The Sound of Falling: Bernard Herrmann’s Score for Vertigo.
Bring up Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958) in conversation to anyone who has seen it and you are bound to get one of two responses; complete and utter contempt over its baffling complexity or hyperbolic gushing over the film’s genius. Whatever your opinion of Vertigo, the film does have a lot of talking points. One of Vertigo’s most striking and memorable elements is Bernard Herrmann’s lush, predominantly string score. Using motifs (small phrases of melody or even just a few notes attributed to a character, object, and emotion etc.), Herrmann was able to imbue scenes that had little to no dialogue with meaning that might have otherwise been lost on the viewer.
Vertigo’s narrative concerns an ex-police detective, Scottie (James Stewart), who suffers from a condition known as acrophobia, or vertigo, which causes him to essentially lose his shit when he is even just a few feet off the ground. Scottie becomes obsessed with a woman called Madeline (Kim Novak) and is overcome with naughty thoughts that render him useless in much the same way that his vertigo does. The film, like many in the Hitchcock oeuvre, is essentially one big Freudian wet dream. If you show it to a Freudophile make sure you have towels.
The film’s memorable opening credit sequence with its close-ups of Kim Novak’s mouth and eyes and Saul Bass’ iconic spiral designs, is accompanied by Herrmann’s “Prelude” musical cue. “Prelude” functions as a microcosm of Scottie’s world in Vertigo in that it presents the themes that are central to Vertigo’s narrative. The cue opens with a rapid-paced ascending and descending figure that is repeated throughout and accented in such a way that it plays with the viewer/listener’s sense of musical expectation. At points in this figure the harmony is also jarring and in combination with its frantic movement, the overall effect is that one feels agitated and a sense of unease. The “Vertigo” figure is meant to function as the musical equivalent of a bout of Scottie’s vertigo and as Robin Wood, author of Hitchcock’s Films, notes, it also mirrors Scottie’s ambivalent neurosis in that he has “both a fear of falling and a desire to fall.”]
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