Column: Slicing Score: Vertigo (1958)

By Maria Mitchell

Vertigo_SoundtrackVertigo (1958). Soundtrack composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann.

Director Alfred Hitchcock was known for employing the use of MacGuffins in his films. MacGuffins were plot devices that held the audience’s attention, but had little to do with the actual story. They were devices intended to distract the audience from the film’s real conclusion. This bait-and-switch technique of Hitch’s is what makes many of his films convoluted and interesting. Vertigo is a film that made use of a particularly emotional MacGuffin: one man’s lost love. Detective Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) is hired by an old friend, Gavin, to trail Gavin’s wife, Madeline. Gavin fears that Madeline has become obsessed with the tragic death of her relative, Carlotta. Gavin believes that the same suicidal impulses that drove Carlotta to end her life may now be resonating in Madeline.

In reality, this story has nothing to do with ghosts, possession, or suicide. This is a story about fear of the everyday unknown. Vertigo needs no demons and abandoned gothic manors in the desolate countryside to create its atmosphere of tension in the bright daylight of bustling San Francisco. As someone who has worked in and lived near San Francisco for most of my life, I appreciate the moody use of the city’s brightly lit arenas and crowded streets to evoke isolation and confusion. It is a crowded city that still feels sterile and isolated. If a composer’s job is to create a believable landscape, then composer Bernard Herrmann certainly had his work cut out for him in creating the score to Vertigo because he had to create a landscape that juxtaposed harsh reality and dreamlike paranoia.

After Madeline’s supposed death, Scotty declines into a depression. The music is overly sentimental during these scenes. It seems that Herrmann was making a point about the absurdity of indulging in useless, emotional guilt. Scotty wants Madeline to be alive and he will recapture her ghost in any context he can.

The most famous suite from Vertigo‘s score is when Scotty transforms the ordinary actress, Judy, into the sophisticated, ethereal Madeline by buying her a grey suit, cutting and dying her hair icy blonde, and finally instructing her to pin it up in the kind of bun Madeline wore. When Judy returns and Scotty sees her, she is neither herself, nor Madeline, anymore. The music swells so loud and so overly-romantic as to become almost stupid. This is intentional. The music is accompanying the re-birth of a character that never existed in the first place. Scotty has successfully re-birthed his illusion. An illusion is something better left dead.

Where does the affliction of vertigo figure in all of this? The concept of acrophobia (fear of heights), on first viewing of Vertigo, looks like it might be the MacGuffin of the film. Acrophobia has everything to do with the film, however. It is the source of Scotty’s guilt and the reason why he thinks he was not fit to protect Madeline. Acrophobia is what he thinks has robbed him of his life. The opening suite to Vertigo elicits the sound of a frenzied descent from a dizzying height. This theme, coupled with a harsh brass conclusion, will re-enter the picture every time Scotty is confronted with this fear.

The next most prevalent theme in Vertigo‘s score is the contemplative woodwind theme that is cued every time Scotty is deep in thought, trying to figure something out or trying to recall something. The cue that made the most use of this theme is when Scotty sees the new “Madeline” put on the necklace that was the same necklace that Gavin’s wife owned. The necklace is the thread that undoes the plot before Scotty’s eyes and the music is the winding thread of memory that leads him back to reality.

The strings are the star of Vertigo‘s score; for those recognizing Bernard Herrmann’s name, that should be no surprise. Herrmann was often director Alfred Hitchcock’s first choice in composers for his films. Two years after Vertigo, Herrmann would compose the Hitchcockian score that would solidify his immortality in film music: Psycho. The iconic strings of Psycho are perhaps the most recognizable musical cue in the world. Vertigo, however, is a more complex score in its dragging suites that are both beautiful and oppressive. This suits the film well since oppressive beauty is one of its main themes. Scotty has been duped into believing Madeline is about to commit suicide over a depression and Gavin has hired him to operate like Madeline’s bodyguard. In reality, Gavin has killed his wife and hired Judy to play her so Scotty will be a perfect witness to her “suicide”.

Dreamlike, strange, eerie, and sentimental is the score to Vertigo, though I would maintain that it is a muted score. It is dramatic, but implies weakness rather than strength, and this is intentional on Herrmann’s part since the film’s foundation is rooted in a weakness: the weakness of acrophobia that Scotty suffers. This is what the film’s real focus is: not the love story but the story of the inescapable fear that every person carries.

Vertigo’s soundtrack is available through

Maria Mitchell is a writer of dark fiction who reviews film scores that pulse with a beat to match.