Hitchcock's Music

by Jack Sullivan

Hitchcock's Music

Hardcover, 354 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $40 | purchase

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Hitchcock's Music
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Excerpt: Hitchcock's Music

Hitchcock's Music

HITCHCOCK'S MUSIC


yale university press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11050-0

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................xiOVERTURE........................................................................................xiiiCHAPTER 1  The Music Starts.....................................................................1CHAPTER 2  Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock's Forgotten Operetta..................................20CHAPTER 3  The Man Who Knew Too Much: Storm Clouds over Royal Albert Hall.......................31CHAPTER 4  Musical Minimalism: British Hitchcock................................................39CHAPTER 5  Rebecca: Music to Raise the Dead.....................................................58CHAPTER 6  Waltzing into Danger.................................................................81CHAPTER 7  Sounds of War........................................................................96CHAPTER 8  Spellbound: Theremins and Phallic Frescoes...........................................106CHAPTER 9  Notorious: Bright Sambas, Dark Secrets...............................................124CHAPTER 10  The Paradine Case: The Unhappy Finale of Hitchcock and Selznick.....................137CHAPTER 11  Hitchcock in a Different Key: The Post-Selznick Experiments.........................144CHAPTER 12  The Band Played On: A Tiomkin Trio..................................................156CHAPTER 13  Rear Window: The Redemptive Power of Popular Music..................................169CHAPTER 14  Lethal Laughter: Hitchcock's Fifties Comedies.......................................183CHAPTER 15  The Man Who Knew Too Much: Doris Day versus the London Symphony.....................192CHAPTER 16  The Wrong Man: Music from the Dark Side of the Moon.................................207CHAPTER 17  Sing Along with Hitch: Music for Television.........................................214CHAPTER 18  Vertigo: The Music of Longing and Loss..............................................222CHAPTER 19  North by Northwest: Fandango on the Rocks...........................................235CHAPTER 20  Psycho: The Music of Terror.........................................................243CHAPTER 21  The Birds: Aviary Apocalypse........................................................259CHAPTER 22  The Music Ends: Hitchcock Fires Herrmann............................................273CHAPTER 23  Topaz: The Music Is Back............................................................290CHAPTER 24  Frenzy: Out with Mancini, Hold the Bach.............................................298CHAPTER 25  Family Plot: Hitchcock's Exuberant Finale...........................................308FINALE: HITCHCOCK AS MAESTRO....................................................................318NOTES...........................................................................................323INDEX...........................................................................................337

Chapter One

the music starts

Play something! -The circus manager following the trapeze suicide in Murder!

John Williams, the last composer to work with Alfred Hitchcock, has stated that music is a key ingredient in Hitchcock's work, indeed, "almost his signature pattern." In Blackmail, Hitchcock's first movie with sound, that pattern is already dramatically present. This revolutionary 1929 film, which he called a silent talkie, was among the first to blend sound and visual techniques in a personal, sustained, and sophisticated manner that became an intrinsic part of the atmosphere, psychology, and action.

Coming only a year after Sergei Eisenstein's hotly debated "Statement" on film sound, Blackmail exemplified many of this director's principles. Eisenstein declared that "the dream of a sound film has come true" but cautioned that "photographed performances of a theatrical sort" would "destroy the culture of montage." He warned that "every adhesion of sound to a visual montage piece increases its inertia." Eisenstein's manifesto called for a dynamic, nonimitative interaction between what the audience sees and hears. Only a "contrapuntal use of sound in relation to the visual montage piece" would "give the necessary palpability which will lead to the creation of an orchestral counterpoint of visual and aural images." Eisenstein's swipe at "photographed performances" bears a startling resemblance to Hitchcock's well-known aversion to "photographs of people talking." Eisenstein's insistence on "orchestral counterpoint" rather than "adhesion" was Hitchcockian as well. In Blackmail, even scenes that initially appear to be mere talking photographs are elaborately contrapuntal: the opening talkie sequence has the heroine saying one thing, the restaurant music another, the suggestive glances at her secret admirer from across the room still another. As we shall see, this kind of complex interaction is a hallmark of the film, especially in the "Miss Up to Date" musical murder and the famous breakfast knife scene.

Just as Hitchcock learned the art of visuals from German expressionists in the 1920s, he picked up musical traits from the same aesthetic: looming shadows, tilted angles, sinister staircases, high-contrast lighting, and anxious close-ups are paralleled by discordant harmonies, astringent orchestration, nervous silences, sudden dynamic contrasts, minimalist chord repetitions, and spectral pizzicato. Expressionist modernism is powerfully present in chromatic ascending scales that take us up a nightmarish Hitchcockian staircase; in a tremulous high pedal as the landlady who discovers the body frantically calls the police; in the quavery organ that slinks with the heroine into her bed after the crime; in the crazed repetitions of the main title theme during the "Wanted" poster montage and the chase up the dome of the British museum. This vivid, original soundscape, created before the establishment of movie-music clichés, became a template for Hitchcock's musical experiments throughout the next five decades.

