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OBSESSION – Bernard Herrmann


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Brian De Palma had long admired Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork Vertigo, and resolved to revisit its themes with a new rendering. He convinced Paramount studio executives of his vision for a retelling, and brought in trusted writer Paul Schrader to create a screenplay. Schrader’s crafted a fine original screenplay, titled Déjà Vu, but it was so voluminous that De Palma judged it to be unfilmable. As such he truncated the third act, which was set ten years in the future to achieve a more cogent and filmable storyline. Well, Schrader was outraged, refused to make the requested changes, and the two friends had a falling out, but development of the film continued regardless, ultimately resulting in Obsession. De Palma brought is a seasoned cast, which included Cliff Robertson as Michael Courtland, Geneviève Bujold as Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari, John Lithgow as Robert Lasalle, and Stocker Fontelieu as Dr. Ellman.

The story offers a compelling narrative, which explores the powerful emotional drivers of obsession, treachery, torment and selfishness. In 1959 New Orleans, real estate developer Michael Courtland suffers a grievous tragedy that shatters his life and psychically wounds him. His wife Elizabeth and young daughter Amy are kidnapped, and the police plan to rescue them goes awry, resulting in their deaths. Michael is disconsolate and blames himself Act II opens sixteen years later in 1975, where we find Michael is morbidly obsessed with his dead wife, regularly visiting a grand tomb he has had built in her memory, a replica of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte in Florence, Italy, where he first met his beloved Elizabeth. It comes to pass that Robert LaSalle, Courtland’s real estate partner, convinces him to join him on a business trip back to Florence. While there, Michael returns to the basilica where he is confronted by an astounding discovery: a young woman named Sandra, who looks exactly like his late wife. The encounter serves to further unhinge Michael, who is now driven by obsession to resurrect his former life with this surrogate, whom he subtly manipulates so as to transform her into his beloved Elizabeth.

They return to New Orleans to marry, only to have Sandra kidnapped on their wedding night. The ransom note left is identical to the first one that was left 16 years earlier. He comes up with the money to save her only to discover that LaSalle had engineered both kidnappings. In an insane rage he kills LaSalle and pursues Sandra, who he believes is complicit in this treachery. A confrontation at the airport serves to unleash Sandra’s long repressed memories of her true identity, Michael’s daughter, and they celebrate their reunion with a warm father-daughter hug. The film was an unexpected commercial success, earning nearly three times its production costs of $1.4 million domestically. It however did not resonate with critics, who felt it was an inferior retelling of the 1956 film Vertigo. It did however receive one Academy Award nomination – for Best Score.

While Bernard Herrmann was De Palma’s initial choice for composer, producer George Litto wanted John Williams who was cresting on his “Jaws” score triumph. After Litto viewed a crucial scene, which was temp tracked with Herrmann’s score from Vertigo, he was impressed, and relented. After viewing the finished film Herrmann relates that he instantly understood what the film required. He stated that “My Obsession score had two distinct elements; romance and tension, and that they usually go hand in hand.” He created three recurring themes to support the film’s narrative. The Obsession Theme offers a repeating two note construct, often empowered by organ, which serves as the film’s primary theme. It underpins the story’s narrative and speaks to Michael’s guilt driven obsession. The second theme is the Love Theme, which emotes with the free-flowing sensibility of a waltz. Instructive is Herrmann’s application of the theme, sometimes as a phrase fragment, sometimes aching with Michael’s longing; an ultimately joyous as father and daughter is reunited in love. Lastly we have the Kidnapping Theme, a descending, and repeating four-note construct, which unsettles, sows tension and portends danger. Masterful is how Herrmann employs short phrasing utilizing ostinato, often with contrapuntal lines to infuse energy, tension, and fear. Indeed his music propels De Palma’s narrative flow, and fleshes out the nuance and hidden emotion drivers operating in the characters.

The score was recorded by Herrmann’s demand at the church St. Giles whose acoustics had earned his love years before. The score is powered by its massive church organ, harps, female chorus, string orchestra with flute doubling on piccolo, an oboe doubling on English horn, four horns and a percussionist. Herrmann’s friend Charles Gerhardt relates that Benny received a supreme compliment at the end of the film when Geneviève Bujold told him “Mr. Herrmann, he (Cliff Robertson) wouldn’t make love to me – but you made love to me with your music’.” The compliment made Herrmann cry. De Palma was also effusive in his praise, stating the success of his film was attributable to Herrmann’s score. Lastly, this score stands as what many believe to be, Herrmann’s cinematic requiem. There were film distribution problems and tragically, he died six months after finishing the score with the film still unreleased. He was nominated posthumously for two Academy Awards in 1976 for “Obsession” and “Taxi Driver,” losing out to Goldsmith’s magnificent “The Omen”.

