'Hitchcock's Music' Scores Big on Suspense Film director Alfred Hitchcock was a master of suspense. A new book, Hitchcock's Music, by Jack Sullivan, examines the music in his films and how it conveys emotion in ways images cannot.
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'Hitchcock's Music' Scores Big on Suspense

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'Hitchcock's Music' Scores Big on Suspense

'Hitchcock's Music' Scores Big on Suspense

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If you ever inadvertently swallow rat poison and need to induce nausea, don't put your fingers into your throat; just play music from Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film, "Vertigo."

(Soundbite of theme from "Vertigo")

SIMON: If you want to keep your neighbor from listening at your door, just play a little music from the shower scene in "Psycho."

(Soundbite of music from "Psycho")

SIMON: Alfred Hitchcock didn't believe that movie music should be background sound, used simply to embellish and emphasize. In his new book, Jack Sullivan says that Hitchcock used music to advance the plot, sometimes make a melody or a song into a character in its own right. Jack Sullivan is the author of "Hitchcock's Music." He joins us from the studios of Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Mr. Sullivan, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JACK SULLIVAN (Author, "Hitchcock's Music"): Thank you. It's a great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And to hear the sound from "Psycho," we must point to something you say in your book. Alfred Hitchcock didn't want to use any music in that scene?

Mr. SULLIVAN: No, he didn't. And Hitchcock was very depressed about "Psycho." He thought it was flat. There was something that wasn't coming off, and he told Bernard Herrmann, his house composer, no music in the shower scene. But Herrmann went behind Hitchcock's back and composed that famous cue anyway, when Hitchcock went away on his Christmas vacation, then sat him down and played it for him and Hitchcock completely turned around and became very excited about the project again. So the music really saved the film.

(Soundbite of music from "Psycho")

SIMON: What was Hitchcock's idea in using, or maybe I should say applying, music? It didn't seem to be just one more element so much as it sometimes actually carried the burden of the storytelling.

Mr. SULLIVAN: It can be a plot element. It can be an obsession that gets into a character's head that often turns out to be the key to the mystery. And it's also, as Hitchcock put it, he called it the psychological use of music, which he saw music as a revelation of the subconscious, that tells characters something that they themselves don't really know, that cannot be communicated by language.

SIMON: One of his earliest films, "The Lady Vanishes," from 1938, a simple melody heard at the beginning of the film turns out to really have a significant role. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Lady Vanishes")

SIMON: I believe that's somebody being strangled. Isn't it, if I'm not mistaken?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, what happens is that it sounds like a beautiful nocturnal serenade, which it is. But then the poor serenader is indeed strangled by these dark expressionist hands that emerge out of the darkness. And the serenade turns out to be the key to a secret pact between two nations. And Michael Redgrave, who plays a musicologist, is charged with remembering the tune through the film. But he forgets it. By the end of the film, Dame Mae Whitty, who just seems like a very nice little old lady, turns out to be the real heroine of the piece and a spy. She remembers it and saves the day.

SIMON: In the movie "Rear Window," there's a song that actually saves a human life.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, it's not the only song that saves a human life. "Que Sera Sera" also saves a human life. And Doris Day sings it up a staircase to her son in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." But I think the most moving example of that is "Rear Window," where a song called "Lisa" by Franz Waxman saves the life of a character named Miss Lonely Hearts; this very sad, alcoholic, isolated woman who tries to commit suicide until the composer upstairs, who's been composing this song throughout the film, finally rehearses it and it courses down into her window. And she stands in rapture, throws her pills away and decides to go on living. So it really does save a life in that film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Rear Window")

Ms. THELMA RITTER (Actor): (As Stella) Mr. Jeffries, the music stopped her.

SIMON: We want to talk about the score for "Spellbound." Now, this was his 1945 thriller, and the music became independently popular, didn't it?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Yes, very popular. And it was also the first film in which we have the theremin.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SULLIVAN: This very spooky, shivery instrument, which once "Spellbound" was released, it became a marker in Hollywood for panic and breakdown in move after movie.

(Soundbite of music from "Spellbound")

Mr. SULLIVAN: The theremin theme that you've just played and then the very lush love theme are really variants of each other. And it showed in the musical structure how love and terror are really very closely aligned. And that was one of Hitchcock's favorite themes, and so he actually had that enacted in Rósza's music.

