Recently, ABC Classic FM conducted an online poll to determine the Classic 100: Music In Films.

There are some fantastic and surprising choices in this top 100 – for example, I would not have expected the James Bond theme (number 32) or even Mancini’s The Pink Panther (number 34) to poll as highly as they did in a poll of Classic FM listeners, but I guess that’s just inverse snobbery on my part and I’m a little ashamed of it. There’s a phenomenally eclectic selection in the top 100, and the second 100 is also very good.

Masters of Suspense - Bernard Herrmann (left), and Hitchcock (right).
Masters of Suspense – Bernard Herrmann (left), and Hitchcock (right).

There was one single thing I didn’t understand. As you might know (especially if you read my gushing review of Vertigo), I love the music of Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann is one of the few modernist film composers that I actually enjoy listening to, because he also mixes some fine melodies into his disjointed cues. Vertigo (1958) is an absolute masterpiece; every note has a purpose, the instrumentation is marvellous and the progressions sublime. His score for North By Northwest (1959) is also enjoyable, but as a listening experience pales in comparison to Vertigo. And Psycho (1960) is an interesting experiment, but tough going after a fashion. So then, why did Vertigo come in at 93 on the countdown, behind North By Northwest at 80, and, mind-bogglingly, Psycho at number 47.

I had a few suspicions about this, and then I read a column written after the countdown, by Philip Sametz from Classic FM. Sametz posits that “the area of our brain that houses our ‘movie memory’ cannot remember further back than the short term and that our memory of a movie’s music fades even faster.” He goes on to suggest, “Some of the music you voted for came from movies that you are likely never to have seen. This is movie music that has taken on a life of its own and where its effectiveness in its original context will be unknown to many of you.” Sametz, I think, is pretty spot on with his analysis here.

For example, I didn’t see Psycho until I was 17. And yet, I was remarkably familiar with both this piece of music…

…and its context in the film. There’s certainly no question that Herrmann’s score for that film, and the shower sequence especially, forms an important part of its immortality. Everyone knows that sound, and it has become the screamed accompaniment to many a juvenile surprise. I’ve never really appreciated Psycho in terms of its story – like Citizen Kane, it’s a pretty slow film that is more important for the ground it broke. However, because everyone knows the music from the shower scene, it is conferred high status in the public consciousness and would, of course, place highly in a public poll. Whether it should or not is another question, but that’s public opinion.

North By Northwest is a great film. Starring Cary Grant and a grey suit, and scored by Herrmann, this film is exciting, mysterious, and thoroughly enjoyable. It also contains one of the best and most important title sequences ever put on film. Designed by Saul Bass, it is recognised as one of the first to feature extensive kinetic typography…

You’ll notice some similarity between those opening titles and the background of this blog. Over the titles plays Herrmann’s theme to this film, and it’s another good one! Employed throughout to underscore tension and chase scenes, it is very memorable. However, the score more widely is less appreciable. It is very repetitive, and not much thematic development occurs. Though, according to a review of the score I just read (http://moviemusicuk.us/2012/11/22/north-by-northwest-bernard-herrmann/), I am totally incorrect regarding thematic development. Different tastes, ahoy! I do suspect that the higher placement of this compared to Vertigo is again down to the film’s popularity. For example, barely four years the release of North By Northwest, it was already having homages paid in From Russia With Love.

Cary Grant [approximately only half of the sequence, but you’ll get the idea and should watch the whole movie anyway!]: 

Sean Connery: 

Often called Hitchcock’s most stylish thriller, North By Northwest has endured. Its opening titles are of course important, and you can’t see them without also hearing the music. Once again, the popularity of the film may be the root of the score’s placement.

And so, we reach Vertigo. I’ve already said a lot about this one, so I’ll keep it brief. In the below video you can hear most of the important motifs used in the film, including Herrmann’s impressive finale.

I do think this is Herrmann’s most powerful score out of the three that reached the top 100, and yet it placed the lowest out of all of them! However, I think I may have the root of the cause. As a whole, the score from Vertigo is easily the best listen. However, I would say few people could hum any of it unless they’d seen the film a few times or listened to the score as much as I have. Ask someone to hum ‘that music from Psycho’ – and then block your ears because it’ll be hideous. North By Northwest has that fantastic theme. So where does this leave Vertigo? The film doesn’t seem to have attracted the same sort of “must see” appeal that Psycho has, as does North By Northwest to a lesser extent. Add to that the immense complexity of the film, which could be hard going if you weren’t invested in it, and perhaps the reality is that it’s not for everyone. That may be the case, but I still think it’s easily one of the best scores ever written. And I don’t need a poll to tell me that.

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