Blackmail's score evokes the world of Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and early Kurt Weill, especially Weill's symphonies and Schoenberg's "Music for a Cinematographic Scene." Only when he began working for Gaumont in the mid-1930s did Hitchcock, with Louis Levy as his musical director, begin using a more British musical language, with firmer harmonies and Elgarian rhetoric. In all these styles, the fundamental way that sound and silence interact with imagery-from the most Romantic to the most avant-garde scores-is consistent. Despite inevitably crude moments (given British cinema technology in 1929), the music in Blackmail is already thoroughly Hitchcockian, not only in the basic contrapuntal approach but in numerous details. Scholars marvel at how many characteristic touches-the amusing cameo, the Hitchcock blonde, the transfer of guilt, the wrong-man theme, the young female point of view, the conflict between love and duty, the climactic chase on a public monument, indeed, the whole Hitchcockian world of sex and suspense-were already present in this silent talkie. The same wonder holds for music. Blackmail unveils an array of Hitchcockian signatures, including musical irony, vertiginous arpeggios, fateful chimes, unresolved chord chains, popular song as a narrative device, and a dreamlike merging of real music with the invisible score.

Blackmail even has distinctive Hitchcockian instrumental touches: a demonic use of the (normally) celestial harp, creepy organ sonorities, disappearing brass fanfares, and distant timpani to announce a death. Also typical is Hitchcock's immersion in the vanguard musical styles of the period, in this case Noël Cowardesque pop combined with expressionist classical, so that the music is an exact reflection of the cultural moment, even though it never sounds dated. Most striking of all is Hitchcock's uncanny use of music to establish a subjective point of view, a one-to-one correspondence between sound and psyche as tightly organized as opera.

Hitchcock was fortunate to get a unified effect from his production team. The experimental hybrid in Blackmail was the combined effort of composer Henry Stafford and arranger Hubert Bath. The gruffly effective performance was by the British Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Reynders, who would go on to write the music for Murder! and conduct the rich and strange panoply of sounds in Rich and Strange. The prelude to Blackmail's violence, "Miss Up to Date," was written by Billy Mayerl and Frank Eyton for a Cyril Ritchard stage vehicle, Love Lies. Hitchcock's film appeared the same year as the play, and the song is therefore up-to-date indeed, as Hitchcock always insisted his pop songs should be.

It is difficult to pin down Hitchcock's exact contribution and degree of control in the final musical mix, especially given the lack of archival material on music in British Hitchcock. Nonetheless, the musical patterns are so astonishingly consistent with Hitchcockian music in later films-music frequently cued by Hitchcock's extensive, immaculately preserved music notes-that it is reasonable to assume he controlled a great deal. Movies are a collaborative enterprise, of course, but the Hitchcock musical universe, using a variety of composers and songwriters over five decades, has a compelling unity. However his films got created, through whatever combination of accident, improvisation, and preplanning, Hitchcock's musical pattern is unique. "It's there," said Elizabeth Weis, author of The Silent Scream, and its palpability is the important element; the issue of precisely how it got there may well remain a mystery, at least in the British films. The opening combination of imagery and music, a hubcap spinning with tense discords, is the first instance of a design Hitchcock would continue to favor, most strikingly in the wheels of the grim police van in The Wrong Man and the spirals and arpeggios of Vertigo. Whirling anxiety linked with a circular visual element is therefore apparent from the beginning of Hitchcock's music. Also present in this debut score is music that relies on disorienting harmonies and angular motifs rather than melody. The harmonies are tonal, but barely so. Like the deceptively ordinary lives of Hitchcock's characters, the tonal center feels a bit unstable, as if it could disintegrate at any moment. The Hitchcockian world of normality about to collapse is given a powerful musical voice.

What we hear during the documentary-style arrest and booking scenes in the film's "silent" opening has a Weillian starkness. The anxious main theme follows a speeding police van with swirling strings and spitting trumpets over a brass chorale that strives upward, then disintegrates into fragments. This is an early version of Hitchcockian chase music, a burst of kinetic energy that sputters and dies out. Here, it lurches to half speed with tense pizzicato and a mournful oboe as police invade the suspect's dingy flat. When they grab his gun, the music erupts into what seems a climax, then collapses into a desolate timpani roll. Surrounded, the doomed man dresses to the strains of a melancholy cello. He may well be guilty, but the tragic music makes us sympathize with him nonetheless, an early example of Hitchcock humanizing the villain. As the prisoner is taken outside, the title theme reappears in terse fragments, continuing through the trip to Scotland Yard, the interrogation, the lineup, and the booking. At the moment the prisoner is locked in his cell, the chorale returns in a claustrophobic variation that plummets into darkness.

Then, for the first time in British film history, the characters suddenly, miraculously, start talking. The silent movie is over, the talkie begins. Always fascinated by new technology, Hitchcock could not bear to wait until the next project to use sound. Once it became available in 1929, in the middle of shooting Blackmail, he was compelled to exploit it immediately. Already, in his first talkie sequence, dialogue and music counterpoint what we see on the screen rather than imitating it. As the police chatter moves into the restroom, the music is transformed into a perky, major-key variation on the main theme, a moment of Orwellian irony in which music establishes a distance between the characters and their harrowing profession: the talk is cheery and banal, about tailors and business transactions, far removed from the grim business we have just witnessed. This toilet could just as easily be in a pub as in Scotland Yard. As the camera moves toward the introductory shots of Alice and Frank, the music fades and vanishes, without resolution or cadence.

