October 19, 2006

Herrmann's Vertiginous Vision

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The side of a woman’s face appears amid a deep darkness, while, on the soundtrack, dreadful crashes of dissonance interrupt propulsive circles of thirds. The ambience is exotic, the audiovisual landscape hypnotizing, the mood powerfully unsettling. Before the opening credits are over, we know that this is in a class of its own.
Not all the critics have felt that way. Time magazine trashed Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as “another Hitchcock-and-bull story” when it was released in 1958. Fortunately, the judgment of time has been kinder than the judgment of Time. Vertigo is widely regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and a 2002 Sight and Sound poll of international critics selected the film as the second greatest movie ever made.
But the movie would not be half of what it is without the voluptuous soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, perhaps the greatest film score of all time. Beginning with the stark arpeggios of the movie’s famous title sequence, the music transports the viewer to a surreal emotional universe in which the primal chaos and tragedy of the human condition are most fully and terribly manifest.
Vertigo is one of those movies in which all the elements of the film – script, acting, cinematography, soundtrack – are completely fused into one artistic whole. James Stewart plays a charming retired cop who falls inordinately in love with a woman, with hideous results. Stewart was the embodiment of all-American virtue and charisma, and his disintegration into a gaping freak with an epic erotic obsession is one of the most unsettling spectacles that cinema has ever given us – and is all the more unsettling for the music that furnishes the harrowing emotional undercurrent of the story, giving voice to the demonic passions that writhe and simmer in the soul of the hero.
As Scottie (Stewart) first glimpses the object of his obsession in a restaurant, the lush radiance of the music softly, and then with gathering intensity, underscores the velvety opulence of the restaurant and the sensual intensity of Scottie’s newfound infatuation. Scottie trails the woman, Madeleine. A subdued Spanish rhythm gives a cryptic, mesmerizing quality to Madeleine’s mysterious meanderings. The plot deepens and darkens. A shrieking horn glissando announces Madeleine’s attempted-suicide jump into the San Francisco Bay. Later she goes with Scottie to a great redwood forest, where freakishly clustered chords and the eerie shimmer of an electronic organ evoke mortal terror amid the somber grandeur of the primeval trees. Then the music soars as the scene moves to a wilderness even more primeval — the eternal ocean, thundering against the shore in its aeonic motion while Scottie and Madeleine in the foreground play out the ephemeral drama of human passion.
Herrmann pulls out all the stops for the climactic “Scene D’Amour,” a sumptuous aural feast of delirious melody, shimmering and resplendent, recalling Wagner in its lavish romanticism, a triumphant cascade of ecstasy before the final cataclysm. A fateful fanfare announces the end of the pitiful drama. The man is ruined. We, the audience, are free to go. But the haunting power of Vertigo remains, and the soundtrack — a great, sublime score, from a passionate genius of American music — will echo for ages, an inseparable part of one of the greatest films, and a tremendous piece of orchestral music in its own right.