'Hitchcock's Music' Scores Big on Suspense

Farley Granger and Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train i i

hide captionThe book jacket for Hitchcock's Music by Jack Sullivan features Farley Granger and Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis
Farley Granger and Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train

The book jacket for Hitchcock's Music by Jack Sullivan features Farley Granger and Alfred Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

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Hailed as the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock knew that music can convey emotion in ways images cannot.

The soundtracks to many of his films take on a role of their own, becoming deeply compelling characters.

American Studies professor Jack Sullivan examines the celebrated director's relationship to sound in his new book, Hitchcock's Music.

Hitchcock's fruitful and sometimes volatile collaboration with such composers as Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest) and Miklos Rozsa (Spellbound) created some of the most gripping scores of all time.

Sullivan tells Scott Simon about some favorite musical moments, notes Hitchcock's fondness for waltzes and discourses on how his use of music has influenced generations of filmmakers.

Excerpt: 'Hitchcock's Music'


Chapter 18

Vertigo

The Music of Longing and Loss

"I don't think Mozart's going to help at all." —Midge, in Vertigo

Like the movie, the music's architecture is bisected by the two heroines. At least five memorable themes appear in the "Madeleine" section; these explode into chaos as she falls from the tower and Scottie plunges into breakdown, reappear in ghostly variations as he returns to his old haunts in the "Judy" segment, and darken into tragic grandeur as he seizes his second chance in the tower. Scene by scene, Scottie's longing is directly sounded in Herrmann's music, so much so that by the famous dressing scene, music has replaced words. Hitchcock's usual detachment and wit are absent. The outer world of banter and irony, a healing or at least comforting force, gradually vanishes, as does Midge, their embodiment, leaving us with increasingly lonely images and sounds.

Scottie inhabits the Wagnerian realm of romantic passion, self-enclosed and indifferent to reality. The love theme appears first in an introductory motif as Scottie sees Madeleine in Ernie's; the full melody has not emerged, yet this prelude, marked "Lento Amoroso," has a melancholy eroticism that tells us Scotty is already smitten. In North by Northwest a year later, Hitchcock had Herrmann's score displace restaurant music; here, muted strings emerge from silence. He wanted a minimum of real music in Vertigo's dreamworld; even the 1950s pop Scottie was meant to listen to in his car as he trails Madeleine, an original part of Samuel Taylor's script, was eliminated.

Hitchcock's sound notes show Herrmann nudging him into using more and more score: "As Madeleine approaches Scottie and becomes a big head, we should take all the sounds of the restaurant away so that we get a silence, indicating Scottie's sole impression of her." In the finished film, silence was replaced by Herrmann's Madeleine theme, so what happened? Hitchcock gave Herrmann the option: "I don't know what Mr. Herrmann has in mind for music here, but should he decide upon no music, for fear it might sound like restaurant music, it would be better to avoid it in order to get this moment of silence, when Scottie feels the proximity of Madeleine." Hitchcock preferred no music here, but the decision was left to Herrmann; in the music went, making the scene less stark, more sensual.

"Madeleine's Theme" resonates throughout the first half, including scenes in the flower shop and in Scottie's apartment following the rescue from San Francisco Bay. As Scottie begins his stakeout of Madeleine, a ghostlike version for organ and bass clarinets set against high strings floats through the graveyard at the Mission of San Juan Bautista; a nocturnal statement for strings counterpoints the desolate clang of the streetcar outside Scottie's apartment, an indication that Madeleine inhabits his subconscious. A full orchestration climaxes in the "Molto Appassionato" kiss over crashing waves, the gushiest Hitchcock music since Spellbound, and a potent rejoinder to the claim that Herrmann avoided Romantic hyperbole. "Madeleine's Theme" gradually swells into the full love melody, which makes its initial appearance as Scottie and Madeleine drive to the sequoia forest, then fragments into a gathering nightmare during the stable sequence.

