„Vertigo“ is the first Bernhard Herrmann score I review on this website, the first score to a film by Alfred Hitchcock I will discuss, and for me, one of my favorite soundtracks ever.
“Vertigo” is, in my opinion, Hitchcock’s best movie. For a lot of years, “Psycho” was my favourite one because it is really astonishing what Hitchcock made out of the novel by Robert Bloch. “Psycho” is not only one of the best Hitchcock Thrillers, it is also the ultimate thriller and established a whole new genre, the slasher movies. Without “Psycho”, we would have no “Halloween”.
Here is a trailer:
What makes “Vertigo” unique is not only Herrmann’s music, it is the whole composition of this movie and especially the tragic ending. Perhaps this ending was one of the reasons the movie was not a huge box office success that days, but to be honest this un-happy ending gave the movie just the right kick and it a unique example why Hitchcock created with “Vertigo” his masterpiece.
I read the novel by the French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac a few years ago and was highly disappointed. The novel is good, but it is not a masterpiece. Without the movie, this novel would be long forgotten. You can understand the Hitchcock genius in the way he changed just one aspect of the storytelling (the letter scene), and this makes a huge effort. I think there are still some people from the younger generation who perhaps had no time to see the movie, so I will not say too much about it. In Wikipedia, you can read about the editing of this scene and will discover that a good movie is sometimes a result of luck and the decisions of other people than the director.
Hitchcock blamed James Stewart for the film's failure because the actor, at age 50, might have been looking too old to play a convincing love interest for Kim Novak, who was at 25 and half of his age. Even Orson Welles did not like the movie very much, he liked “Rear Window” better, and this just shows us that even an Orson Welles was not able to understand the beauty and the perfection of “Vertigo”. The movie was shot in San Francisco, the city I was am living while writing this review, and there are also “Vertigo” sightseeing tours offered in the city. I put one scene with Steward and Novak here:
You can find various soundtrack editions with the score. I personally prefer Herrmann as conductor of his own music because he has the best understanding of the perfect interpretation and tempi of the score. If you listen, for example, to the soundtrack of “North by Northwest” conducted by Laurie Johnson and compare this with Herrmann’s conducting, you will recognize that Johnson’s style is far too slow. Recently there is also a “Vertigo” CD available conducted by Joel McNeely, a very good recording with the right tempi, but I still prefer Herrmann’s own recording even though McNeely’s recording has more tracks than the original one. The original score for the movie had 42 cues, which comprise about 74 minutes of music heard in the film.
The score has a lot of highlights and each track is worth listening, but let me just recommend a few here. The first “Vertigo”-CD I bought contained 11 tracks, and I will mostly focus on this release. There is also an expanded release with 16 tracks; both are conducted by Muir Mathieson. Some critics say that this conductor was not doing a good job, e.g. too much romance and not enough energy in his way of conducting.
“Prelude and Rooftop” is also one of the best tracks. The prelude sequence was designed by graphic designer Saul Bass who used spiral motifs in both the title sequence and the movie poster to illustrate the Vertigo-feeling. Herrmann used the strings in a fantastic and haunting way, constantly interrupted by the brass section and various percussion instrument, and each time, I am surprised how he was able to get the musical link from the prelude scene to the immediately starting rooftop chase because there no gap between the two tracks.
“Scotty tails Madeleine” introduces the beautiful but also sad love theme. “Carlotta’s Portrait” is a great track to learn how Herrmann could build suspense. “The Bay” underscores a very important scene of the movie, so no comment about this piece and the following tracks. These are very atmospheric pieces, and you have to explain too much of the plot to analyse these.
A few words about “The Nightmare And Dawn” because this is a great haunting piece, especially when you have the scene in mind. Are there some similarities to Goldsmith’s “Nightmare” music from “The Burbs”? You have to decide by yourself. I love the dramaturgical structure of this piece and especially the use of the castanets is highly effective to create the haunting atmosphere in the music. Here is the scene:
The highlight of the score is “Scene D'Amour”. In this scene, Stewart is happy to finally see his dream come true. Hitchcock created a perfect scene, wonderfully photographed by Robert Burks. The music is perfectly underscoring the emotions of the scene. Hermann created his own “Tristan and Isolde” here: The kiss is the climax, the most intense part of the track with a beautiful interpretation of the love theme, romantic, but also haunting, energetic, nervous, and then finally again very passionate. Overall, you can feel and you know that these happy feelings will not last forever. For me, this is perhaps the best scene ever shot:
“The Necklace, The Return and Finale” bring us the showdown and the end of the movie. Herrmann underscored this scene in such an emotional way that brings the album to a great ending. When you listen to the track do not be surprised about the quieter part, it is important for the final scene...
I really admire Herrmann’s sense of drama in general, but here Herrmann is just marvellous and demonstrates what a genius film music composer is able to do. Without the score, “Vertigo” would not be so enjoyable. There is the rumour that Hitchcock was not very happy that Herrmann had so much influence with his music, both men were geniuses but also very difficult to deal with.
Therefore, it was not surprising that a conflict between these men will end the most successful relationship in movie history. If you look at Hitchcock’s movies after the break up with Herrmann, the director was never able to establish another long-term collaboration with a composer.
Herrmann was able to create a career after Hitchcock, and the younger generation with directors such as Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese knew about the musical genius of Herrmann. Even though I do not talk about “Obsession” from 1976 here, this score might be the best score Herrmann composed after the break up with Hitchcock. Check it out!
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