“Prelude” opens the film, as was Herrmann’s practice, with dramatic power, playing as the opening credits roll. De Palma juxtaposes shots of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte with still photos of Michael and Elizabeth. Herrmann supports this musically with juxtaposition, using his organ empowered two-note Obsession Theme for shots of the Basilica, and ethereal female chorus and harp for the still photos. Eventually thematic musical unity is achieved through the four-note Kidnapping Theme, which is carried powerfully on organ for shots of the Basilica, and ethereally by female chorus and harp for the still photos. The music is dramatic, unsettling, and mysterious, which perfectly establishes De Palma’s vision. In “Valse” Michael and Elizabeth are slow dancing at their 10th anniversary party in New Orleans, which Herrmann supports with phrasing by a portentous Kidnapping Theme. Blaring horns at 0:25 unleash the Obsession Theme, which supports the revelation that one of the waiters is hiding a gun under his vest. At 0:38 we segue into “Valse Lente” where our lovers dance supported by the Love Theme rendered as a classic free-flowing waltz, which blossoms when their daughter joins and Michael continues the dance with her in his arms.

In “The Kidnapping” the guests have left and Michael and Elizabeth are preparing for bed. French horns and woodwinds create a soft nocturne, which ushers in a sumptuous rendering of the Love Theme as Elizabeth enters. We build to a stirring crescendo of love as our lovers embrace. The moment is shattered by the cries of their daughter. As Elizabeth goes to her, she enters he room to discover men with guns, who abduct them. Dire music with contrapuntal horn lines unsettles us and sows danger as Elizabeth makes the grim discovery. We build to a crescendo of terror, culminating with the Obsession Theme as Michael enters the room and discovers a ransom note. Herrmann’s scoring of these scenes offers a testament to his genius. In “The Newsboy” we see a newsboy delivering to Michael a note from the kidnappers with a tape. Herrmann sows unease with a eerie repeating Kidnapping Theme by plucked harp and pizzicato strings. A plaintive solo flute, and English horn join this disquieting ostinato. We segue harshly at 1:54 with a dire intensification of the ostinato into “The Tape” where Michael plays the tape, hears his daughter’s fearful plea for help, and calls the police.

“The Ferry” offers a riveting score highlight where we bear witness to Herrmann’s mastery of his craft. Michael follows the police plan of taking a briefcase with fake money and a transmitter to the drop-off point. He boards a paddle wheel driven ferry and Herrmann creates unease and sows tension with a grim horn ostinato, which intensifies on churning strings with a grotesque discordance. At 1:25 we segue into “Ransom” where we see Michael cast the brief case atop a near by wharf the ship is passing. Dire horn declarations strike fear atop the Kidnapping Theme as we see a man drive up and pickup the brief case. We close on the horn ostinato as we see Michael ponder his fate and the police trailing the kidnapper’s car. In “The Hideout“ the kidnappers open the brief case and discover fake money and a transmitter. Herrmann sows rage and panic atop horns feroce with intense contrapuntal strings. As the police surround the cabin and announce their presence, the kidnappers flee at 0:44 with the hostages in “The Breakout”. Their flight and police pursuit is propelled by a dire repeating triplet born by horns over an organ sustain. We build to a horrific crescendo as the kidnapper’s car rams a roadblock, and explodes a fireball as it crashes off the bridge and into the river.

