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Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

12 Oct

vertigo_soundtrack_coverWhen I first saw Vertigo I was not at all sure I liked it. I knew nothing about it before viewing and I was surprised and made a little uncomfortable by the story. But it wouldn’t leave my mind and I had to watch it a second time soon after, just to get a better handle on the story.

I watched it again, recently, and there’s something about it that I find impossible to shake. It sticks with you like few movies do. Haunting, aching, longing, dreamlike…

There are many things you could say Vertigo is about: obsession, a revelation of Hitchcock’s own obsessions and desires regarding the blonde leads in his own films; but at its most basic core, Vertigo is about longing. Especially longing for something that does not exist or cannot be attained. All people have it. What Scottie has is the mad desire to try bring it about, no matter the cost to other people. Most of us simply accept it.

It really stood out to me when I last watched Vertigo, how Scottie becomes completely absorbed in the story of Madeleine. He even seems to forget about Gavin Elster, the supposed husband. He’s consumed with Madeleine and her story…a story that is entirely made up. He can’t even see Midge, who is real and warm and solid and always there for him. In Vertigo, reality seems just as much of a dream to Scottie as the dream that Scottie falls for.

(Random aside: my sister and I wondered why Midge had broken off her engagement with Scottie all those years before. Was it because she knew he never loved her, could never love her, or did she sense there was something a little off about him, that something in him that leads him to prefer the illusion of Madeleine over the very real love of Midge and Judy?)

herrmannhitchcock

Hitchcock and Herrmann

It was also interesting to listen to Bernard Herrmann’s achingly beautiful score for Vertigo in isolation from the film and visuals. What is interesting is how the obsession of the film takes a back seat and the longing comes strongly to the fore. It almost aches to listen to the soundtrack. Alex Ross, a music critic for The New Yorker, points out how tonally rootless the score is. It never finds it’s footing, tonally, leaving the listener feeling a bit lost. He also writes about the sequence where Scottie follows Madeleine. It is an extended, virtually a silent sequence, only accompanied by Herrmann’s score

Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases…The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.

For Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’amour,’ he took inspiration from Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod,” from the opera Tristan und Isolde. Liebestod apparently means “love-death,” which seems very fitting for Vertigo. The specter of death practically drenches the movie.

There is, apparently, some controversy about the title of “Liebestod.” The title is usually used to refer to the aria Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body, but Wagner evidently never referred to it as such. He called it “Verklärung” (Transfiguration). There is apparently some question about whether or not Isolde dies in the opera, as well. But Wagner referred to the prelude at the beginning of the first act as “Liebestod.” Either way, Herrmann has seemed to derive inspiration from both pieces of music.

Here is “Scene D’Amour,” where Scottie first sees Judy completely transformed into Madeleine.

And an orchestral version of the aria Isolde sings from Tristan und Isold. Compare 3:00 of “Scene D’Amour” with 4:00 of “Liebestod.”

The Prelude, which apparently is the real “Liebestod.”

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29 Comments

Posted by on October 12, 2016 in Music

 

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29 responses to “Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

  1. jennifromrollamo

    October 12, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    My twin daughters got to watch Vertigo recently in their English class at high school. They didn’t like the obsession angle at all, thought Jimmy Stewart much to old to be going after Kim Novak’s character. I’m trying to convince them to give Bell, Book, and Candle a try. 🙂 Love Herman’s score, and it is a haunting melody.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      October 12, 2016 at 8:48 pm

      I hope they give Bell, Book, and Candle a try! That is a fun one. I’m actually going to watch it for the second time this weekend. 🙂 The obsession angle is pretty disturbing. It put me off the first time I saw it, too. It’s an interesting question about the age difference. It seems really common in classic movies, though. I wonder if now they are really casting men closer to the women’s age, or if they just look younger now.

