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Sound/Music in Film

King Kong (1933) – One of the first films to utilize sound effects to create a fantasy world, as well as the movie soundtrack as we know it today

Have you ever seen that movie where the musical score seems to be carrying the entire emotional burden of the film? That scene where a character is starring off into the distance while the music does the actual emoting? Or even that scene where the music feels superfluous?

I used to consider music an integral part of the emotional make-up of a film, but I’ve begun to realize that cinema offers many options when it comes to creating an emotional, aural, and visual landscape.

Yasujiro Ozu is acknowledged as one of the greatest directors of cinema, but he has a very unique approach to the use of music. The music in his films often does not provide any obvious emotional cues for the audience. There is a steadiness, sometimes even a cheerfulness, a serenity to the music he employs, even during dramatic situations. It contributes to the sense overall in his films that life goes on and that we must all move on, no matter what happens, but it also leaves the emotional cues to come from the actors, the story itself, and the framing.

Even when Ozu made silent films, he said that he preferred that the music have no connection with the plot itself. No use of music to highlight a tense moment, a romantic moment, to cue the audience on how they should feel. It all must come from within the screen itself.

Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to have been quite comfortable with fairly dramatic, romantic, and tense music and Hitchcock films have produced some of the most memorable movie soundtracks we have today: PsychoMarnieNorth By NorthwestVertigo. But he also experimented with an electronic score in The Birds, which employed simulated sound effects, such as the shrieks of birds. I recently watched Rear WIndow and realized that the film almost exclusively employs diegetic music, music and sound coming from the apartment building complex’s different rooms. There is a scene in the 1956 The Man who Knew Too Much, where Jimmy Stewart believes himself to be followed and hears footsteps behind him. It is the footsteps, not music, that creates the tension.

I think the point is that Hitchcock used music to complement his films, never to overshadow. The emotion is already inherent in his films, augmented with sound, even without the musical scores, but the music makes those images all that more potent and memorable.

In 2018, I discovered two French directors and comedians, Pierre Etaix and Jacques Tati. They made their films in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Tati began in mime, Etaix worked with Tati, before going out on his own. They are very different comedians, but their films are rooted in the visual comedy of the silent era and they also make superb use of sound effects.

Beginning at around 3:05 into the video, there is a discussion of Tati’s use of sound to build a gag. But Pierre Etaix also uses exaggerated sound effects of common objects around him to hilarious effect. It creates an internal rhythm to the comedy, rhythm apart from music, that makes one aware of the rhythm of sounds all around us. For me, in my life, it might be the rhythm of keys on a keyboard, footsteps, a clock, the whistling of a water pot, the cycles of a washer machine, rustlings created when one moves in a chair, running water, birds singing, rain falling, wind blowing, cars driving by, even the sound of my cat stretching or of her little paw pads sinking into the carpet as she walks.

Another director who makes notable use of sound is Andrei Tarkovsky. He singles out certain sounds and heightens them to create emotion (a discussion begins at 4:40 into the video below).

Interestingly, pre-code cinema (cinema made between 1929-1933) almost never employs a musical score. It was thought, when sound films were first made, that audiences would not be able to accept the sudden intrusion of music with no discernible source. The result is that nearly the only music one hears in a pre-code film is diegetic music, music from a visible source within the screen, like a radio, record player, singer, or band. Early sound films are not noted for their music, then, but their talking and the sound effects.

I actually think this contributes to a pre-code film’s energy and vitality. Think of the scene where James Cagney stands in the rain before going into a building to shoot up some gangsters in The Public Enemy. We hear the sound of the rain, of the car breaking to a stop, the sound of voices (and actors like Cagney or William Powell often speak in a rabid patter during these early years that has a rhythm and tone all its own). One almost has the feeling one could stick one’s hand into the frame and it would come out wet.

For me, the absence of music and the judicious use of sound effects gives a film a more tactile sense. Music, I think, can flatten the world, create a kind of distance between the audience and the image that is seen, because of the very unreality of non-diegetic music. This is why I think musical scores work so well for fantasy. Think of Lord of the Ring or Star Wars (a space opera, though I always appreciate the aural world created in those films: lightsabers, TIE fighters, blasters, Darth Vader’s breathing).

It does not seem like an accident that the first movie to make use of a musical score in much the same way movies do today should be the 1933 King Kong, a fantasy/adventure/romance (he film was also notable for its use of sound effects to create the unique roar of Kong or the other dinosaurs). Or think of Gone With the Wind, a lush romance that bears little resemblance to reality.

Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann

Or think of Vertigo or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with scores by Bernard Herrmann, which create a dreamlike, visual tone-poem feeling for the audience.

What ultimately prompted these thoughts was watching Dunkirk, which had a score so overwhelming that it irritated me and seemed to put the audience at a remove from the battle taking place before us. It submerged all the sounds of the engines of planes, gunfire, shouts of men, the water and waves and caused a certain muddiness and overwhelming of the senses.

Though music can also be used to turn carnage into elegy, as Mel Gibson did in the film Hacksaw Ridge. It was a movie that I quickly realized I should not eat while watching, but I was also astonished at how Gibson could portray scenes of such wretched human suffering and overlay it with music, so that the scene then became an elegy to the suffering of the men. But it was achieved by using music to put a slight distance between the audience and the suffering of the men so that the audience could step out of their initial gut horror and think about the nature of their suffering. It was a very curious affect.

I have been extremely curious to know what other people think on this topic? Are there scores your love, scores that drive you up the wall, favorite sound effects from movies?

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Movies

 

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The Lodger (1927)

Ever since reading FictonFan’s and Silverscreening’s reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, I have been doubly curious to see the film, which is also my contribution to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness’ “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” It was the third film that Alfred Hitchcock directed, but is the one that he considered essentially his first film, the first to be recognizably Hitchcockian.