The most memorable appearance of the love music is the dressing sequence, which Herrmann called the recognition scene. In his dubbing notes, Hitchcock instructed that when Judy "emerges and we go into the love scene we should let all traffic noises fade because Mr. Herrmann may have something to say here." Indeed, he did. This is one of the most sustained and passionate interactions between music and imagery in any movie. Introducing the scene is a whispered harp-celesta fragment of the film's Prelude, spiraling into a close-up of Judy in the beauty parlor as she is being made up to look like Madeline. From here on, dialogue vanishes; Scottie's compulsion to remake Judy is captured with Herrmann's exquisite tremolos and suspensions as he waits for her to appear in the hotel transformed into Madeleine.

This is a ghost scene with two apparitions: Judy's first appearance is invoked by austere woodwinds, her hairstyle lacking the bun that will complete Scottie's fetish; then, at his command, she comes back with it intact. Herrmann's music conspires with Robert Burks's dreamy colors to invoke Madeline in a green halo, a uniquely carnal ghost. "We'll just have the camera and you," Hitchcock told Herrmann, allowing him ten minutes of trembling lyricism rising in a crescendo of longing, an erotic spasm unlike anything in cinema.11 As Hitchcock put it in the Truffaut interview, the dressing scene is really about undressing: "What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked . . . ready for love." (In the unexpurgated, unpublished translation, he is more blunt: "Jimmy Stewart has an erection.") As the camera spins in a circle, the love music continues in counterpoint against surreal images of the mission stable and other scenarios from Scottie's troubled subconscious.

In the final scene, where Scottie faces reality and determines at the risk of spiritual death to "stop being haunted," the love theme and the illusions it represents are ripped into ugly scraps. A desperate reprise during the last kiss crashes over Scottie as Madeleine pleads for a renewal of their relationship. "Too late," answers Scottie; "there's no bringing her back," a grimly apt line just before Madeleine falls from the tower a second time. As he steps to the edge and looks down with "only his humanity," as Martin Scorsese eloquently puts it, the love music has the last word, resolved by a thunderous, hard-earned cadence: Scottie is shattered again, this time by the truth rather than by morbid fantasy.

Carlotta's theme, a Ravelian habanera, is also an important interior narrator. It glides hypnotically during the first Legion of Honor museum scene, then undergoes numerous metamorphoses. This is actually a dance version of a suspense cue in The Man Who Knew Too Much, signifying something not only mysterious but totally unreal: the reincarnation scam perpetrated on Scottie by his college friend Gavin in a diabolical scheme to get rid of his wife. When Scottie revisits the museum after his breakdown as both haunter and haunted, the rhythm is clothed in some of Herrmann's most seductive harmonies, but as he falls into an open grave during a nightmare, it is a scream of terror. When he kisses Judy during the circling apparition of the tower in her bedroom, the rhythm twists into ambivalence. In the great mirror epiphany, its meaning reverses, representing not delusion but reality, the terrible truth Scotty apprehends when he recognizes the necklace. Again, no words are necessary; Herrmann has become the narrator.

Much of Herrmann's music is astonishingly visceral, especially the famous "Vertigo" chord, a dizzying dissonance spiked with harp glissandi as the camera pulls back and zooms in. Here is a powerful instance of Hitchcock's music existing in its own dimension, making its own commentary on the narrative rather than imitating images; the chord induces vertigo even without Hitchcock's disorienting camera. Similar discords erupt through the film, including the murky choking as Madeline jumps into San Francisco Bay, the sonic explosion following each plummeting death, including Scottie's nightmare, and the goose-pimply cluster traveling up the tower stairs with the shadowy nun—an angel of death if ever there was one.