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  2. Bill Oppenheim

    October 12, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Hitchcock blamed Vertigo’s failure on Stewart’s age…. I don’t think there was another star who could’ve played Scottie, age appropriate or not. He’d played obsessives in his fifties westerns, willingly alienating his own fan base by playing such psychologically complex men. And Bell Book and Candle is Vertigo with a happier ending.

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    • christinawehner

      October 12, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      True, it’s hard to imagine someone else in the role. And I wonder if it wouldn’t have mattered who Hitchcock had cast. It’s hard to imagine critics or audiences liking the film better with a different leading man…even if it was somebody like Cary Grant (though I feel Grant would have made an even less sympathetic Scottie – he doesn’t have the same vulnerability and in films like Notorious he has an edge to him that Stewart didn’t have).

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      • Bill Oppenheim

        October 12, 2016 at 11:36 pm

        It would’ve been a greater audience disaster with Grant, whose image precluded such roles. Hitchcock had to change the ending of Suspicion cuz test audiences rejected the idea he’d be a wife murderer. And AH turned down Grant for Dial M For Murder for the same reason.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • Bill Oppenheim

          October 13, 2016 at 1:20 am

          I’m sure AH realized that it was the movie itself, its characters and plot that turned off audiences – the fault wasn’t in his stars. Even tho Psycho’s Norman Bates was worse than Scottie, he was such a nice, polite young man thar even after the reveal, he kept a greater amount of audience sympathy.

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          • christinawehner

            October 13, 2016 at 1:52 pm

            True…though I thought I had read that Hitchcock had wished he had Grant in Vertigo. I really like Cary Grant, but I’m glad he wasn’t in Dial M For Murder. I love Milland in that one! I always wished they had let Grant be a murderer in Suspicion, though. He was very convincing, despite his persona, and the story cried out to be ended in murder. I always get frustrated every time I see that ending. 🙂

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  3. The Animation Commendation

    October 12, 2016 at 6:05 pm

    I too didn’t like Vertigo. It’s near the bottom of the list for me.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • Bill Oppenheim

      October 12, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      Vertigo doesn’t ask to be “liked”. its main characters are a fraud/accessory to murder, and her victim, a near necrophiliac. Hitchcock’s greatest and most personal, unlike any of his others, and doesn’t play by the usual Hollywood rules.

      I’m sure most prefer Rear Window, with its clear narrative, and reassuring ending that everything works out well at the end. Stewart’s only kink here is that he’s a voyeur, but that’s ok. We’re all voyeurs – that’s why we have movies.

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      • The Animation Commendation

        October 12, 2016 at 7:16 pm

        I don’t even like Rear Window, lol. I thought it was overrated. North by Northwest is my fave Hitchcock film so far.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          October 12, 2016 at 9:41 pm

          North by Northwest is a great film! I always associate it with my grandmother. She loved it when it first came out (she was not a fan of Vertigo) and every so often we get together to watch it.

          I think my favorite Hitchcock of all, though, is Shadow of a Doubt from 1943. I never get tired of watching that one.

          I still don’t know exactly what it is I feel about Vertigo. Do I like it? Enjoy it? Find it compelling? I keep coming back to watch it again, though. Still not sure why.

          Liked by 1 person

           
          • Bill Oppenheim

            October 13, 2016 at 1:32 am

            It’s brilliant film making, and personal to a degree unheard of in Hollywood. You can see Vertigo as a training film on how a director takes an ordinary woman and by taking complete control, transforms her into a screen Goddess. And expects the same perks Scottie got. His original choice, Vera Miles, had to drop out cuz of pregnancy. It’s possible it was deliberate since there was no other way out to escape him and his Scottie-like complete makeover – she was under his personal contract. She would’ve all wrong. He lucked out in getting Novak as a “default” star.

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            • christinawehner

              October 13, 2016 at 1:56 pm

              Yes, I haven’t seen Vera Miles in many films (just Psycho, Liberty Valance, and The Searchers), but it’s hard to picture her as Judy/Madeleine…or at least not as Madeleine. Perhaps it’s because the roles I’ve seen her in were mostly westerns…very far from the ethereal Madeleine.

