“Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past — someone dead — can enter and take possession of a living being?”
The question, spoken by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to retired police detective “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), is the catalyst that triggers the desperate pursuit of a fanciful ideal in director Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece, “Vertigo” (1958). The unprecedented length and brooding melancholy of its rich, seductive and complex musical score, by Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975), supports the story’s spiraling morass of lies and deceit.
The word “vertigo” describes a disordered state of mind, with its fear of heights. It is the latent problem that afflicts Stewart’s character during a rooftop chase in the film’s opening scene and results in the death of a fellow officer. Elster, an old college chum, hires Scottie as a private investigator to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who, he says, seems to be possessed by the spirit of a long-dead relative. Scottie becomes increasingly enamored of Madeleine, as observation turns to obsession. They fall in love, only to have his fear of heights allow her to die tragically. The loss and guilt result in Scottie’s mental hospitalization, until another woman enters his life. However, in trying to re-create the past and remake her in the image of the dead Madeleine, he becomes obsessive again. In his demanding illusions and a flashback that reveals the deceitful truth, death’s dark passage eventually repeats itself!
Urban mid-20th-century San Francisco, mixed with a fanciful Spanish past, provides the story’s backdrop as filmed by cinematographer Robert Burks, while Herrmann’s expressive themes link the landmark Bay Area settings that Hitchcock chose, including:
The landmark restaurant Ernie’s, where Scottie first sees Madeleine close up. It is an exquisitely detailed soundstage duplication of the then-venerable San Francisco eatery.
The stately Brocklebank Apartments on Nob Hill, from which Madeleine’s green Jaguar leads Scottie on a bewildering tour of the city’s hilly streets.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor, where Madeleine sits fascinated by a portrait of the mysterious Carlotta, her dead relative.
The diffused landscape of the timeworn cemetery at Mission Dolores.
Fort Point, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the suicide attempt takes place.
The Empire Hotel on Sutter Street, where Novak’s sensuous transformation scene takes place, aided by Herrmann’s haunting music cue titled “Scene d’Amour.” Hitchcock’s instructions were: “We should let all traffic noises fade, because Mr. Herrmann may have something to say here!” Indeed!
In addition, location filming took place in Big Basin Redwood State Park, on Carmel’s windswept Cypress Point, and, most critically to the story, at Mission San Juan Bautista. The fateful tower and its interior winding stairs, with Hitchcock’s disorienting forward-zoom, reverse-tracking point-of-view shot, is punctuated by the nightmare dissonance of Herrmann’s visceral “Vertigo” chord!
At the age of 29, Bernard Herrmann came to movies on a creative wave of innovative film composition, scoring 25-year-old Orson Welles’s stunning “Citizen Kane” (1941) and receiving an Academy Award nomination. (He lost to himself that same year, winning an Oscar for All That Money Can Buy (better known as “The Devil and Daniel Webster”). The pair met in the late ’30s at the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City, where Herrmann, conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra, also wrote or arranged music for Welles’s radio shows, including the legendary “Mercury Theater of the Air.” It was Welles’s production narration and Herrmann’s music that scared the pants off the nation on Halloween night, 1938, with the famous broadcast of the science-fiction drama “The War of the Worlds.” In addition to writing music for Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942), Herrmann went on to score 16 additional projects through the late ’40 and early ’50s. Many were for 20th Century Fox, where music director Alfred Newman, who had admired Herrmann’s work at RKO (which included the film noir “On Dangerous Ground” , with its exhilarating “Death Hunt” cue), not only hired the young composer, but gave him the rare privilege of conducting his own scores. They included “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), with its use of two electronic theremins; “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1952), and its poignant “Memory Waltz”; “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef” (1953), where Herrmann’s orchestration for underwater scenes called for 12 harps, each playing a separate part, and “King of the Kyber Rifles” (1953), where his brass and timpani promised more drama than the movie delivered.
Then, in the mid-’50s, Herrmann, who insisted he was not a “film composer” but a composer who worked in films, joined forces with Hitchcock to create, arguably, his most memorable movie scores. “Vertigo” is one of eight artistic collaborations, which began with a black comedy, “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), followed by “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), in which Herrmann, in his only screen appearance, is seen as the symphony conductor in the famous concert-assassination set piece; “The Wrong Man” (1956), based on a true story of a mistakenly imprisoned musician; “North by Northwest” (1959), which Herrmann described as “a crazy dance between Cary Grant and the world”; “Psycho” (1960), a gothic black-and-white horror film, with its shower scene famously accompanied by Herrmann’s strident strings; “The Birds” (1962), in which Herrmann supervised the atonal electronic soundscape, and then, returning to traditional romantic scoring in “Marnie” (1964), a film about a compulsive female thief. (Herrmann never received an Oscar nomination for his work with the “Master of Suspense.”)
