Over the last few months I’ve been steadily working my way through the Sky Arts TV reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This is an anthology series of half hour “plays” created in the late 1950s/early 1960s fronted and sardonically introduced by the great director himself and featuring work from writers such as Roald Dahl (original versions) and Ray Bradbury. Some quite big names of the time take part, for example Bette Davis, Jessica Tandy, Claude Rains and Vincent Price. There’s also a whole host of early days performers who went on to significant careers. Among them I’ve spotted Steve McQueen, Walter Matthau, Burt Reynolds and even a very youthful William Shatner. The story lines mostly centre on the crime capers for which Hitchcock is renowned and there are literally dozens and dozens to choose from – each of the seven series contains nearly 40 episodes apiece. In case you’re worried I’m about to start reviewing them all, have no fear – I’m not that foolhardy.
Instead I decided to take a listen to a related audio drama Benny And Hitch which concentrates on the turbulent relationship between the director and his often first choice composer, Bernard Herrmann. They worked together on an unbroken stretch of eight films from 1955 to 1964 and the composer also contributed to the TV shows made concurrently. Given that these films included North By Northwest, Vertigo and The Birds it was clearly a golden period for the pair. And even if you know nothing about film music you would certainly recognise the shrieking, jarring strings which are a memorable highlight of Psycho.
Interestingly, it was not so much artistic impulse as studio budget cuts which informed the choice of sound here. The finances for Psycho were such that hiring a string section was all Herrmann could afford. Hitchcock himself wanted to scrap the film and re-edit it as one of the TV dramas and imagined the shower scene would be played out to just the sound of the water, until Herrmann’s music reinspired him. And it’s tantalising titbits such as this that keep Andrew McCaldon’s script constantly intriguing and surprising. While it probably helps if you know the films under discussion, it is not essential.
For first and foremost this is a piece about the creative process and just like many another famous duo (Gilbert and Sullivan, Lennon and McCartney, etc) Hitch and Benny eventually do not see eye to eye. Their big fall out comes over the mid 60s film Torn Curtain. Hitchcock wants the score to be pop/theme music inspired, taking The Beatles and John Barry’s James Bond music as a template. Hermann resists as he wants to reflect the grubby Cold War politics of the era and the reality of killing. Impasse ensues, especially as both men are self confessed control freaks. Accusations of money grabbing, lack of trust and anger management fly about and the partnership dissolves in a haze of rancid acrimony.
Tim McInnerney and Toby Jones are sensational as the protagonists. Jones, particularly captures the director’s underlying insecurities which drive him to obsess over his work and legacy. The pair rise to an intense (even cinematic) climax in their final showdown which amply demonstrates both their passion and their intransigence . There’s a small supporting cast playing the long suffering wives and actors Cary Grant, Paul Newman and the unfortunate Tippi Hedren who are caught in the crossfire. Hitch has no time for the concerns of his cast and deplores the rise of Stanislavkian technique which encourages too many questions from those he thinks should simply do as they are told… and that includes his former partner.
It’s a very good piece of audio drama to start with but is elevated to even greater heights by the inclusion of Herman’s iconic scores. These are played live by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Ben Palmer. They play whole pieces as well as providing a moody underscore to aspects of the dialogue. There are ample reminders that Herman’s music gave psychological insight to Hitchcock’s characters rather than simply indicate mood or comment on action. It is a sad truth that after their split, neither gifted artist ever achieved as much apart as they once did together. If you’re a film fan you’ll certainly appreciate this absorbing audio drama though probably best not to listen in the shower!
Benny And Hitch is available via the BBC Sounds app; click here
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