The music for Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," which turned 50 this week, is widely regarded as the cinema's greatest score. The film itself, which tells the story of detective Scottie Ferguson's fear of heights and its terrible consequence in the deaths of a colleague and a woman who passionately loves him, was a dismal flop when it was released. But "Vertigo" has steadily gained in stature and is now heralded as a singular masterpiece, a daring meditation on obsession and loss. How important is its music? As Martin Scorsese says in the foreword to Dan Auilier's "Vertigo: The Making of a Classic" (St. Martin's, 1998), the "tragically beautiful score by Bernard Herrmann is absolutely essential to the spirit, the functioning, and the power of 'Vertigo.'"
Indeed, it is difficult to recall any movie more dependent on the seductiveness of its score. From the moment that Herrmann's three-note motif begins spiraling in the main title, plunging the listener into the cinema's most elegant nightmare, Scottie's obsession becomes ours. The violent sections alone -- the traumatic "vertigo" chord, the gruesome dissonance hurling James Stewart's Scottie into an open grave -- are shattering, but the sensuous lyricism of the love music is even more memorable. The hallmark of the score is Herrmann's ability to create spellbinding mystery through harmonic ambiguity -- the meandering cha-cha as Scottie drives after Kim Novak's Madeleine through San Francisco's twisting streets, the exquisite Spanish dance in the art museum, the eerie tone clusters in the sequoia forest. This is the closest that movie music comes to hypnosis, repealing forever the cliché that a movie score should stay discreetly in the background.
John Williams, who scored the charming divertissement for Hitchcock's 1976 finale, "Family Plot," told me in 2003 that the director regarded music as a powerful presence, almost like a character. It always told the truth, and was uniquely able, as Hitchcock said in a 1932 interview, to "express the unspoken." In eight films, the longest run he had with any composer (including fellow émigrés Franz Waxman and Miklos Rozsa), he entrusted Herrmann to bring to life ideas and submerged passions that could not be captured by dialogue or the camera -- even his own.
Before their explosive breakup over the score for 1966's "Torn Curtain," the collaboration of Hitchcock and Herrmann was the most fruitful in cinema history. Their personalities were strikingly different -- Hitchcock regal and controlling, Herrmann notoriously volatile and prone to tantrums. Nonetheless, the two had much in common: a dark vision of human relationships, an uncompromising professionalism, and a contempt for the Hollywood establishment matched by a longing for its approval.
By "Vertigo," their fourth collaboration, their working relationship had a productive give-and-take that transcended each man's stubborn independence. Hitchcock expressed strong ideas about the basic musical emotion for a given picture, then got out of the way. He invited Herrmann onto the set before shooting, asking which scenes should have music and adjusting timings accordingly (as in the terrifying rooftop opening). But he also provided detailed music and sound notes in advance, down to the precise clang of a bell at the conclusion of "Vertigo"'s graveyard scene.
In the first restaurant scene, where Scottie sees Madeleine for the first time and instantly falls for her, Hitchcock made clear in his notes that he preferred "a moment of silence, when Scottie feels the proximity of Madeleine." But Hitchcock finally went with Herrmann's decision to use "Madeleine's Theme," a piece of melancholy eroticism that haunts the rest of the picture. In Madeleine's long dressing scene, Hitchcock took out all sound save for the score and told Herrmann, "We'll just have the camera and you," allowing him 10 minutes of trembling lyricism unlike anything in cinema. From "Citizen Kane" through "Cape Fear" to "Taxi Driver," Herrmann dealt in romantic fantasy, loss, and the treachery of nostalgia, but only with Hitchcock was he given latitude to develop these themes with such Wagnerian intensity.
As with many risky masterpieces, this score almost didn't happen. Herrmann was given 10 weeks to complete this epic masterwork, which has enough musical ideas for three movies. Because of a musician's strike, he was kicked off the Hollywood podium at the last minute, and Hitchcock was forced to go to London to record the score. After completing the main title and 11 other sequences, the London players walked out in support of their American colleagues, and Hitchcock had to pack off to Vienna and deal with two more orchestras, the Vienna Film Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. Through all the multinational scurrying and legal wrangling, conductor Muir Mathieson, Herrmann's Scottish replacement, managed to lead unified, passionate readings with three different ensembles.
Too dark for the '50s, "Vertigo" was a box-office failure. No one wanted to see Jimmy Stewart break down and land in an asylum, and no one wanted to see Kim Novak, the love of his life, plummet twice to her death. Hitchcock yanked the movie out of circulation, but the music was popular from the beginning, keeping "Vertigo" alive even when it vanished from sight until the 1980s. I remember seeing the film when it opened in 1958 and being riveted by the Herrmann score, even though I was too young to really grasp the convoluted story; "North by Northwest" and "Psycho" followed in the next two years, and I was hooked on Hitchcock and Herrmann for life.
A half-century ago, Mercury Records released a stunning stereo LP of the music from the London recording session (now on CD), and many other versions followed. Deeply hurt at losing the opportunity to conduct the score he considered his finest, Herrmann went on to write an achingly wistful Clarinet Quintet based on "Vertigo"'s ideas (available on an Albany CD) in 1967 and a more majestic set of variations on "Vertigo" for Brian De Palma's "Obsession" in 1974. "Vertigo" hommages and pastiches have continued to proliferate, including "Feature Film," a 1999 "cinematic installation" by Douglas Gordon, who called the score "the sound of cinema music for an entire generation."
"It's only a movie," Hitchcock told a nervous Kim Novak during rehearsals, not knowing that "Vertigo" would become a legend with a cult following. What he did know was what he told Herrmann before shooting one of the many dialogue-free scenes: "Music will do better than words here."