by Alex Ross
New York Times, October 6, 1996
Nearly four decades after its commercially indifferent first run, ''Vertigo'' has become the most widely celebrated of Alfred Hitchcock's films. It is prized not simply for its razor-sharp suspense technique but also for its air of mystery, its tragic dimension, its literary layering of memory and obsession. Scholars have compared it to Proust, ''Tristan und Isolde'' and the Orpheus myth; critics have voted it Hitchcock's masterpiece. Robert Harris and James Katz, the film restorers who previously revived ''Lawrence of Arabia'' and ''Spartacus,'' have completed the canonization by releasing ''Vertigo'' in a 70-millimeter, digital-sound version, which opens today (with a video to follow early next year).
It would be heresy to suggest that the greatness of ''Vertigo'' is owed to anyone but Hitchcock, whose fingerprints cover every aspect of the production. But there is a second genius at work in ''Vertigo,'' and his voice will be heard more clearly in the restoration. Mr. Harris and Mr. Katz refurbished not just the images but also the sound, bringing digital technology to bear on the Bernard Herrmann score, whose original tape turned up in a vault nearly intact. Herrmann was an absolute master of the strange art of film scoring, and in a career that stretched from ''Citizen Kane'' to ''Taxi Driver,'' the 1958 ''Vertigo'' was probably his peak.
How much, indeed, of this film's famous atmosphere is owed to Herrmann? Close your eyes and think of one sequence, and you may well remember Kim Novak's somnambulistic tour of San Francisco, from a chapel to a graveyard to a picture gallery. It is the music as much as the lighting and the filters that gives those scenes their eerie shimmer. None of which is to detract from Hitchcock's glory; he knew the nature of the talent he had engaged, and he created extraordinary opportunities for Herrmann to make his mark. ''Vertigo'' is a symphony for film and orchestra.
Herrmann was born in New York in 1911; he made his name first as a composer at CBS radio. He arrived in Hollywood with the young genius of the airwaves Orson Welles. His first effort at film scoring was ''Citizen Kane.'' Like Welles, he was viewed with intense suspicion by the film community; his life in Hollywood was fraught with difficulties, many of his own making. He was a passionate, irascible, unpredictable character who often treated film people with contempt. He wished more than anything else to make his name as a composer of concert music and a conductor on the international circuit.
If Herrmann thought himself a failure at the end -- he died in 1975 on the night of the last recording session of ''Taxi Driver'' -- then he sadly undervalued his achievement. Over four decades, he revolutionized movie scoring by abandoning the illustrative musical techniques that dominated Hollywood in the 1930's and imposing his own peculiar harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. In place of lush melodies, he wrote short, obsessively repeated figures, static collections of chords, parodies of past styles. The sound was original, even experimental, but also useful: it wonderfully matched Welles's electrifying fast style.
It took a while for Herrmann and Hitchcock to come together. The director tried many times to engage Herrmann before finally signing him for ''The Trouble With Harry,'' the first of nine collaborations. Hitchcock, too, had long been impatient with the busily illustrative type of score perfected by Central European emigres like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. While making ''Lifeboat,'' he was heard to complain that the audience would wonder where the music was coming from, out there in the middle of the ocean. (''Ask Hitchcock where the cameras come from,'' the composer David Raksin famously replied.)
Hitchcock was not deaf to music; he simply wanted to make its use more pointed. He always enjoyed experimenting with ''live'' sources for music on film. In ''Rope,'' for example, Farley Granger's guilt-ridden character nervously plays Poulenc at the piano. In ''Rear Window,'' a cocktail-piano sound streams in from an adjacent apartment. In Herrmann, Hitchcock found a composer whose music would blend into the action with the same uncanny directness, but now on a different level. Herrmann would address the unconscious regions, summon atmosphere and dread. Music would play its own starring role; at times, it would take over the action.
"Vertigo" fired Herrmann's imagination because its byzantine plot perfectly matched his Gothic sensibilities. A retired police detective afflicted by vertigo is hired to follow and protect a woman named Madeleine who seems to be suicidally possessed by a spirit from the 19th century. Although he discovers that she has been playacting as part of an elaborate murder plot, his intensifying obsession causes history to repeat itself in terrifying cycles. The scenario has resonances with any number of doom-drenched Romantic and Symbolist dramas. It also closely resembles an operatic model: ironically, Korngold's youthful masterpiece, ''Die Tote Stadt.'' (In that opera, too, a man tries to make over a woman in the image of his dead beloved.)
Right from the famous title sequence of ''Vertigo,'' we are in the presence of something marvelous. Saul Bass created a hypnotic design of spirals rotating in space, overlaid with a few uncanny shots of Kim Novak's eyes. The music rotates in tandem: endless circles of thirds, major and minor, interspersed with shuddering dissonances. Herrmann did not invent this off-center tonality; it was used often by Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Ravel. But the relentlessness is all Herrmann's. The music literally induces vertigo: it finds no acceptable tonal resolution and spirals back on itself. Herrmann has told us what the movie is about.