The Lodger is one of many film and stage adaptations of the novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, published in 1911 and inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Hitchcock’s film, however, appears to be set in 1927, though there is a definite gaslight and Gothic ethos. Ivor Novello, who plays the mysterious lodger, would have made a fantastic Dracula, actually.

The film opens with a silent scream.

Neil Brand, who wrote the contemporary score for the version I saw, has the orchestra scream along with the image. The scream reminded me of Hitchcock’s later close-up image of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho. The beginning of The Lodger is really excellent and demonstrates Hitchcock’s visual skill, which requires minimal inter titles to explain the action. A blonde girl (Hitchcock already demonstrating his preference for blonds) has been murdered. There is one witness, who says she saw a tall man with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. We see the police, the curious spectators, the ghoulish interest, the press, everything in a rapid fire of images (including a brief glimpse of Hitchcock). We also see a sign for a show called “Golden Curls.” The image of the sign will show up mockingly throughout the film.

The story then shifts to Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault), her husband (Arthur Chesney), their daughter Daisy (June Tripp…who has golden curls), and the boyfriend/policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Joe and Daisy flirt with a heart-shaped cookie cutter and some dough, once again demonstrating Hitchcock’s flair for visual storytelling. Into this tranquil and domestic scene comes…the Lodger! Who looks like Dracula, or at the very least his cousin.

played by Ivor Novello

Would you let this man rent a room in your house?

The lodger is definitely a strange young man, who doesn’t like pictures of women with golden curls in his room and has a habit of looking tormented by some inner turmoil. Not to mention pacing restlessly in his room, which is shown with a glass floor that shows him walking while the Buntings look up at the ceiling, the visuals of his footsteps almost making us “hear” the sound of his footsteps that the Buntings actually hear. When the lodger’s not looking creepy, he looks like Lord Byron, all sensitivity and anguish.

Hurting him would be like hurting a puppy

The tension in the film comes from Mrs. Bunting and her husband beginning to suspect that their lodger is the mysterious killer after he sneaked out at night and was gone during the time when another golden-curled woman was murdered. Their anxiety is heightened when he shows a strong interest in Daisy, who does not see anything wrong in the lodger’s behavior. Joe, on the other hand, grows increasingly jealous.

It’s quite an exciting, atmospheric film and really shows Hitchcock’s ability to create tension visually rather than via words, as well as hitting on a number of themes that he would explore later. And if you have never seen it, I would definitely recommend watching it before reading the spoilers section below.

(Spoilers) I have to admit that I knew the surprise ending before coming into the film, that the lodger is actually, incontrovertibly innocent (unlike Laird Cregar’s lodger in the 1944 film), but I was curious how it would play out. The lodger’s innocence had a rather odd affect, I thought, somewhat like the affect of Hitchcock’s later Suspicion, though far less egregious. It makes Ivor Novello’s performance both sinister and romantic, which makes him a creepy lover. At one moment, he is stalking Daisy to her job as a model and buying her the dress she was modeling (it’s obvious that he’s a well-off young man, socially far above Daisy) and another moment gazing soulfully into her eyes like a young man with bad case of puppy love. In fact, the second part of the film feels more like a romance than a mystery or thriller.

I also have to admit that my view of the characters is somewhat colored by the fact that about two-thirds of the way through the movie, my sister labeled the two romantic leads as “pretty ninnies.” This is partly because the plot is not consistent. If he’s innocent, why didn’t he go to the police? Why did he run? Why is she standing by him, even though she knows nothing about it. They do not behave rationally. But they certainly look pretty while their doing it…especially Novello.

still looking mysterious

It is interesting to note that never again would Hitchcock have a woman place such unreasoning faith in a man for no reason. In The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll initially tries to turn Robert Donat in, Eva Marie Saint “helps” Cary Grant because she’s really working for the villain, Grace Kelly is simply turned on by the fact that she believes Cary Grant is a criminal in To Catch a Thief, and in Sabateur Priscilla Lane also initially tries to turn Robert Cummings in.

Regarding the ending, however, I’ve noticed that there is a theory floating around on the internet about another possible interpretation of the end of the film, which jives with my own impressions. Perhaps he really is the killer after all! Hitchcock originally meant to have the ending be ambiguous, but when Ivor Novello was cast, he was forced to change the script so that the leading man (rather like Cary Grant in Suspicion) would be innocent. But quite a few questions go unanswered. Like who killed the lodger’s sister and why? His sister was the first victim, but she died in the middle of a ballroom when the lights are turned off. Whoever killed her had to be someone in upper class society. But her murder doesn’t fit with all the other murders that come after, which seem to be happening in the street. Which makes one wonder if the lodger really killed his sister and went on a mad spree afterwards, until he saw Daisy, who perhaps reminded him of his sister.

It’s just a theory, but it seems odd that Hitchcock would make the lodger’s mansion look so creepy and Gothic. I half expected him to greet Daisy and her parents by saying, “I am…Dracula.” And then when they embrace, we can see the sign “To Night – Golden Curls” blinking in the background. Is it meant to be portentous of what is to come? Evidently, Neil Brand, the composer, thought so because as the lodger and Daisy embrace, the music grows gradually more ominous. Hmm.

His victims, waiting for Dracula to appear

Dracula welcomes his victims

Why is the sign “To Night Golden Curls” blinking in the background? Is that meant to be ironic or prophetic?

This post is my contribution to “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” Be sure to check out the other posts, which can be found here.

 

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Movies

 

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Vertigo: Film Score, Herrmann, and Wagner

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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Posted by on October 12, 2016 in Music

 

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