In “The Tomb” Michael stands watch as a construction crew completes a tomb for his wife and daughter, he has fashioned in the likeness of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. The Obsession Theme resounds with palpable grief, adorned with ethereal harp, and painful organs blasts, which speak to Michael’s anguish. In a scene change we segue at 1:05 into “Memorial Park” where we see Pontchartrain Memorial Park sixteen years later in 1975. Eerie ethereal voices and harp join with subtle allusions to the Vertigo Love Theme as we see Michael still beset by guilt and pain. Sandra” offers a wonderful score highlight. Michael has joined LaSalle on a trip to Florence. It comes to pass that by chance he makes a remarkable discovery when he returns to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. As he ascends its steps, the Obsession Theme resounds powerfully atop organ, attended by eerie wordless female vocals. As he enters and observes the artwork Herrmann creates a reverential religioso ambiance to carry his progress. At 2:07 we ascend in beauty to stunning moment of revelation as Michael locks eyes on a woman painter, made in the likeness of Elizabeth. We see through his eyes into his soul a powerful longing, which Herrmann supports with a refulgent chorale of ethereal voices graced with woodwinds gentile. As he departs plaintive woodwinds inform us of his anguish as we shift to his hotel room later that night. We are bathed auras of sadness born by repeating triplets as Michael contemplates over a photo of Elizabeth. The next day he follows her from the basilica through the streets of Florence with shifting triplets and plaintive auras carrying his progress. We close hopefully atop harp and tremolo strings, which inform us of his decision to seek the woman out.

“Sandra Again” offers a multi-scenic, quinary cue. Michael and LaSalle return to the basilica and the Obsession Theme, with ethereal voices and pizzicato bass carry their progress. At 0:44 we ascend on refulgent strings, which speak of revelation as both men, see ‘Elizabeth’. At 0:55 we segue into “First Meeting” where Michael returns the next day, intent on meeting the woman. The Obsession Theme graced with ethereal voices carries his progress. At 1:19 the music ascends, warms, and brightens as they lock eyes and the woman greets him. A softened rendering of the Obsession Theme reveals that he is transfixed by her, intent, and full of longing. At 2:13 we segue into “The Church” atop woodwinds gentile and a return of the Love Theme as he asks her to join him for lunch. Bright and hopeful auras speak to us of Michael’s joy when Sandra agrees to dine with him. After lunch, Michael asks Sandra to join him for dinner, and she accepts. Following dinner we segue at 3:27 into “Bryn Mawr” where we see Sandra and Michael walking with woodwinds and strings delicato softly carrying their progress. A tender reprise of the Love Theme, speaks to us of Michael’s desire. At 4:19 we flow into “Bryn Mawr Walk” as Michael describes and then instructs Sandra how Elizabeth walked. The Love Theme again underpins the scene, but it never culminates, instead remaining hopeful, and longing as he walks her home.

In “The Confession” Herrmann fleshes out powerful emotions that beset Michael as he and Sandra spend the day together. The Obsession Theme and eerie ethereal voices speak to his growing obsession with Sandra as a means of regaining Elizabeth. A plaintive rendering of the Love Theme is joined by ethereal voices as Sandra recognizes Michael’s motives. At 2:15 we segue frantically into “The Hospital” as Michael and Sandra rush to the hospital as her mother is gravely ill. Dire horns and contrapuntal strings shift to and fro carrying their progress. A grim string line descends inexorably with finality, which informs us that Sandra’s mother will soon pass. She asks Michael if he loves Sandra, and when he nods, she asks him to marry her. At 2:56 we segue into “The Cemetery” where Sandra and Michael leave flowers at he grave. The Dies Irae melody carries the pathos of the scene. We conclude at 3:26 in “Past And Present,” which supports their departure from the cemetery. The Obsession Theme and wordless ethereal voices inform us of the intersection of Michael’s past and present, of Sandra’s destiny of marrying Michael, the rebirth of, Elizabeth. “New Orleans” reveals our lovers cab ride through New Orleans. Herrmann’s score sparkles as they travel home, but the music darkens, with horn declarations of the Obsession Theme and chorale as they arrive at his house.

The following quaternary cue reveals Herrmann’s mastery of his craft. In “The Hallway,” Sandra hesitantly enters the house and walks through its central hallway. A solo flute tenero carries her progress with phrases of the Love Theme. As Michael comes to her, the theme begins to swell, yet never regains the fever of its prior incarnation, instead remaining plaintive, and unrealized. At 1:11 we change scenes to “The Portrait,” where we see Sandra gazing at a portrait of Elizabeth and Amy. As the camera moves back and forth from her eyes and Elizabeth’s eyes, ethereal wordless female voices eerily shift to and from without resolution. Sandra is both curious, and troubled, and the voices carry her ascent up the stairs. At 2:07 we segue into “Memorabilia” as she nears the second floor a mysterioso by plucked harp carries her to the locked master bedroom door. After obtaining a key from Michael’s desk, Sandra enters the long abandoned master bedroom. A panorama of the room is supported by a mysterioso born of repeating, descending chromatic lines, which are disquieting and fill us with unease. Harp and female chorale seem to evoke latent memories as Sandra reads Elizabeth’s journal. As she sits at the vanity holding a pearl necklace, she adjusts her hair and her vacant gaze reveals she has turned inward. At 5:45 we change scenes to “Walk To The Church” where we see Michael and Sandra walking towards the church where they are to be married, supported by dramatic repeating statements of the Obsession Theme by ethereal voices and organ.