Already we are witness to many of Hitchcock's musical preferences: lonely solos where we might expect dramatic climaxes, anguished harmonies when a character is locked in a cell, ironic cheer in the most cheerless situations. The opening scene with the lead characters inaugurates a Hitchcock tradition as well. As he would do in Rich and Strange, Rebecca, Notorious, North by Northwest, and many other films, Hitchcock uses restaurant music in the beginning of the narrative as a blandly ironic backdrop to deceit and betrayal. Alice White, the beautiful young working-class heroine played by Annie Ondra, is shown in profile with her detective boyfriend, Frank, on location at Lyons Corner House, waiting for Cyril Ritchard's character, Crewe, a secret admirer, to show up at the restaurant so she can sneak away with him. "Girl of My Dreams," a popular song crooned by a jilted lover, is the tune playing in the restaurant-a deft ironic touch. Alice's catty back-and-forth manipulations and Frank's mounting exasperation are depicted against a sudsy backdrop of strings, giving the scene a special brittleness and tension. When Frank leaves the restaurant in disgust, the music stops, but when he sees Alice and Crewe coming out the door together, it wafts out into the street with them until the door closes, a bitter coda for Frank.

Alice goes away with Crewe, an artist from a different social class, someone she doesn't know how to read. Her naïveté versus the audience's awareness of her vulnerability is signified by increasingly ominous music, a counterpoint to the gathering shadows on Crewe's face. "I know instinctively if I can trust a man," she says, but as she climbs Crewe's dark staircase, a chromatic scale suggests otherwise. Once she is in his studio, he sits at the piano and sings "Miss Up to Date," a song Cyril Ritchard himself performed in 1929, the first instance of Hitchcock's fondness for working a central musical theme into the narrative by casting a singer or musician-for example, Marlene Dietrich in Stage Fright or Bernard Herrmann and Doris Day in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock opts for popular song over "scary" suspense music, a technique that would reverberate through the next several decades in astonishing ways: redemptively in Rear Window and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much, ironically in Saboteur and The Birds, malevolently in Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train.

Here we have a forecast of all these methods: played twice, with piano riffs between the two performances, the song first seems to brighten the tone of the scene but gradually becomes a sinister prelude to Crewe's assault. The scene illustrates Hitchcock's early ability to manipulate music in a thoroughly cinematic way, matching a musical design with a visual one; Crewe creates a musical portrait of Alice as he guides her through the sketching of a nude self-portrait. His mounting excitement and aggression in his musical performance is in tune with his manipulation of Alice's sketch of the "naughty child" in the song lyric.

The song goes through telling transformations. At first, "Miss Up to Date" offers welcome relief from the brittle score, but we soon realize that its fizz is all on the surface. In a breezy prelude, Crewe whistles the tune, accompanied by Alice playing a piano scale. He then plays a rendition full of music-hall exuberance; if this is a come-on, it is charming and inviting, not aggressive. Indeed, the two make gleeful eyes at each other across the keyboard, much as they did in the restaurant. "You're absolutely great, Miss up to date," croons Crewe, "and that's a song about you, my dear." It is about her indeed: the song accurately characterizes her as flirtatious, willing to take chances, a bit duplicitous, basically childlike.

Alice seems charmed by Crewe's musical portrait. Changing into a girlish costume at his skillful coaxing, she fails to get the hint. The audience, however, watches Crewe's cheery smile transform into a shadowy leer as he steals her clothes. When he plants an unwanted kiss, she finally gets it, pulling away and insisting, "I'd better go." But Crewe's next performance implies that he is not about to allow her to. This rendition of "Miss Up to Date," the terrible turning point in the scene, abandons lyrics; he flails at the tune with quickening tempo, aggressive body motion, and a decidedly less delicate touch. By the end of this demented solo, he is banging, betraying his longing and impatience. As he would do in Young and Innocent and Rope, Hitchcock uses an out-of-control musical performance as a signifier of violence, either past or to come. The playing is ugly, obsessively repetitive, interrupted by outside car horns. Alice begins to panic after this performance, but it is too late. Crewe concludes the song by pounding a cluster in the bass, a startling dissonance rather than a triumphant flourish, ripping apart the illusory cheeriness of the scene and setting up his assault.

In a startling contrast, the behind-the-curtain knifing, silent and unseen, has no music at all. From the beginning, Hitchcock knew the power of silence, of counterpointing music with emptiness. As Alice defends herself behind the curtain, a scene presented solely as a gigantic shadow on the wall, the silence continues. We hear only her screams, providing their own expressionist "music" before Crewe's lifeless arm thrusts out from behind the curtain, much like the anguished cries in the sound montage in The 39 Steps and the Statue of Liberty finale of Saboteur. (Even in Psycho, Hitchcock wanted Janet Leigh's screeches to have no music; he laid in Bernard Herrmann's iconic music only at the last minute.)

(Continues...)




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