Some people regard that score as overblown. And I remember I asked my friend Jules Pfeiffer, who's a great Hitchcock fan, did he think it was overblown. And he said, no, you've got to have that music to give Gregory Peck some emotion. Because it is something that Gregory Peck doesn't even realize that he knows, that he actually is in love with his psychiatrist. And his psychiatrist, played by Ingrid Bergman, doesn't realize that she's in love with him. But the music tells us that they have this very strong attraction to each other.

SIMON: Listeners at our member station WNYC in New York recently voted "Vertigo" as their favorite musical soundtrack. But I'm told the film didn't do well at the box office, which I didn't know until this week. Now, did the music do better than the film?

Mr. SULLIVAN: The music, I think, has always been popular. The movie itself was much too dark for 1958, especially the ending. And I remember when I was a little kid, I was much too young to appreciate or even understand the convoluted plot, but I remember being very haunted by the "Vertigo" music when I saw it in the theater. And that was really in some ways the seed of this book. I sort of never got it out of my head. But "Vertigo" dropped out of sight for a very long time and was resurrected in the '80s. And now, of course, it's widely regarded as Hitchcock's masterpiece. And there are a lot of music critics who regard the score as the greatest Hollywood score of all time.

(Soundbite of music from "Vertigo")

SIMON: There's a seven or eight minute scene in "Vertigo." We'll call it a recognition scene. The music kind of tells the story.

Mr. SULLIVAN: James Stewart is waiting for this resurrection of the love of his life. And the music, which has a kind of Wagnerian longing to it, trembles and rises to several crescendos through the two scenes where Judy comes, first looking almost like Madeleine but not quite; and then with the bun in her hair, she finally comes in looking more like Madeleine than ever, with a kind of greenish halo. And there the music is really some of the - I think the most sensual music in the history of cinema. And you really don't need any dialogue in that scene.

(Soundbite of music from "Vertigo")

SIMON: Of course what we're talking about, his collaborator, the great Bernard Herrmann. And they were also a team in "North by Northwest."

Mr. SULLIVAN: And then the year after that was "Psycho." All three of those scores are not only iconic scores, but scores that appeal to, you know, several generations now.

SIMON: They had such a artistic effective and productive partnership, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. What happened?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, they had a wonderful, very simpatico relationship through a number of films. Hitchcock would actually invite Herrmann onto the set even before filming scenes so they could work things out in advance. Gradually - Herrmann's theory is that gradually Hitchcock came to resent his role, precisely because the music was so effective. And Herrmann's theory is that Hitchcock came to resent that; there's a kind of authorial envy there.

John Williams told me that it was like two old matadors finally just butting up against each other, that they were both very stubborn. They were both perfectionists. And they - look, they had a hell of a run. So I think in the long run, it's a triumph, not a tragedy.

SIMON: I want to ask about "The Birds." Famous 1963 film, Bodega Bay. There's almost no music in that film except for one pivotal scene.

Mr. SULLIVAN: It's actually a very avant-garde electronic score, and Hitchcock was able to control every sound in advance, almost subliminally.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Birds")

Mr. SULLIVAN: You do hear a song, called "Risselty-Rosselty," a school song, which is one of the most amazing examples of what Hitchcock called counterpoint, where you have music that doesn't imitate what's on the screen, but goes against it, which he thought was far more interesting than anything imitative.

(Soundbite of film, "The Birds")

Mr. SULLIVAN: "Risselty-Rosselty" is wafting out of the window of the schoolyard. Meantime, the birds are amassing and Tippi Hedren is not aware of this. And the music - the kind of monotonous cheeriness of the music - establishes this very powerful tension with the audience that's much more effective than a conventional suspense cue.

But I remember at an academic conference, there were all sorts of very learned exegeses about why the birds attacked. And finally the screenwriter, who was there, Evan Hunter, got up and said the birds attacked because Mr. Hitchcock told them to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULLIVAN: And I think that's exactly correct. We don't know the reason the birds attacked, which is what makes the film so powerful. And the electronic score provides absolutely no closure or resolution.

SIMON: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock Hollywood score, musical moment?

Mr. SULLIVAN: Oh, it changes all the time, Scott. The saddest and most poignant one is "Vertigo." I think the most exhilarating one is "North by Northwest."

(Soundbite of theme from "North by Northwest")

SIMON: Mr. Sullivan, nice talking to you.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Well, it was a pleasure.

SIMON: Jack Sullivan is director of American studies at Rider University and author of the new book "Hitchcock's Music."

To hear more music and read an excerpt of "Hitchcock's Music," you can visit our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Uhh! I'm Scott Simon.

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