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          • The Animation Commendation

            October 13, 2016 at 8:58 am

            I haven’t seen Shadow of a Doubt yet.

            Liked by 1 person

             
            • christinawehner

              October 13, 2016 at 1:19 pm

              It’s with Joseph Cotten as a villain, actually…and Teresa Wright. She begins to suspect her favorite uncle is a serial killer (I don’t think that’s spoiling the story – it’s what the cover of my DVD gives as the plot). Teresa Wright might be my favorite Hitchcock leading lady, though she’s not a typical Hitchcock leading lady.

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  4. honoria plum

    October 13, 2016 at 9:57 am

    I love Hitchcock, but Vertigo isn’t one of my favourites. It is everything you say: ‘haunting, aching, longing, dreamlike’. On many levels it’s a great movie. The problem for me (and it’s a personal response) is being unable to warm to James Stewart. Scottie’s character and his obsession with Judy is complex and, at times, unpleasant to watch. The lasting impression I have is of a character who is obsessed and proprietorial about a women — without really convey and warmth of feeling toward her.

    I know James Stewart is fondly remembered (I’ve got nothing against him), but I think the delicate balance required to make this character believable and likeable was beyond his capabilities. Hitchcock possibly thought casting the much loved Jimmy Stewart would be enough. Perhaps Hitchcock didn’t realised quite how creepy his hero appeared (particularly to female audiences) as Hitch was reputedly a bit on the creepy side himself as far as his female leads were concerned.

    Kim Novak was excellent casting though.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      October 13, 2016 at 1:46 pm

      I know what you mean – he does come off as very creepy and possessive…more so every time I see it. That is an interesting point about the absence of warmth towards her.

      On the first viewing, I felt like it was primarily his story, but watching it again, it really felt like her story…though a very tragic one. She seems, oddly enough, more like the emotional center of the film. I so agree – Kim Novak was great in the role!

      Perhaps, as you say, no one could have really made Scottie more sympathetic…just because of how Hitchcock conceived of the character.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Bill Oppenheim

        October 13, 2016 at 6:04 pm

        He displays great warmth towards Judy AFTER he’s changed her completely into Madeline. Literally after she has every hair in place. In fact, if AH had ended the film before he spots the damning piece of jewelry, audiences may may approved of them – a perfect love, or a parody of same, built on lies and murder, but with his perfect dream girl back.

        Liked by 1 person

         
      • honoria plum

        October 14, 2016 at 5:37 am

        Mind you, perhaps creepy was exactly what Hitch was going for.

        Incidentally, Cary Grant and Robert Donat were my favourite Hitchcock heroes.

        Liked by 1 person

         
  5. FictionFan

    October 13, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    It’s not my favourite Hitchcock, primarily because I’m not a huge fan of Kim Novak’s acting. But I also always felt that Scotty’s character didn’t quite ring true – he seemed too normal to become so obsessed. But then I read the book, by Boileau-Narcejac, and realised Hitchcok had fundamentally changed the characterisation, and added Midge. In the book Scotty (called something else which escapes me for the moment) is a friendless loner and decidely not a nice guy – the obsession arises out of an already damaged personality. Plus it all happens in wartime France which explains much better than the film why it was so hard for the Scotty character to track her background. It’s quite a short book and I highly recommend it – in this case, I think it’s considerably more psychologically compelling than the film, which is something I would rarely say about Hitchcock.

    Liked by 1 person

     
    • christinawehner

      October 13, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      I would very much like to read the book at some time! It is interesting how the change of setting and time changes things. Does the book have the same ghostly feel or a different kind of feel?