In “The Monument” Michael’s psychiatrist counsels him to restart therapy and to not move precipitously to marrying Sandra. Herrmann weaves a threnody born by plaintive woodwinds, full of foreboding as Michael places photos, memorabilia and important papers in his brief case and departs. At 0:52 we change scenes an observe Sandra walking towards Elizabeth’s and Amy’s tomb carried by tremolo strings and wordless female voices uttering the Obsession Theme. A diminuendo unfolds as she reads the tomb’s inscriptions, lays her head against it, and closes her eyes. At 2:07 urgent tremolo strings and a plaintive flute support a scene change as Michael waits intently on his porch for Sandra to return home. As she arrives home we experience a crescendo of joy as Michael embraces her and they passionately kiss. A diminuendo carries us to LaSalle at their office. At 3:01 we segue into “After Dinner” where Michael proposes that they forego the church wedding and instead marry tomorrow at the house. Herrmann bathes us in an idyllic tranquility born by strings and woodwinds that while sweet, never resolves.

“The Wedding” offers a wondrous score highlight where the Love Theme returns in all its sumptuous beauty, and yet we see that it is an apparition born of Michael’s dreams. The music ascends with sublime beauty, yet never culminates, instead yielding to a return and diminuendo by ethereal wordless voices, which supports an apparition of Elizabeth granting him a second chance to prove his love. In “The Morning After” Michael wakes, calls out to Elizabeth, who again asserts in his mind that she is his wife. The Love Theme carries the moment, yet dissipates into ethereal voices, which carry him to Amy’s bedroom, where he discovers to his horror, an exact duplicate of the original ransom note. We conclude with a sad reprise of the Love Theme, which dissipates eerily upon a diminuendo of the Obsession Theme. Michael races to LaSalle’s house and makes the demand for $500,000, which he agrees to grant if Michael signs over his full shares of the company. At 2:21 we segue intensely with urgency atop a frantic rendering of the Love Theme in “The Papers” as Michael signs over his interests and obtains the ransom money. Yet he is betrayed as LaSalle has the briefcase switched while Michael’s back is turned.

In “Second Kidnapping” Herrmann sows tension as a crazed Michael franticly drives to the ferry with the ransom money. At 1:22 we segue into “The Briefcase” atop a grotesque rendering of the Obsession Theme as Michael tosses the briefcase onto the wharf. At 1:31 in “The Wharf,” a dire horn ostinato, pizzicato strings and organ carries Sandra’s run to retrieve the briefcase, which she opens and discovers to her dismay, phony notes. A grotesque rendering of the Love Theme by strings unfolds as LaSalle joins and tells her that Michael did not love her then, and does not love her now. A writhing orchestral torrent crests as Sandra becomes unhinged, and in a flashback relives her kidnapping as a child, crying out Mommy, thus informing us, that Sandra is in reality, Michael’s daughter Amy. In the flashback we see that Amy was not taken with her mother when the kidnappers fled, but remained hostage with one of the men. Herrmann sows terror with fierce repeating phrases of the Kidnapping Theme, offering the score’s most intense action piece. At 3:46 an urgent repeating horn ostinato with contrapuntal strings carries Michael to the wharf, where cries out in torment after he discovers LaSalle’s treachery in the phony notes.

“The Airport” reveals Sandra’s treachery as she reluctantly receives her payment from LaSalle for aiding him in bringing Michael down. We see her regret, as LaSalle drags her to the gate. A flashback of her being dragged by him as a child returns as she relives her forced separation from her father. Wailing wordless chorus and grim organ emote her agony as she relives the terrible moment, finally culminating in a horrific crescendo of pain. In “The Plane” Sandra writes a letter to her father confessing her hatred of him growing up as she was told he abandoned her. She accepted La Salle’s offer for revenge, but now regrets her decision. The Obsession Theme opens and Herrmann weaves a plaintive tapestry of painful regret by mournful strings as she takes a scissors from her purse and heads to the restroom, intent on ending her life. “La Salle” is revelatory as LaSalle vents his anger towards Michael, reveals his betrayal, and Sandra’s complicity. Wailing horns introduce contrapuntal horn lines of pain that give way to strings affanato as Michael seems to mentally collapse at the weight of LaSalle’s words. At 1:58 we segue into “The Struggle” where Michael snaps and in a rage attacks LaSalle who had pulled a revolver from his desk. A struggle ensues with Michael exacting vengeance by stabbing LaSalle to death. Drum strikes empower a grim ostinato, joined by horns of doom, organ brutale and wailing woodwinds, in a horrific statement, which crests with a crescendo of death as LaSalle is fatally stabbed. The horrific music is sustained as Michael grabs the gun and heads to the airport with a terrible resolve.

