Film scores

Soundtrack review: Obsession (Bernard Herrmann (1976)

“Obsession” was Brian de Palma’s first box office success. It’s inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and it’s a story about a business man who loses his wife and daughter during a kidnapping rescue attempt. Many years later he meets and falls in love with a young woman who is the exact look alike of his dead wife. I haven’t seen the movie but I plan to. I read a lot of good things about it. Since the story was inspired by Hitchcock’s works, de Palma chose the same composer for the score. Bernard Herrmann’s name was attached to some of the biggest and most memorable movies ever: “Vertigo”, “Psycho”, “North by northwest”, “Citizen Kane”, “Cape fear” or “Taxi driver”. Even in a time when I wasn’t big on film music, the score of those movies left a lasting impression. Who could forget the scares of “Psycho?” or the strange romanticism of “Taxi driver”? But the one thing the music of these films had in common was terror. “Cape fear” still feels like a growling and endless abyss when I hear it.

The main title confirms what I already knew about Herrmann: that he can write deeply terrifying cues without using sound effects or sudden changes of pace. His music has an overpowering darkness which comes like a thick fog and gives the impression of an endless pit you are pushed towards. Once this opening is out of the way we are introduced to the happy lives of the protagonists with a couple of waltzes. Of course this is just an illusion. Once the kidnapping happens nothing is ever the same.

From all the golden age composers, Herrmann is the one I can connect with the most. A cue like “The ferry” which comes at me with a thousand hungry mouths is strangely appealing and I can’t look away or turn the volume down. I want more of it. His brand of darkness is smart and addictive. The orchestra plays with knives instead of instruments and the sounds are cold and sharp.

I am sure that I am missing something because I am reviewing “Obsession” without having seen the movie. Bernard Herrmann is one of the most special composers in this sense: his music lives and breathes with the movie. If his scores work as a standalone listening experience, the opposite is not true. The movies he wrote music for would not work half as well without it.

There are moments in “Obsession” almost gothic in sound. The theme for “Sandra” opens as if it was written for a scene where witches meet and chant in an abandoned cathedral. Was it written like this to show us the impact seeing her had on the main protagonist? Is this how he felt? An initial shock followed by the sweet surrender to the illusion he’s been fabricating for so many years? The doubt and disbelief that follow? I can’t wait to see the film.

There’s choral work on this score which always gives me the impression of someone being under a spell or being drawn to something that will prove to be an illusion. The choral parts sound like mermaid’s songs to me. They stop whatever is going on around them and immerse the listener in a dream. “Portrait of Elisabeth” and “Memorabilia” for example sound fairy tale like.

The few tender moments when the darkness stays away are pointed with flute motifs and they don’t need much more. The flute is such an efficient instrument and there’s no mistaking what it wants to tell the listener. I never expected this almost Italian tenderness in Herrmann’s music. The middle section of the score, with “The church”, “Bryan Mawr” or “Bryan Mawr walk” is an oasis of beauty.

All these plots and moments are secondary to the one true dominant feeling of “Obsession”: suspense. It drives this score and it gets almost unbearably thick at times, like in “Airport (alternate)” or ”Sarah finds briefcase”. This is a suspense story and the composer makes sure we know it. With all this, the score offers a rich thematic content which makes the listening experience enjoyable and story like.

“Obsession” ends up like a very interesting musical journey. It’s not the kind of score I would listen to repeatedly but rather keep as an intriguing memory. Bernard Herrmann’s music is thick and heavy and usually affects me so his scores are rare treats for me. I welcome this complete 2015 release and recommended it to any film music fan, even if the contact with this composer might be a little difficult for some.

Cue rating: 86 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 31 / 74

Album excellence: 41%

Highlights:

Main Title

Valse Lente

The Tape

The Ferry

Hideout

Breakout

Sandra

The Church

Bryn Mawr

Airport (Alternate)

Walk To Church

The Wedding

Sandra Finds Briefcase

Lasalle And Sandra At Airport

 

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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