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      • FictionFan

        October 14, 2016 at 10:06 am

        Hmm… interesting question. The book is much darker in that we’re a little more inside Flavieres’ head (ie Scotty) and it’s quickly apparent he’s a deeply disturbed individual. So in that sense there’s more of a feeling of reality – to us – though Flavieres himself isn’t completely in touch with that reality. The book also takes place over a much longer period – it’s years before he sees Madeleine’s double again after she dies. Also the book makes much more of a thing about Flavieres genuinely believing that Madeleine has returned from the dead. Really, the book is much more about Flavieres character and gradual mental disintegration than it is about the plot, if that makes any sense. The plot is there to act as a catalyst. And the second half veers away from the Hitchcock version – I reckon the film tries too hard to make Scotty empathetic, perhaps because it was Jimmy Stewart. It should have been a classic baddie who played the role…

        I don’t normally link to my own posts, but I did kind of comapre the film to the book when I reviewed the book… https://fictionfanblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/vertigo-by-pierre-boileau-and-thomas-narcejac/

        The film’s another one, like Kane, where I reckon much of its reputation for greatness is to do with cinematic technique rather than the basic story.

        Liked by 1 person

         
        • christinawehner

          October 14, 2016 at 2:14 pm

          Thanks for the link! It was a very, very helpful and interesting comparison. 🙂 It’s curious how Hitchcock chose to move away from Flavieres’ belief that she can come back to life and towards Scottie’s desire to recreate her from a different woman. Perhaps reflecting Hitchcock’s interests?

          I do wonder, though, if Scottie is somewhat less sympathetic than he originally seems. He seems a little…off, somehow. And I can’t help wondering why Midge broke off her engagement with him. But that would be interesting if Stewart had been an outright villain.

          The books sounds fascinating…as does the setting during the war.

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          • FictionFan

            October 15, 2016 at 9:28 am

            Yes, that’s an interesting thought – Hitch did like to try to recreate his blondes in his ideal image. It’s funny – it’s a while since I watched it but for some reason I had the impression it was Scottie who had broken it off, and Midge would have liked them to get back together. I must watch it again. But I think one of the reasons the film doesn’t work quite as well for me is that Scottie’s descent into obsession doesn’t feel quite believable, whereas Flavieres’ totally does. I have another of Boileau-Narcejac’s books waiting on my Kindle – must read it…

            Liked by 1 person

             
            • christinawehner

              October 15, 2016 at 1:02 pm

              Ooh…looking forward to your review of the other Boileau-Narcejac novel!

              I see what you mean about Scottie and his madness. I was thinking about it last night…what you said about it being less psychologically compelling than the novel. It is rather opaque, psychologically…never getting inside Scottie’s head. It makes me wonder if the film is less psychological or even plot driven, but more of a story about emotion or feeling. It’s drenched in heightened emotion…it doesn’t make intellectual sense, but it kind of makes emotional sense…though it’s hard for me to say why.

              Could Hitchcock have had an emotional story to tell…if that makes sense?

              I definitely need to read the book now…:)

              Liked by 1 person

               
              • FictionFan

                October 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm

                I’m beginning to sound as if I hated it, but I really don’t! But when I watched it after reading the book I felt that Hitch had possibly got so involved in wanting to try out his innovative camera techniques that he’d lost sight a little of the human side of the story – a strange thing to say given its dramatic impact, but I just found each of the characters’ motivations not quite… right. Whereas in general that’s one of Hitchcock’s strengths – that you can understand why they all behave as they behave. By elevating the vertigo aspect to centre stage, somehow it makes the plot feel a touch contrived, perhaps?

                Liked by 1 person

                 
                • christinawehner

                  October 15, 2016 at 7:27 pm

                  I believe you about not hating it! 🙂 It’s curious how things can bother one about a movie or book. I’ve been running in mental circles over something that irritates me in a miniseries I actually really enjoy!

                  I have to agree, the plot does seem a bit contrived. I wonder if the movie still has the dramatic impact because he’s telling a story of emotions rather than characters or plots. It’s all a bit nebulous…or maybe I’m giving him too much credit and it’s the music that affects me so. 🙂

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