Vertigo, 1958, Paramount Pictures. Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Technicolor, 128 minutes.
After a rooftop chase in which his partner fell to his death while trying to save him, Scottie (James Stewart) retires from the police force, suffering from vertigo, a dizzying fear of heights. A friend from college, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), then hires him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful blond with suicidal thoughts. Gavin believes she is possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother, who committed suicide.
While Scottie is following Madeleine the two fall in love. It is while visiting an old mission that Madeleine suddenly runs into the church and up the bell tower. Scottie, gripped with fear by his vertigo, can’t follow her and sees her jump to her death. Soon after, Scottie meets another woman, Judy (also played by Kim Novak), and he is struck by her remarkable resemblance to Madeleine. They begin a romance, with Scottie attempting to mold Judy into Madeleine with simple changes such as a her hair color. But harrowing events lie ahead.
The score for Vertigo was written by the renowned Bernard Herrmann, best known for his work in Hitchcock films. It is his score for Vertigo that most often receives special recognition for its effectiveness in highlighting the suspense and tragic elements of the story. This was due in part to skills Herrmann learned while working for CBS radio.
According to a September 21, 2018 article titled “The Music of Suspense: Herrmann’s Vertigo Suite,” published by the Houston Symphony, “In radio, cues lasting only a few seconds were often necessary to create the illusion of movement in space or time between the scenes of a radio play, and Herrmann adapted this technique to cinema to great effect. Though he also wrote many unforgettable extended sequences of film music, his sensitive, less-is-more approach and respect for dialogue, sound effects and the power of silence would make him an ideal collaborator for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.”
Bernard Herrmann’s love of music began early in his childhood in New York City. Encouraged by his father, he soon began composing original compositions. He attended both NYU and Juilliard, and at the age of 20 he founded his own orchestra, New Chamber Orchestra of New York. His work was popular and through it he quickly became acquainted with the top musical talents in New York of the time.
In 1934, he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as a staff conductor. It was through his work there that he got to know a young Orson Welles. In 1940 Welles invited him to write the score for Citizen Kane, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. The following year he won an Oscar for his score to The Devil and Daniel Webster. From then on Herrmann became one of the most in-demand of Hollywood’s film composers. Although he collaborated with many directors, Herrmann is best remembered for his work with Hitchcock.
Sadly, Herrmann was overlooked by the Academy Awards for Vertigo. The film received only two Oscar nominations, for Best Art Direction and Best Sound, but won none.
Although received with mixed reviews at the time of its release, Vertigo has since gained recognition as one of Hitchcock’s finest. The score by Bernard Herrmann has also gained renown and is frequently played by symphonies around the world. Vertigo is a must-see for all classic movie fans.
This post is my contribution to the Bernard Herrmann Blogathon, sponsored by The Classic Movie Muse.