It seems strange that anyone bent on doing a film homage to Alfred Hitchcock, as was Brian DePalma in Sisters (shot In 1972 and released in 1973), would not think immediately of Bernard Herrmann for the score. Not that Herrmann and Hitchcock must be considered as a single entity, as Hitchcock did get some good scores from other composers, notably Franz Waxman in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941) and The Paradine Case (1946). But it is probably safe to say that few composer/director relationships have been as fruitful as the one between Herrmann and Hitchcock, and I would not hesitate to say that the often complex, often subtle interrelationships between the visual and musical components of the cinema were exploited to a state of perfection in three films in particular – Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960) – that must stand in cinema history as a kind of composite milestone.
Yet, according to DePalma himself, who wrote of his experiences with Herrmann in a “Village Voice” article, the director was not inspired to consider asking for Herrmann’s services until Sisters editor Paul Hirsch decided to play the murder sequence from the Psycho score, as recorded by Herrmann on a London Phase 4 LP, during the projection of rushes of the Sisters murder scene. This, however, so convinced DePalma of the absolute necessity of the distinctive Herrmann sound to round out the Hitchcockian ambiance that, in spite of Sisters’ low-budget, nonsuperstar status, both director and producer (Edward R. Pressman) were willing to pay Herrmann’s fee, which turned out to be the single most costly item in the budget.
As has often been the case, Herrmann played much more than a passive role in supplying Sisters with appropriate music. DePalma, for instance, did not want to use a title theme. Herrmann, on the other hand, insisted on the dramatic importance of establishing a suspense mood from the outset so that the half hour preceding the expected/unexpected murder would be colored not by an establishing shot but by establishing tones. DePalma saw it Herrmann’s way, resulting in one of the starkest, most bone-chilling openers the composer ever produced : Against an X-Ray shot of a human embryo in the womb, the music immediately establishes an atmosphere of intense, even morbid tragedy, with chimes and a four-note marcato horn pattern played in typical Herrmannesque major thirds that serve not only as a principal motif appearing at several points in the film but also as an accompaniment for a series of downward, scream-like glissandos from the Moog synthesizers. This is a perfect example of Herrmann’s flair for mobilizing an incredibly wide variety of instruments in his scores. Indeed, in addition to the strings and woodwinds (especially clarinets and bass clarinets) that represent the backbone of most Herrmann scores, the character of a particular instrument often seems to determine part of the direction a Herrmann music track will take. Another score from the Sisters era (The Night Digger, 1971), for instance, presents its title theme on the harmonica.
The musical transition from the titles to the opening sequence offers a classic Herrmann change of pace, reminiscent of the opening of Psycho : ending on a low unison in the clarinets, the title music gives way to a slow, hypnotically droning music in which a static motif is repeated sequentially over a harp ostinato. On the screen, DePalma immediately evokes one of the pervasive Hitchcock themes, voyeurism : A black man (Lisle Wilson), who later becomes the first murder victim, has the opportunity to spy on a “blind” white woman (Margot Kidder) who, as it is later revealed, is a schizoid, homicidal, separated Siamese twin name Danielle. But in a twist that carries Hitchcock drollery into the domain of parody and a kind of Godardian distantiation, the voyeur scene turns out to be a set-up for a quiz program entitled (of course) “Peeping Tom”, in which the black man, not realizing that he has been set up, loses the game. DePalma shatteringly interrupts the musical mood with a closing iris, and the audience is suddenly plunged into the bland inanities of daytime television. But the ominousness of the title sequence and the uneasiness aroused by the combination of the voyeur scene with Herrmann’s music have been implanted into the unconscious. Because of this, the viewer is not apt to react without at least some unconscious trepidation to the cutlery awarded to Danielle as a prize.
Basically, then, the opening music is almost solely responsible for setting the film’s point of focus on suspense and tragedy, rather than on the humour and satire characteristic of DePalma’s earlier films, even though the latter elements will also play an important role in Sisters (as they do in Hitchcock’s films, although somewhat more subtly). Above and beyond the quality of the score itself, Herrmann’s sense of musical appropriateness ultimately influences the dramatic impact of the entire film, and I rather suspect that he had a strong hand in determining the manner in which the rest of the score as well was deployed throughout Sisters. For Herrmann, throughout his career, did compose some excellent music that was badly used, as in Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir. In Sisters, on the other hand, not only is a mood-fortifying balance maintened between the scored and unscored portions of the picture, those sequences involving music inevitably use it as a counterbalancing force, so that the complete meaning of these scenes cannot be appreciated apart from the musical accompaniment.
