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FILM IN FOCUS

Discussing one classic film and its composer

 

Film In Focus No. 5:

VERTIGO

and

Bernard Herrmann

 

50th Anniversary
of the Hitchcock Classic

Fifty years ago, Alfred Hitchcock directed what is considered by many, including this writer, to be his most distinctive film. It starred James Stewart and Kim Novak, with an outstanding supporting cast, especially the wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes.

For the music score, Hitchcock once again chose Bernard Herrmann, who produced his fourth score for Hitch.

Writing about these two significant creators in their respective fields, Dan Auiler has written:

"Herrmann was Hitchcock's temperamental opposite. When he felt a musician or a fellow composer wasn't meeting his own standards of perfection, Herrmann was capable of flying into fits of rage. As the head of MGM's music department recalled to [Steven] Smith: 'I think Benny Herrmann committed suicide. Unwittingly; not with drugs, not with a pistol, but with a four-letter word called hate. I'm convinced that he filled his life with unneeded stress and tension.' But somehow, the artistic sensibilities of these two artists was enough to bridge emotional differences. Perhaps it was Herrmann's respect for Hitchcock's abilities as a film director. Perhaps it was Hitchcock's working style, which allowed fellow artists to work at their own pace and on their own, leaving Herrmann to contribute without confrontation."
-- VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC, 1998, pages 138-39.

When it was first released, many didn't understand the plot of VERTIGO and the critics didn't like it much either. Yet when I first watched it at my local movie palace back in 1958, I knew it was something special and Herrmann's score was a driving force that made the film so unforgettable. It has remained a favorite of mine ever since.

VERTIGO is a film and score that every film lover should savor like fine vintage wine. The film and music may go down smoothly at first sip but be careful for that kick at the end!

-- Roger Hall, 15 December 2008

 

 

 

 

Recommended CDs

 

There are two CDs of the soundtrack that are highly recommended.

First the original soundtrack, conducted by Muir Mathieson. Herrmann was angry because he was not allowed to conduct because of a labor dispute, as Dan Auiler reports it:

"Herrmann was never happy with the Mathieson recordings. At the time, [Herbert] Coleman wrote to the director of the Vienna orchestra that Hitchcock and Herrmann were happy with the results, although the letter hints that there may have been complaints -- among them a certain dissatisfaction 'about the heavy bowing sound from the strings.' But the letter goes on to assert that the that was exactly the effect Herrmann had been after...Later, though, Herrmann would contend that the recordings were sloppy and full of mistakes. Newly restored and re-released in 1996, the recording does reveal some sloppiness on the part of the musicians."

Even with the mistakes, this is still a most appealing original soundtrack recording:

VERTIGO (1958/ CD issue, 1996)

 

And you can compare the original soundtrack with the excellent re-recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely:

VERTIGO Re-Recording

 

 

Strangely, there was also a song written for the film but not by Herrmann. The song was written by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who had already received three Oscars, including one for a Hitchcock film, "Que Sera, Sera (What Will Be, Will Be)" from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956). Dan Auiler has written that --

"According to the songwriters, Hitchcock approached them for VERTIGO hoping that they would help familiarize audiences with the concept. 'Gentlemen, the studio thinks that no one knows what the word vertigo means,' Hitchcock explained to the team. 'But that's what my picture is about, and if you will write a song explaining what the the word vertigo means, it will help me a great deal.' They wrote the song -- with references to dizzying heights-- and recorded a demo. The team submitted their work, but may well have been relieved when Hitchcock decided not to use it. Paramount, on the other hand, was plugging the song on all the advance theater advertisements for VERTIGO; they couldn't have been happy about its demise."

Though the VERTIGO song was never used in the film, the sheet music is now a much sought after collector's item.

 

 

DVD and Book

 

There is a new 2 Disc Special Edition DVD of...

Vertigo (Universal Legacy Series)

VERTIGO (1958)

 

 

 

 

Film music historian Roger Hall talks about VERTIGO
and other film scores on a multimedia DVD.

To read more, go to:

A GUIDE TO FILM MUSIC

 

 

In 1996, The New York Film Critics Circle, which has been making awards since 1935, gave its "Most Distinguished Re-Issue" award to VERTIGO.

 

 

 

 

 

There are several books on the subject of VERTIGO but this one by Dan Auiler is the best choice. It includes a section devoted to Herrmann's brilliant score:

VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC

 

 

 

100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century

 

Bernard Herrmann composed one of his best scores for VERTIGO.

It is also considered perhaps Hitchcock's greatest film.

Herrmann's soundtrack is listed at number 3 on the list of...

100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century

 

 

See the list of favorite Herrmann film scores at

Bernard Herrmann: A Centennial Tribute

 

Also the article about Bernard Herrmann
and his early film scores, with a new addendum of CDs, at

Runmovies/ Soundtrack

 

 


 

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