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Bernard Herrmann (TCM Spotlight)
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Obsession

Obsession

While in the process of editing Sisters (1973) and preparing to add musical accompaniment, Brian De Palma made the error of running a rough cut of the offbeat mystery for Bernard Herrmann, the acclaimed Academy Award®-winning composer of such classic film scores as Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Cape Fear (1962). To give the legendary composer a sense of the film's intended mood, De Palma used temporary music cues culled from Herrmann's work with Alfred Hitchcock, including passages from Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964). The result was an unmitigated disaster of diplomacy. "Turn it off, turn it off, turn it off," Herrmann reportedly shouted at De Palma, who was blindsided by the maestro's extreme reaction. "How can you play that while I'm listening to the film?" Where the upstart, New Hollywood auteur had been eager to please and even flatter the aging and notoriously temperamental composer, Herrmann only heard interference, which prevented him from appreciating Sisters on a pure level. De Palma did not make the same mistake when he reteamed with Herrmann for Obsession (1976) a few years later. Walking out of the screening, projected this time without the distraction of musical accompaniment, Herrmann remarked with almost childlike glee: "It's a great movie and I can hear the score." All that remained for him was to write it down.

Released by Columbia Pictures the same year as Carrie (1976), Obsession enjoyed good returns if mixed critical notices before being forgotten in the wake of De Palma's success with his pyrotechnic adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Now an effectively forgotten film, Obsession had been developed by De Palma with scenarist Paul Schrader. Originally titled Déjà vu, the script was a mash-up of Vertigo with notes of Yasujiro Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon (1962) and crime writer Lionel White's 1962 novel Obsession, which had inspired Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965). Added to Vertigo's central mystery of love lost and found, and of confused and concealed identities, is a young daughter who matures to womanhood between the grim prologue and the body of the film, which brings to the mixture a taboo angle of unwitting incest. Schrader's original draft ended in a characteristic welter of murder and madness. When De Palma showed Herrmann the script in 1974, the composer's advice was blunt: "Get rid of it. It'll never work." With Schrader refusing to change a word of the script (and subsequently estranging himself from the project), De Palma rewrote the third act himself. Shooting commenced at the end of 1974 in New Orleans, Florence and Tuscany, with Oscar® winner Cliff Robertson (Charly [1968]) and Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold (an Oscar® nominee for her role in Anne of the Thousand Days [1969]) in the leads.

Herrmann came to work on Obsession following a debilitating period of fatigue, complicated by shortness of breath, which he attributed initially to a lingering case of the flu. When his symptoms did not improve with time and home remedies, Herrmann was admitted (under protest) to St. George's Hospital in London, where the diagnosis was made of an irreversible heart condition. Given at best two years left to live, Herrmann went right back to work. (The composer's workaholic nature and professional intractability are thought now to have contributed greatly to his hypertensive cardiac failure.) Despite De Palma's coup at having scored the participation of Herrmann, Obsession producer George Litto was keener to cash in on John Williams' brand recognition as the composer of the soundtrack to Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). To persuade the producer of Herrmann's qualifications for the assignment, editor Paul Hirsch screened a sequence from Obsession, an evocatively wordless setpiece of Robertson stalking Bujold through the crooked side streets of Florence, with a lush passage from Herrmann's orchestrations for Vertigo. Litto's reaction was reportedly one of wide-eyed incongruity at the music's high romance quotient. "What is this, Romeo and Juliet?" Litto asked Hirsch, who replied "No, Bernard Herrmann." Devoted to the project, Herrmann pushed himself through all-night composing sessions in London and finished the entire score in one month. Herrmann was also smitten with the film's leading lady and kept a photograph of Geneviève Bujold in his wallet for the remainder of his life.

It was Brian De Palma who suggested Bernard Herrmann to Martin Scorsese as a possible composer for Taxi Driver (1976, also scripted by Paul Schrader). Herrmann got the job and would be nominated for Academy Awards for both scores, albeit posthumously. In Los Angeles to conduct the orchestral sessions for Taxi Driver in December 1975, Herrmann and his wife Norma retreated to their lodgings at the Sheraton Universal after having had dinner in Santa Monica with Larry Cohen (whose new film, God Told Me To, Herrmann had agreed to score). At some point during the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, Bernard Herrmann died in his sleep. The official cause of death was congestive heart failure. He was 64 years old. The following February, Taxi Driver was released to great acclaim, both for the film itself and for its masterful score.

Delayed in its theatrical release by United Artists, who exerted pressure on Brian De Palma to tone down the severity of the film's incest angle, Obsession did not reach cinemas until September 1976, nearly a year after Herrmann's death. Critics of the day erred on the side of snark, with Roger Ebert branding Herrmann's music "beautifully overdone" in The Chicago Sun Times and Vincent Canby of The New York Times cracking wise that Herrmann had written "enough music to fill an average-sized cathedral and three movies." In 2002, Herrmann's biographer Steven C. Smith summed up the composer's penultimate creation as something akin to self eulogy: "Obsession is Bernard Herrmann's cinema requiem, a summation of his film skills and an affirmation of the human spirit."

Producers: Harry N. Blum, George Litto
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Paul Schrader (screenplay and story); Brian De Palma (story)
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Art Direction: Jack Senter
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Paul Hirsch
Cast: Cliff Robertson (Michael Courtland), Geneviève Bujold (Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari), John Lithgow (Robert Lasalle), Sylvia Kuumba Williams (Maid), Wanda Blackman (Amy Courtland), J. Patrick McNamara (Third Kidnapper), Stanley J. Reyes (Inspector Brie), Nick Kreiger (Farber).
C-98M.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith
Brian De Palma Interviews, edited by Laurence F. Knapp
Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma's Cinematic Education of the Senses (Cultural Memory in the Present) by Eyal Peretz
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood by Peter Biskind
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