Tag Archives: James Stewart

Vertigo: Doomed Love


Format: Cinema

Date: 5 – 31 August 2016

Part of Soundtrack Season

Venue: HOME, Manchester

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Musician and filmmaker Barry Adamson on Bernard Herrmann’s dizzying score for Hitchcock.

Vertigo is without doubt, Hitchcock’s masterpiece. A masterpiece because Hitchcock lets us into his (and our own) universal truth. He shows us his longing. A longing that can never be satiated. A longing that merely leaves us up in the air, frozen in time and space forever.

He dismisses conventional story telling structure. (Conventional film structure is three acts. You put a person up a tree. You throw rocks at them. You watch them try to make it down. Most first acts are over with pretty quickly so we can get on with the business of throwing rocks. Hitchcock putting Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie up a tree is to have him fish Kim Novak’s Madeleine, the woman he’s been following at a distance, out of San Francisco Bay, take her home, strip her naked and put her in his bed… after 46 minutes.) He then masterly creates his trademark suspense. In the last few acts, the audience knows something the protagonist doesn’t, after a remarkable disclosure of the film’s plot. Up until that point, there’s so much tension, intrigue and seduction manoeuvring. We’re watching a man watching a woman who’s keeping an eye on herself while observing another woman…

Bernard Herrmann said that whereas he wrote character music for Orson Welles, Hitchcock wanted place and situation and to feel the tension building. The music throughout the opening titles tells the whole story. The film is set in San Francisco. Herrmann builds a geographical, dreamlike and suspenseful motive around ‘contrary motion’. One motif plays six notes up and down the scale as the other motif (same notes) comes down and up the scale and this alludes to the idea of physical vertigo as well as a kind of teetering on the edge, both emotionally and mentally.

He then adds the ‘doomed love’ theme in four notes, ending the phrase with a dissonant death chord. It would seem to be the end, and of course later in the piece it really is BUT… he then arranges for ‘trilling’ violins to animate and rise from a pit of desire, into omnipotence. They begin skipping carelessly as if to mock the idea of death as finite. This is short-lived, however, as again doom now plays out before the final death knell rings.

This happens over swirling graphics and close-ups of a woman’s mouth and eyes. What’s this film about again? A fear of heights? No. Fear of falling… in love.

The other part of the score is the brilliant Carlotta Valdes theme, which Herrmann uses as a link to the past and then turns it into a hallucination, another kind of vertigo for Kim Novak. Scottie’s toxic seduction is played out over a stealing of Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. Herrmann uses the ‘love/death’ theme, which he rewrites and extends as mere metaphor, gluing together the idea of Madeleine’s obsession with the past and Scottie’s idea that the dead can be brought back and made alive again…

The Soundtrack season at HOME Manchester has been co-curated by Barry Adamson and HOME’s Artistic Director of Film Jason Wood.

Barry Adamson

Darran McCann is George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life

Darran McCann was born in Co. Armagh in 1979. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University before becoming a journalist with Belfast’s Irish News. He went on to write, teach and study at Queen’s University Belfast. His debut, After the Lockout, a story about freedom and repression, is set in Ireland in 1917, and tells the story of socialist gunman Victor Lennon and his battle with the local parish priest Stanislaw Benedict for the souls of the people in his home village. Darran McCann’s filmic alter ego is George Bailey, protagonist of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). EITHNE FARRY

The narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life concerns the grinding-down of a good man, to the point of utter despair. George Bailey (played with never-greater integrity by James Stewart) is a character of uncommon ambition and wanderlust: his many and varied plans and ambitions are consistent only in that they will take him far from his little hometown of Bedford Falls. And his ambitions are within his grasp. Frequently, a train, boat or plane, or a job or investment opportunity or place at college awaits, and there’s always someone on hand to assure George that no one will blame him for taking it. He is always free to choose his dreams.

Yet George always chooses selflessly. The story of his life is a litany of frustration, his plans always deferred, each selfless act bringing fresh hardship and heightened frustration. Ultimately, George hits rock-bottom, and only the magic realist intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel, prevents his suicide.

So why would I, or anyone, wish to be George Bailey?

Well, after his trip with Clarence through a world in which he never existed, George attains a level of consciousness that is surely beyond the grasp of all but deities.

But that’s not it.

There’s a philosophical ruthlessness to It’s a Wonderful Life that belies the film’s Christmassy reputation. It’s an easy truism that doing the right thing is hard, but It’s a Wonderful Life dramatises just how hard. George is punished, not rewarded for his goodness, yet he never succumbs to cynicism. His dilemmas are ever more unforgiving, the price of character grows ever greater, the life he wishes for grows ever more remote; yet George always makes the hard (and right) choice.

Can there be a more straightforward definition of morality? Of heroism? Of goodness?

And who doesn’t want to be moral, to be a hero? To be good?

After the Lockout is published by Fourth Estate.

Darran McCann