiful interstitial piece by Herrmann, little remarked upon.  It's a little Middle Eastern motif done underneath the pre-dinner meeting scene between James Stewart, Doris Day and Daniel Gélin (as Louis Bernard).  It carries with it an opiated, exoticized feeling, relaxed but, in its drawn strings, suffuse with a dark undercurrent of vague danger, just out of reach.

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  • Ben Simington

    Right on. This moment when Doris Day opens the door has always stuck out as one of the moodiest and most effective in the movie, and of course the music cue goes a long way in achieving that.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Agree, Ben; one of my favorite Hitchcock sequences, and very low key.

  • Clinton Dybing

    Two great examples. Thanks.
    Though flawed, Fahrenheit 451 remains a pleasure for me. And the example for The Man Who Knew Too Much is terrific. I always get so much joy from watching that one scene – there’s actually a lot going on in there, and the score is perfect: understated, evocative and just a tad edgy. (“Opiated” is a perfect word for it, and it anticipates Doris Day’s drugged hysteria a little later on.)
    I might be the only one who thinks this, but the piece has always vaguely reminded me of the Arabian Dance in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker; they’re both eerie and remote, yet completely seductive.

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