Who’s that girl: Laura, Stella, Iris or Betsy

Bernard Herrmann died on Christmas Eve 1975 the day after he had finished recording the score to Taxi Driver. I can’t help thinking of the score as a natural conclusion to one of the big issues of his life.

Back in the 1940s it was a different world. Herrmann began his film-scoring career with Citizen Kane in 1941.

A few years later, a pair of films appeared with an interesting common element. Each had a melody about the beautiful young woman whose story was told in the picture, a tune that would later become a popular song.

  • Laura (1944) was scored by David Raksin, including a haunting song that was strongly associated with the beautiful woman at the centre of the story, surrounded by men who obsessed over her. Lyrics were added later, and the song became a huge hit, one of the biggest hits in history.

  • “Stella by Starlight” is the song played at the piano by the young composer who will eventually get closer to the enigmatic Stella, in Uninvited(1944), score by Victor Young.  Again it’s only later that the song’s lyrics were written and the song became a jazz standard.

I see those songs as a bit of subtext for what’s to come later.

In the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann began a successful collaboration. I don’t think it’s a radical thought to say that they brought out the best in one another:

  • The Trouble with Harry (1955)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • Vertigo (1958)
  • North By Northwest (1959)
  • Psycho (1960)
  • The Birds (1963: Herrmann was a consultant on the bird sounds; there’s no music to this film)
  • Marnie (1964)

By this time the world and cinema had changed. Whether it’s A Hard Day’s Night, or The Sound of Music, soundtracks were big business and a new revenue stream for the world of film.

And so while the precise truth about the next chapter in Hitchcock- Herrmann saga isn’t known for certain, we know that Herrmann composed at least part of a score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain. Whether it was the director or the studio who insisted on something jazzier, possibly with a popular song that could help attract a younger audience, it’s understood that after a confrontation Hitchcock fired Herrmann, who had chosen to compose in his usual style rather than bowing to studio demands.

Let that be the context for considering the haunting saxophone tune in Taxi Driver, Herrmann’s last.

I can’t help noticing how the theme for taxi driver is like one of these tunes obsessing about a woman, not so far from the songs in the 1944 films… Travis Bickle (the taxi driver) is lonely and sexually frustrated. As he wanders the city in his cab, it’s inevitable that his mind would be populated by a romantic tune that might be about an unattainable girl, not so different from Laura or Stella. In this case the film has a pair of women, the unattainable Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, and the young girl Travis rescues, namely Iris, played by Jodie Foster.

For me the subtext of that tune is not just the sexual frustration of this violent man driving a cab, but the additional frustration of the composer.  Isn’t it interesting how Herrmann shows us posthumously that yes he could write a good jazz tune.

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology. Bookmark the permalink.

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