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  • Writer's pictureEsther Bae

Hollywood Golden Age Master Bernard Herrman on 'Vertigo'

One of Alfred Hitchcock's classics 'Vertigo' is frequently mentioned when it comes to 'greatest film of all time' lists. It is impossible to talk about the legend of Alfred Hitchcock without his famous collaborator Bernard Herrman. I created the following Q&A to look into Bernard Herrman's secrets in 'Vertigo' score and the film itself.

1. What are some important points about Bernard Herrman's career?

Herrman is an acclaimed collaborator with classical filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells. His work with Hitchcock includes Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). He has also scored all-time classics such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Taxi Driver (1976).

2. Was the music for this film well written and conceived?

Yes. The beauty of Hitchcock's films is to have a great deal of tension and surprise along with heartbreaking romance. Vertigo achieved this goal through Herrman's scores that mostly have suspenseful, dark tones with a bit of romantic timbre here and there.

3. How are the music related to the film title 'Vertigo'?

As the film touches so many aspects of our lives, Vertigo can seem to represent people's flaw that traps us sometimes. The score has the famous 'Vertigo' chord which creates a feeling of dizziness. It uses a lot of ostinatos with glissandos that perfectly fit spiral images in the movie. I think the opening credits are the best example of creating this musical effect. Strings and harps play an ostinato that moves and up and down. Along with the graphic images, the ostinato begins to sound circling and brass plays lower notes that start with forte and quickly disappears. This generates a feeling of dizziness and falling at the same time.

4. Let's talk about music during Scottie and Madeleine's kiss

The scene at the beach where Scottie and Madeleine kiss for the first time has music that ends with a strong musical cadence, which means a musical resolution. The cadence comes back when Scottie kisses Judy after he finds her. The first cadence gives a celebration of thier love in spite of their difficult situations. When the cadence comes back, Scottie kisses Judy who is actually the same person that he kissed before. The score follows as Scottie changes his feeling.

5. Which scene from the film that is of particular interest to you and why?

I would pick the museum scene that has a mysterious tone. Scotties begins to find out there are some connections between Carlotta and Madeleine at the museum. As Scottie secretly watches Madeleine from behind, the music plays thirds with pedal tone. The repetitive rhythm and chromatic movement perfectly describe Scottie's confusing state. It is also quiet and soft, compared to the same motive that comes later for the nightmare. It successfully delivers the uncertainty and mystery of the story.

6. If you were the composer of this film, is there anything that you would do differently?

I would have written motives that are darker and more creepy. I think Herrman did exceptionally well in terms of adding a romantic quality to the film. The movie has suspense all over the place, which makes it very hard to balance between tension and romance. Herrman did a terrific job.



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