In the minds of many classic movie fans, the name Bernard Herrmann is tethered to that of Alfred Hitchcock. He composed and/or produced the scores for seven films by the Master of Suspense, many of them the most popular and memorable of Hitch’s decades-long career. In terms of creating the famous Hitchcockian tension, Herrmann played as important a role as Hitchcock’s carefully selected cast and crew.
In this respect, Herrmann’s work in 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is a bit of an anomaly for the composer in his long career and many collaborations with Hitchcock. As essential as music is to the plot, and specifically to the climax, Herrmann chose not to compose new material for the pivotal scene.
The Man Who Knew Too Much of the 1950s is a remake of Hitchcock’s own film by the same name from 1934, and the only remake of Hitch’s entire filmography. The score to original film was composed by Arthur Benjamin, including the bombastic “Storm Clouds Cantata,” to be played by a symphony orchestra on screen. The cantata was so effective that Herrmann elected not to change it in the remake, merely conducting the orchestra himself as they perform the 1934 composition.
The score leading up to this scene is a slow burn and keenly “Herrmannian” — full of sharp strings and ever-increasing intensity. As in all Hitchcock films, the choices of when and where to employ sound and music is meticulous and specific. Herrmann’s original work in this movie appears most notably in scenes of physical conflict and violence, and is reminiscent of his other very effective turns for Hitchcock in films like Vertigo and North by Northwest.
The first scene where Herrmann’s score is featured prominently is the one serving as the catalyst for the entire plot: the murder of Louis Bernard. As Bernard attempts — and fails — to flee, and as he dies in Ben’s (Jimmy Stewart) arms while whispering his secret, Herrmann’s score kicks into high gear. In a later scene, when Ben is trying to locate the mysterious “Ambrose Chapel” and finds a man by that name in a local taxidermy shop, we get another sharp uptick in the presence and intensity of the score. And once more, when Ben and his wife, Jo (Doris Day), have tracked their son’s captors to the the actual Ambrose Chapel (a church), the score again becomes essential. Outside of these action scenes, the music is noticeably minimal, emblematic of Hitchcock’s careful and thoughtful attention to the way sound can carry or bury the action onscreen.
The climactic scene in the Royal Albert Music Hall is, of course, the most famous of the entire film. Herrmann appears on screen, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Benjamin’s 1934 “Storm Clouds.” The function of the music in this scene is fascinating and two-fold: it is both the score and the plot. It is live action in the scene, and it is the emotional backbone of that action. This makes Herrmann’s physical presence during the performance all the more notable. The music could not be more elemental to what the audience is experiencing.
Hitchcock’s decision to place his audience in the Hall from the opening notes of the concert was a masterful way to get the most out of both plot and score. It makes use of one of Hitchcock’s main tenets — give the audience just enough knowledge to heighten the tension to its absolute maximum potential.
We know that a climactic moment in the cantata is meant to be a cue for an assassination. Making us sit through the entire performance leading up to the fateful bar is almost a punishment. We are kept there with the music at full volume throughout the ordeal, without a single cut away for the sake of expository dialogue or outside action, both of which might offer some form of reprieve to our nerves. We are kept imprisoned in the Hall with the main characters, listening to the musicians give everything they’ve got, wondering if and when disaster will strike the way it has been promised.
The choice to overlay the performance on top of the limited dialogue in the sequence is another way that Hitchcock made sure his audience was granted no relief. Ben’s frantic explanations to Jo, his desperate pleas to the police just outside the Hall, and Jo’s mounting panic are all rendered mute by the ongoing performance. All we hear as we watch calamity creep closer is the orchestra’s steady march toward the lethal cymbal crash. Hitchcock directs — and Herrmann conducts — us all into a state of absolute frenzy through the use of music and music alone.
(Famously, Doris Day jumps the cymbals by about a half beat with her scream, preventing the success of the assassination plot and effectively ending Bernard’s stellar performance. Que será, será.)
I’m fascinated by Herrmann’s decision to make no change to the piece played at the most important scene in the film. The opportunity that a music-centered plot like this one could have offered was immense. With an original composition for what would become such a famous cinematic moment, Herrmann could have potentially made an incredible impact in an already incredible career, to say nothing of money. The respect his decision reveals for not only Benjamin as a fellow composer, but for Hitchcock and the art of moviemaking, is hard to overstate.
Ultimately, I must admit I prefer the original production of The Man Who Knew Too Much, even with its limitations regarding the contemporary technology and the then-lesser experience of its director. The remake, however, is by no means a write-off for Hitchcock or Herrmann. Hitchcock himself compared the two films as one made by “a talented amateur” in 1934 and another “made by a professional” in 1956. There’s enough typical and familiar talent from both Hitchcock and Herrmann available in the remake to keep a movie fan quite satisfied.
Thank you so much to Classic Movie Muse for setting up this great blog-a-thon and inviting me to participate. I had a great time re-familiarizing myself with this film and Herrmann’s contributions to it, and I look forward to reading all the other entries.
Happy Halloween, and Happy Viewing!