In “Finale” we bear witness to a masterpiece cue. Alternating lines of swirling strings animato and staccato horns carry Michael’s run of vengeance to Gate 36. Soft woodwinds gentile carry Sandra who is being transported in a wheel chair off the plane. Herrmann escalates a rising and palpable tension alternating and intensifying the competing lines as we shift to and fro between a crazed Michael and injured Sandra. When he finally finds her, their eyes lock and at 1:32 he strikes a policeman with the briefcase, which opens, releasing the money. Sandra sees the money, realizes that he does love her after all, and runs to him. She is carried by woodwinds tendore, which build to crescendo of happiness at 1:56 as she leaps into his arms crying daddy! Herrmann supports the joy of this stunning revelation with a wonderful expression of the Love Theme. Michael calls out Amy, and they embrace, as father and daughter are at last reunited in love. Herrmann celebrates their joy with the Love Theme, which flows with a waltz like sensibility. We conclude with a transition of the theme to joyous chorus, culminating in a glorious flourish!

I must commend James Fitzpatrick and Tadlow Records for another magnificent restoration and rerecording of a classic film score, Bernard Herrmann’s cinematic requiem, “Obsession”. The complete score was recorded in stunning and dynamic digital sound and features a two CD product with disc 1 offering a Blu-ray Audio featuring 5.1 Surround Sound 24bit/96kHz mix, and 2.0 24bit/96kHz mix plus video of the recording sessions in surround sound and stereo, and disc 2 offering a standard CD Stereo Mix. The conducting under the masterful baton of Nic Raine and the renowned City of Prague Symphony Orchestra and Chorus was exemplary. This score offers a testament to Herrmann’s genius in understanding a film and creating music to enhance and empower its narrative. The story offers a compelling narrative, which explores the powerful emotional drivers of obsession, regret, treachery, and revenge. Three primary themes underpin the film and speak to its three intersecting emotions; obsession, love, and treachery. Masterful is how Herrmann employs short phrasing utilizing ostinati, often with contrapuntal lines to infuse energy, tension, and sow fear. Indeed his music propels De Palma’s narrative flow, and fleshes out the nuance and hidden emotion drivers operating in the characters. De Palma was correct in stating that it was Herrmann’s score, to which his film owes its success. I believe this score to be one of the finest of the Silver Age, a masterwork from Herrmann’s canon, and highly recommend its purchase for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar, I have embedded a YouTube link to a 15 minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hQvJrDuQtQ

Buy the Obsession soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (1:46)
  • Valse/Valse Lente (2:07)
  • The Kidnapping (2:25)
  • The Newsboy/The Tape (2:26)
  • The Ferry/Ransom (2:55)
  • The Hideout/The Breakout (2:11)
  • The Tomb/Memorial Park (2:40)
  • Sandra (5:55)
  • Sandra Again/First Meeting/The Church/Bryn Mawr/Bryn Mawr Walk (6:32)
  • The Confession/The Hospital/The Cemetery/Past and Present (4:22)
  • New Orleans (2:00)
  • The Hallway/The Portrait/Memorabilia/Walk to the Church (5:59)
  • The Monument/After Dinner (3:48)
  • The Wedding (2:36)
  • The Morning After/The Papers (2:56)
  • Second Kidnapping/The Briefcase/The Wharf (4:28)
  • The Airport (1:43)
  • The Plane (2:32)
  • La Salle/The Struggle (2:57)
  • Finale (3:43)

Running Time: 66 minutes 07 seconds

Tadlow 019 (1976/2015)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Original orchestrations by Christopher Palmer. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by James Fitzpatrick.

  1. Jilles Duindam
    June 3, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    Happy to see all my favourite scores in this top 100.

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