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…