Universal Studios’ headman Lew Wasserman felt Herrmann was old-fashioned and tried to talk Hitchcock out of using him for “Marnie.” However, Hitchcock not only refused to fire the composer, but he also allowed a pop title tune to be created from Herrmann’s love theme with lyrics by Peter Jason and Gloria Shayne. (“When I see your smile, there’s sunlight everywhere — but your world is lonely, Marnie, oh, Marnie!”) Recorded by Nat King Cole, it was dropped before the film’s release.
The demand for a pop tune also occurred earlier on “Vertigo.” Songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who wrote “Que Sera, Sera” for Doris Day to sing in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” handed in a composition with a calypso beat. The lyrics began: “This vertigo is driving me insane my love, this vertigo, that has me spinning like a top … where will it stop?” Ouch! Hitchcock wisely decided not to use it.
Herrmann was planning to conduct the film’s soundtrack recording, but a U.S. musicians’ strike occurred. To meet the film’s release date, the London Symphony and Scottish conductor Muir Mathieson were contracted. However, less than half the score was recorded when the musicians were ordered out in support of their American counterparts. The sound track odyssey then moved to Austria, where the Vienna Film Orchestra and the Vienna Symphony faced Mathieson to complete the recording. While music experts may debate the unity of all three orchestras under Mathieson’s baton, (London recorded in stereo; Vienna, in mono), Herrmann, not surprisingly, was unhappy with the overseas results, contending the cues were “sloppy and error-ridden.” (Irascible as ever, Herrmann said later the film’s setting and star should not have been San Francisco and Jimmy Stewart, but New Orleans and an actor like Charles Boyer. “When I wrote the picture [music], I thought of that!”)
From 1963 to 1965, Herrmann also was busy writing music for 17 episodes of TV’s “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” which made the director’s image as well known as his name. But when “Marnie” turned out to be only moderately successful at the box office, Universal felt one reason was that Herrmann’s score was not “marketable.” As Hitchcock’s next project neared, the pressure on him from the executive suite in Universal’s “Black Tower” to drop his “old-fashioned” composer increased. The film was the prophetically titled Torn Curtain (1966), a Cold War drama set in East Berlin starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Despite Hitchcock’s urging to jettison “the old pattern” of scoring ideas, Herrmann, who believed “movie music is a kind of emotional scenery passing through a film,” maintained his own dramatic concept, enforced by his insecure, yet abrasive and egotistical personality. He included music for the film’s murder sequence even though Hitchcock had said no music. (Herrmann had earlier won that same battle with Hitchcock over the iconic shower scene in “Psycho.”) When the director finally heard the prelude to the composer’s grim, expressionistic scoring ideas for “Torn Curtain,” mainly brass and woodwinds led by 12 flutes (film historian Christopher Palmer called it a “flesh-creeping sound”), he fired him. Following a brief and still angry conversation on the phone later that same day, the pair never spoke again. (British composer John Addison was subsequently hired to write the music for “Torn Curtain.”)
Herrmann would go on to score 10 more films including Francois Truffaut’s futuristic thriller “Fahrenheit 451” (1966), and two for Brian DePalma: “Sisters” (1972) and “Obsession” (1976), with the latter’s narrative clearly inspired by “Vertigo.” The Oscar-nominated “Obsession” score, featuring organ and wordless female voices, was the composer at his most sublime. He received one more nomination, but it was posthumously. On the morning of Dec. 24, 1975, just hours after recording the last music cue for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), Herrmann, who was 64years old, died in his sleep of congestive heart failure. Death came at his hotel overlooking Universal Studios, where Hitchcock still maintained offices and the backlot standing sets included the Bates Motel, with its looming gothic mansion.
In 2011, 53 years after Herrmann composed his landmark “Vertigo” score, the French film “The Artist” opened on movie screens. It is a silent, black-and-white movie, set in Hollywood as the “talkies” arrive. But voices rose in protest as sharp-eared film music aficionados noted that the score, by Ludovic Bource, included a direct lift of Herrmann’s “Vertigo” love theme. One of those voices belong to Kim Novak, who took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood trade paper Variety charging that the use of Herrmann’s music in “The Artist” was tantamount to “rape.” “I feel as if my … body of work … has been violated by the movie,” Novak said. “It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended.” The film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, who had received permission to use Herrmann’s cue, and acknowledged its use, said “The Artist” was made as a love letter to cinema. He said, “I love Bernard Herrmann and his music … and I’m very pleased to have it in mine.” On Feb. 26, 2012, “The Artist” received Academy Awards for picture, director, actor, costumes and … original score.
For the latter, the Oscar went to Bource, but one would like to think that Bernard Herrmann’s bravura music of longing and loss for “Vertigo,” the musical jewel in the composer’s crown and seemingly placed as a loving tribute in “The Artist,” was a subtle influence on the academy members’ Oscar decision.
Jim Brown is the former Hollywood correspondent for NBC’s “Today.”
© 2014 Jim Brown
PHOTO: Madeleine (Kim Novak) prepares to jump into the bay in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).