Never had moviegoers been subjected to such a musical roller coaster—brought up to romantic heights, then crashed into nightmare, hypnotized, then assaulted. The score speeds at breakneck tempos, only to lurch to painful slowness, as in the furious moto perpetuo "Rooftop" cue, Hitchcock's most violent chase music, followed by J. C. Bach on Midge's record player. "Mr. Hitchcock's Additional Music Notes" provide a meticulous description of the opening: "An important factor is the contrast between the dramatic music over the rooftops and the soft totally different quality of the background music in Midge's apartment. . . . The rooftop's music is background music and Midge's apartment music is coming from the phonograph . . . small, concentrated music coming out of a box." The vivid, pounding stereo sound of the restored Vertigo makes the rooftop music more dramatic than ever and its contrast with Midge's phonograph all the more striking.

For Vertigo, Herrmann gave Hitchcock some of his most unforgettable waltzes. The Prelude is the most powerful; another, the middle section of the love theme, dances through both tower scenes; a variation on the latter, in the tragic key of C minor, the stunning switch to Judy's point of view, giving way to an exquisite pedal point (a fragment of the habanera) as she writes her confessional letter: "The moment I have longed for and dreaded," the moment that humanizes her and makes her more than a femme fatale. The ineffable beauty of this pedal combined with despairing bass clarinets as she opens her closet create a moving musical portrait of a vulnerable woman who has become a victim of the plot she helped hatch. Since we never get her point of view again, this celestial music never returns.

Vertigo contains many other musical ideas that are, once heard, never forgotten: the spitting woodwinds that take Scottie into the first hotel; the hypnotic cha-cha chords as he circles through twisty San Francisco streets in pursuit of Madeleine; the dense clusters caressed by chimes and organ during the petrified-forest scene; the somber string fragment, a premonition of Psycho, in the establishing shot of the courtroom where Scottie's guilt complex is worsened by the judge who accuses him of letting Madeleine die.

As usual, source music unites with the score. The organ-tinted cue in the Mission Delores graveyard seems to waft from the instrument playing inside the church (an organ prelude composed by Herrmann). In his notes on the Mission Delores bells, Hitchcock states: "When Scottie looks at the headstone and reads 'Carlotta,' we should hear the bang of the big bell from the basilica next door. It should ring about three times as Scottie is taking down the name." Whether this fateful bang is a real bell or Herrmann's score is deliberately ambiguous; bell sonorities continue ringing throughout the movie—tolling at Carlotta's grave, clanging forlornly from the streetcar in the foggy San Francisco night, pealing from the tower at the end as Scottie looks fearlessly down into the final abyss.

Hitchcock did not always get exactly what he wanted, as shown in the notes for Scottie's driving scenes where he ends up at his own apartment: "This music should start off quite dramatically and, by degrees, get more comic—developing when Scottie starts to throw up his hands." Actually, Herrmann's restless chords die away in a breathless whisper, a counterpoint to Scottie's quizzical expression. If this is a comic effect, it is a subtle one. Along with The Wrong Man, Vertigo is Hitchcock's most humorless movie, and the music sustains its uncompromising seriousness.

Even music itself—a potent healing force in Saboteur, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Wrong Man—can't brighten Vertigo's darkness. From the beginning, when Scottie grumpily tells Midge to turn off her eighteenth-century music, art fails to tame chaos. A force of clarity and consonance associated with classicism, Midge can't compete with Scottie's attraction to the mysterious darkness embodied by Madeleine. In the asylum scene, she puts Mozart's Symphony no. 34 on the phonograph, telling a depressed Scotty that she had a talk with a musical therapist who said that "Mozart is the boy for you. The broom that sweeps the cobwebs away." She doesn't believe it: "I don't think Mozart's going to help at all," she says before disappearing, never to return, down the asylum corridor accompanied by somber cellos and basses, her music vanishing with her.