Perhaps the most stunning example of this is the film’s final shot, which shows, at a train station somewhere in Quebec, the detective (a quintessential Brooklyn type played by Charles Durning) perched on a telephone pole and keeping faithful watch on the couch-bed that contains the corpse of the black man that Danielle has murdered, in a particularly gore scene, with one of the knives she received as a prize. The scene is ironic enough : Here is the piece of evidence that will no longer serve any purpose, since the only witness (Jennifer Salt) has had the memory erased from her brain. Here is the piece of evidence that contains the “body that wasn’t there” (see The Trouble with Harry, 1956), the body that was right under everybody’s noses, even their derrières (see The Rope, 1948). But the music used here – the “Birthday Cake” theme, first heard as Danielle’s black lover buys a birthday cake for the twin sisters that have become one and the same person – darkens the humour with an aura of bitter poignancy. For the music, with its bittersweet shifting between major and minor, resurrects, at the moment when he was the most alive, the most warm, the most human, a man who is now a forgotten, hidden cadaver.
Musically, Sisters is one of Herrmann’s most varied and moving scores. It is also one of his most instrumentally inventive, ranging from the simple bells and vibraphone birthday-cake theme to the broadly resonant, ominous, almost science-fiction combination of strings, bells, vibraphone, woodwinds, and Moogs heard as the black man is being gruesomely stabbed to death. As is often the case in Herrmann scores, Sisters depends much less on themes per se than it does on short motifs whose main character is instrumental and harmonic. And like so many films scored by Herrmann, Sisters simply would not come close to being the same film without its distinctive musical score. By saying this I have no intention of minimizing the admirable efforts of director DePalma, who was able to take many of the classic Hitchcock elements – the voyeurism, the unsympathetic mother, the red herrings, the outsider drawn into the arena of crime, the gothic grotesquerie, the sometimes unbearable suspense – and ingeniously combine them with his own highly developed sense of the cinematic offbeat. But the right musical score is perhaps more essential to the suspense genre than to any other, and I can think of no other composer who could have added that essential dose of Hitchcockian mood to Sisters as consummately as did Bernard Herrmann.
Everything that works well in Sisters totally falls apart at the seams in DePalma’s Obsession, filmed in 1975 and released in 1976. The basic mediocrity of Herrmann’s score, and the sub-mediocrity of the film itself, would seem to be mostly the result of duplication. Obsession is another Hitchcock tribute, specifically related to Vertigo. But while Obsession superficially resembles Vertigo, adding an element of incest to the necrophilic overtones of the Hitchcock film, it does not come close to projecting the nightmarish, tragic poignancy that makes Vertigo a masterpiece. In the end run, Obsession is empty pastiche.
For the most part Herrmann did not attempt to duplicate his Vertigo score, one of the greatest achievements in all of film music, although an unsettling harp motif definitely brings it to mind. Other resemblances are probably due more to the typical Herrmann sound than to any specific self-imitation. But it is precisely the Herrmann style that gets in the way here. Aside from the novel use of an organ and a women’s chorus to complement the large symphony orchestra, the score offers so many of the patented Herrmann tics that it comes across as self-pastiche. The composer built the title music, for instance, around a descending, four-note motif used to death in the last phase of his career, and compared by one frustrated composer to the opening notes of the popular song “Jeepers Creepers”. The score also seems to allude to other composers, including Poulenc (Organ Concerto), Shostakovich (Fifth Symphony), and, surprise of surprises, Miklós Rózsa, whose suspense theme from Spellbound is strongly – though probably unintentionally – evoked at more than one point.
For all this, the music does afford some absorbing listening. No matter how repetitive, the Herrmann sound always provides emotionally engrossing moments, and there are always subtle new directions and instrumental colorings that excite and intrigue. No doubt my less than enthusiastic reaction to the music is partially, but not entirely, colored by my extremely negative reaction to the film, which I have viewed three times without being able to find a single favourable thing to say about it.
Shortly after the release, in 1976, of Brian DePalma’s Carrie, I was able to interview the director, and asked him whether he would have hired Bernard Herrmann for the music had the composer still been alive. His answer was an absolute “yes”, and he noted that, when he was screening rushes for Pino Donaggio, who would compose the score for Carrie, he laid in various excerpts from Herrmann scores. In the final version of the film, we still hear allusions to Herrmann, particularly in the quasi-Psycho violin shrieks at several points when Carrie (Sissi Spacek) uses her power of telekinesis to move objects with her mind. DePalma, who has describes the Psycho shower music as “a chilling distortion of a human cry”, explained, “the fact is, I was trying to find a sound for the flexing (when she moves things), and we used a lot of the Psycho violins when we were screening the film before it had a score. We found it very effective, and couldn’t find anything better. Consequently, when we recorded the score, we recorded something very similar to that violin sound. It’s a great sound, probably one of the best in cinema. So, thank you, Benny Herrmann”.
Royal S. Brown
Royal S. Brown