It cannot be said that Herrmann always understood perfectly what Hitchcock was getting at. In commenting later that Jimmy Stewart was too easygoing an actor to pull off the lead role of Scottie, he sorely misjudged both Mr. Stewart's skill and Hitchcock's master conception of the ordinary collapsing into madness. And in any case, it was Herrmann's job to help summon the extraordinary emotions of an ordinary man. He supplied Desire and Doom; he kept away from the early, extended stretches of dialogue in which Scottie's affable exterior is established, his mind not yet invaded by the icy, ghostly figure of Madeleine.
Indeed, Hitchcock significantly inserts ''live-on-camera'' music into two of the Herrmann-free scenes. As the film-music scholar Royal S. Brown points out in his invaluable book ''Overtones and Undertones,'' Scottie's bright, sensible ex-fiancee, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, is twice accompanied by background gramophone music: first an overture by J. C. Bach, then Mozart's Symphony No. 34. She tries to use Mozart as a therapeutic device, drawing Scottie back to the rational world. She also tries to win back his love. But he does not respond: Herrmann's music, which exclusively represents his deeper emotions, remains silent.
Compare these witty but emotionally static scenes with the long, 15-minute sequence in which Scottie trails the woman alleged to be Madeleine. The images are beautifully shrouded in a strange, foggy light, but they say relatively little by themselves. You see Scottie driving through the streets of San Francisco; Madeleine buying flowers; more driving; Madeleine walking through a chapel and a cemetery; driving again; Madeleine looking at a painting, and so forth. There are a couple of brief bits of dialogue as Scottie gathers information about the places he is visiting, but essentially ''Vertigo'' becomes a silent film.
Except, of course, for the music, which plays almost without a break and gives the whole sequence its air of ineffable mystery. What is going on is difficult to describe: Herrmann shifts fluidly but uneasily among a few simple, cryptic chords, augmentations of familiar triads. Wistful hints of melody circle back on themselves instead of building into thematic phrases. The orchestration is dominated by high or low instruments (notably, violins and bass clarinets). The sequence is profoundly eerie but also very beautiful: it is neither tonal nor dissonant.
This music of expectation, which also somehow communicates a visitation from the past, returns with ever-darkening effect several times later in the film. Herrmann moves into even more obscure territory in a scene where Scottie and Madeleine together visit a grove of giant sequoias. Here Herrmann writes ''cluster'' chords: piled-up collections of tones that would be shockingly dissonant if they were not shiveringly low and soft. It is a measure of Herrmann's venturesomeness that more than a few measures in this sequence could have been composed by the solitary American experimentalist Morton Feldman.
When Scottie declares his love for Madeleine (or Judy, as she comes to be known), Herrmann faces a very different challenge, which is to write love music circumscribed by destructive obsession. In the stretch of music entitled ''Scène d'amour,'' he turns to Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde'' as an example. One hears citations not only of the sweeping phrases of the ''Liebestod'' (''Love-Death'') but also of the savage leitmotif of daylight, the black-as-night Prelude to Act III and the delirious ecstasy of the central love scene.
Film composers are often accused of derivativeness. Their borrowings are sometimes shameless, although the time constraints of the Hollywood production schedule make certain shortcuts understandable. Herrmann's use of Wagner, however, is a matter of deliberation and subtlety. The main melodic contour is his own; the harmony is still his idiosyncratic construction. He is jogging the memory of those who know ''Tristan'' and the subconscious of those who don't. His veiled citations indicate in their own way the unstoppable recurrence of the past. Once again, the score is not an illustration of the film but a metaphor for it.
Herrmann's ''Scène d'amour'' also steers clear of sentimentality. Even at its most ecstatically upward-rushing, it is troubled by passing dissonances, undercut by harmonic rootlessness. All of it is the music of Scottie's mind, and this character is, in the last analysis, completely mad. Mr. Stewart delays that realization with all his practiced reasonableness; the final tableau atop the San Juan Bautista Mission tower is all the more stunning in its finality. Herrmann, steeped in Victorian melodrama, gets to write a fanfare for the triumph of Fate. With all dialogue finally out of the way, the whole orchestra rises to its feet to proclaim, ''This man is lost.''
The "Vertigo" score vastly enriches the images it accompanies, but it has also found a life outside the film. As an excellent complete recording on the Varèse Sarabande label testifies, it can be heard on its own terms -- if not quite as a coherent narrative, then as a mesmerizing succession of fragments. Herrmann is a puzzling paradox: most of his ''serious'' compositions don't quite come off, yet his film scores can be taken seriously as concert music. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the rigorously European-trained conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proves as much with a new Herrmann anthology on the Sony Classical label.
Alas, the original 1958 recording suffered from less than ideal conditions. Herrmann could not conduct it himself because of a musicians' strike; most of it was recorded in London, the rest in Vienna. The playing sometimes sounds ragged and murky, at least on current copies.
The restoration may tell a different story: Mr. Harris and Mr. Katz have discovered a clear original tape, partly in true stereo, and revamped the whole soundtrack in digital sound. Royal treatment indeed for a mere movie score -- but there is none greater than ''Vertigo.''