According to Midge, the mental institution has music for every kind of disorder: "music for melancholiacs, and music for dipsomaniacs, and music for hypochondriacs. . . . I wonder what would happen if somebody mixed up their files?" Hitchcock-Herrmann certainly mixed theirs, establishing an elaborate system of cross-references. The sinister chords from tracking scenes in The Man who Knew Too Much reemerge in Vertigo, as do ghostly organ sonorities from The Wrong Man. The traumatic spirals from Henry Fonda's prison scene spin through Vertigo as well. In turn, Vertigo's love theme makes a poignant return in North by Northwest, as does the vertigo chord when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint have their turn clutching Hitchcock's precipice. Herrmann-Hitchcock resembles a single, epic symphony, though each project has a separate tone. Eventually, these self-echoes made Hitchcock sour on Herrmann, but Fat that time, the golden period for both artists, they constituted an exquisite intertextual harmony.

As usual, the studio wanted a pop hit and failed to get one. Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who had written "Que Sera Sera" for The Man Who Knew Too Much, were hired again. "Gentlemen," Hitchcock told the team, "the studio thinks that no one knows what 'vertigo' means, but that's what my picture is about, and if you will write a song explaining what 'vertigo' means, it will help me a great deal." The studio's assumption may well have been correct: the singer at the demo session thought vertigo was an island in the West Indies. But Hitchcock rejected the song, even though Paramount accepted it and was already using it in its public relations campaign. We can only be thankful: the thought of a pop song opening Vertigo instead of Herrmann's magnificent Prelude is profoundly depressing.

But the search for a hit song wasn't over yet. This was one Holy Grail that never stopped beckoning. The studio tried one more time, hiring Jeff Alexander and Larry Orenstein to write a song called "Madeleine," set to the love theme. Released after the film, it flopped. The only hint of a pop song is an orchestration of Victor Young's "Poochie," from 1941, which appears briefly during the scene where Scottie and Judy are dancing in the Fairmont Hotel.

The Vertigo songs have vanished from the scene, but Herrmann's score has continued to inspire adulation and controversy of a kind rarely seen in film music. One of Herrmann's keenest disappointments in a career filled with acrimony was not getting to conduct Vertigo himself. Hitchcock wanted a hometown orchestra to do the score, but this was not to be. Because of a musicians' strike coupled with Hitchcock's determination to finish the project on time, the director was forced to go abroad, commissioning a London ensemble—probably the London Symphony, although this is unclear—to record the work, to be directed by the Scottish conductor Muir Mathieson. (The contract forbade an American conductor.) After recording the main title and eleven other sequences, the London players walked out in support of their American colleagues, again throwing Hitchcock's team into disarray. This time they packed off for Vienna, where two hastily assembled orchestras, the Vienna Film Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony (the opera label for the Vienna Philharmonic, which also appears by name in the file) stood at the ready, pending resolution of legal issues. This came in a March 24, 1958, memo from Max Kimental to Herbert Coleman: "Can do if commission does not come from Hollywood."

By March 31, Coleman, "busy dubbing the picture," expressed happiness about the performance, including one aspect that had caused controversy. "Remember the commotion about the heavy bowing from the strings?" he wrote Kimental. "Well, Mr. Herrmann said this was the effect he was after and is difficult to get here or [in] England because of the different technique." The visceral strings fit the intensity of Vertigo, but they had caused apprehension. On April 5 Kimental responded, "Very much relieved that the bowing sound from the strings has not caused a problem. Guess luck was on our side, though on the spot I would not have given a nickel on a bet that this was the effect Mr. Herrmann wanted."

As it turned out, he would have lost the bet. Herrmann denounced the recordings as sloppy and error ridden; ever since, numerous others have emerged, both orchestral suites and complete versions, claiming to be improvements over the originals, each heralded with finicky exegeses and critical comparisons.

Before we embrace the new-and-improved Vertigos, including Herrmann's own, we should remember that Herrmann was understandably bitter over losing the opportunity to direct a score that meant more to him than any of his other Hitchcock works; it is hard to imagine his being happy about Mathieson's getting the job, whatever the results. Furthermore, the errors critics find in the original soundtrack—a sloppy entrance here, a flubbed horn there—are not greater than moments of sloppiness on many celebrated recordings from the 1950s: technical standards (if not musical ones) are simply higher now.

Vertigo's music would not have exerted such extraordinary power over several generations were the performance weak. Both in London and Vienna, Mathieson presided over passionate readings that are forever linked—tempos, emphases, heavy bowing, and all else—with the film. There is only one movie, and one Vertigo music. Unlike opera and symphony performances, potentially infinite in number, a movie is single, immutable, like sculpture. It is hard to argue with Page Cook's assertion that Mathieson's "remains one of the greatest pieces of film music conducting ever recorded. . . . Every tempo, every rhythmic nuance, every dynamic inhabits the film." Vertigo fans love to compare the Vienna and London cues, but what is most striking is the unity of all three orchestras under Mathieson's baton.

An eloquent bridge between Vertigo as film score versus concert music is Herrmann's 1967 Clarinet Quintet, full of melancholy suspensions and sighs from Vertigo's love music, which Herrmann develops into a cohesive chamber work. Herrmann was discouraged by the obscurity of his concert music compared to his film scores, and this underperformed Quintet, a final resurrection of the lost Madeleine (his somber string quartet "Echoes" had resuscitated her two years earlier), indicates he had every reason to be. This Quintet is concert music of the highest order, even as it evokes the film

Vertigo is now a meta-score. The French director Chris Marker, a lifelong Vertigo admirer who made the Vertigo-inspired La jetée in 1964 and Sans soleil in 1982, has created a CD ROM called "Immemory," with allusions to Proust, Hitchcock, and Madeleine: "It is through a digitized Novak the user will gain access to different layers of my Memory machine." There is also Douglas Gordon's 1999 Feature Film, an elaborate "cinematic installation" of the conductor James Conlon on a huge screen conducting Herrmann's score. The most gorgeous reinvention is Herrmann's own Obsession for Brian De Palma's Vertigo homage set in New Orleans. Obsession allowed Herrmann to realize a fantasy he had always maintained about Vertigo. As he told Royal S. Brown, he wished Hitchcock had set the story in New Orleans with Charles Boyer rather than in San Francisco with James Stewart. De Palma cleverly exploited New Orleans's stand-up graves and the decadent elegance of its Garden District. But Cliff Robertson is no Charles Boyer (let alone James Stewart), New Orleans is not evoked with the stately detail that Hitchcock invested in San Francisco, and, of course, De Palma is not Hitchcock.

Ironically, Obsession demonstrated the truth of Vertigo's theme: you can't bring back the past, even something lovely. Still, Herrmann's music soars through the movie with such haunted majesty that Obsession does have a hint of Vertigo's frisson. In conjuring Vertigo's ghost, he created something new and uncannily familiar, a musical doppelganger eerily appropriate to the Vertigo myth. Obsession clearly meant something profound to Herrmann, perhaps a memorial to his glory years with Hitchcock, his artistic alter ego: during final playback sessions in the summer of 1975, Royal Brown saw him "breaking into tears and sobbing unashamedly."

"It's just a movie," Hitchcock told a nervous Kim Novak, recapping one of his favorite lines. In this case, the master was wrong. Vertigo has become an icon in modern culture, especially its score. More than any cinema music, it enacts the despair and stubborn persistence of our attempts to re-create the past. It is close to the tragic vision of Delius, the British composer Hitchcock alluded to in Saboteur, who spent his entire career trying to bring back a single moment of his youth in the Florida marshlands; indeed, cues like "The Graveyard" and "The Park" have a Delian longing.

There is something fundamental about this score, inextricably linked to the whole idea of movie music. Douglas Gordon chose Vertigo for Feature Film because it was "the single most generic sound I could associate with the cinema. I tested it on people. . . . Everyone knew that it was not written by a classic composer, and that it was a cinema score. But no one could place it as Vertigo. It was what I was looking for. It was the sound of cinema for an entire generation."

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