Notes on Vertigo at TIFF:40 with the TSO

September 24, 2015 | By

Vertigo_posterWhen the TIFF Bell Lightbox opened in 2010, part of the early programming included film presentations featuring live orchestras – a ridiculously expensive but wholly laudable effort to bring the unique experience of watching a film in tandem with a live score performance that’s usually tied to a gala event at a film festival, or something you hear other cities get to enjoy, but not mine.

I’ve written about the prior TBL screenings – of the many they scheduled, I caught Nyman with a Camera, Metropolis, Greed, and The Passion of Joan of Arc – but screening Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a live performance of Bernard Herrmann’s 63 minute score by the TSO is something more unique.

Not to take away from the aforementioned screenings, this is Bernard Herrmann live, so to speak, and Herrmann being a holy composer, not to mention my top favourite (alongside Jerry Goldsmith, Hugo Friedhofer), to have missed what’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity would’ve driven me crazy. (Note: special thanks to Joe for getting swell tickets!)

In his introduction, TIFF bigwig Piers Handling said this event was part of a personal dream, and it’s perhaps a sign of the festival, the city, and the TSO’s maturity in being able to not only make such an event possible, but pull it off without barely any hitches.

Roy Thompson Hall isn’t the place to screen a film – maybe half of the auditorium has to be sectioned off for the suspended film screen, and the seating is really to hear music not get maximum exposure for a film’s visual artistry – but it mostly works. The cubist speaker chandelier is fine for dialogue, but its functionality makes any live music seem bigger, more robust – aided by the wood planking in the orchestra pit where I sat with a friend.

Technical issues were isolated to the film and its soundtrack: the DCP had some strobing issues whenever there were lateral or tilting camera movements (perhaps the result of a misconverted frame rate, like 30 knocked down to 24); the audio crackled at some hot spots early into the screening; and not every fade-up of dialogue and sound effects was flawless (the hiss in the forest scene between Scotty and Madeline was very pronounced).

Performance-wise, the TSO was flawless. It was a near-perfect rendition of a score that I’ve listened to many times, for a film I saw first theatrically when Universal negotiated the distribution of 5 Hitchcock films that had been out of circulation for more than 25 years: Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertitgo (1958).

I caught each film with my dad at the old Don Mills Cinemas, a 2-screen complex that was ultimately bulldozed after it was gutted for a Bally’s health club that never happened.


I know. Bad LP cover featuring a woman never seen in the film, and imagery that makes no sense. Is it about a four-headed Jessica Tandy lookalike who ‘only wants to touch’?

Vertigo wouldn’t leave my mind, nor did the visuals, and I can’t recall if I bought the album before or after the screening, but Herrmann’s music was still in print on a Mercury reissue that housed maybe 35 mins. of score.

After leaving the Don Mills Cinema, I couldn’t get the music nor my emotions tied to the characters and story out of head for 3 days. It felt like being smacked by a truck, walking in a daze, and not sure exactly what had transpired. Which is strange, because I’d seen many Hitchcock films, but this one was the most unique in his canon. With the exception of some British films, most of the silents, and Under Capricorn (1949), I’ve seen the bulk of his roughly 55 feature film output, which is still an impressive body of work.

Vertigo is an art film, made by an artist who played down his craft perhaps because he knew being a prima donna under a studio contract or as a freelance was dangerous, and Hitchcock made Vertigo at perhaps the most ideal time in his career.

It was a critical dud, and yet he had a TV series, a line of mystery books, and North by Northwest (1959) in the pipeline, so whatever personal sadness he may have felt for the film’s dismal reception, he had enough on the go to move forward and be insulated from career death.

What’s interesting is that while he was at this stage branded the Master of Suspense, a reign he enjoyed for most of his career (which reportedly made Fritz Lange quite jealous), artistry would eventually be replaced by complacency, coupled with disappointment 5 years later.

After NBNW came Psycho (1960), then The Birds (1962), and then Hitch seemed to be hit with an identity crisis: the TV show had been on for a while, the books had no connection to him, and he fell into a peculiar state of complacency. Some theorized Hitchcock was made too wealthy with MCA stock, feeling less of an impetus to take risks.

Vertigo was a shock to critics and could’ve been career blow, whereas NBNW was pure fun that everyone lapped up with giddy delight; Psycho wasn’t a mega hit but it did push the envelope in implied screen violence and grisly double-entendres. It also had no hit song and featured a score comprised of strings. Herrmann was a significant co-author of the film’s success, and that didn’t sit too well with Hitchcock in later years.

The Birds was another populist shocker, if not a rare early eco-shocker that was preceded by another rare effort, Byron Haskin’s killer ant film The Naked Jungle (1954). Unlike fifties and early sixties B-movies, nuclear bombs weren’t the root cause of massing birds, but some aberration that was suddenly pitting nature against mankind with relentless energy.

Marnie_posterThen came Marnie (1964), and that’s where things snapped. The ice cold blonde was put through the usual routine of confused identity, sexual issues, Freudian / pop psychology interrogations between hero and lover, and finale where unlike Vertigo, the couple find common ground to heal and co-exist (although never mind the hero also assaults Marnie in the film’s most singularly bizarre scene).

The elements that worked so smoothly in the dreamy, haunting, horribly tragic Vertigo were re-appropriated somewhat in Marnie, resulting in a dud, even though it too benefitted from a ravishing score by Herrmann.

One critical quote attributed to MCA brass was that Herrmann’s music was ‘lazy and derivative,’ and yet like Vertigo, it was a perfect fit – matching the eruptions and forced suppressions of emotions and sexual urges of a kleptomaniac, a thief, and a liar (Marnie) and the wealthy businessman (Mark Rutland) who’s determined to help her break out of the dazed life that will ultimately destroy her. Rutland’s stance is a sense of obligation: one day she’ll be caught by someone less nice, and being already enmeshed in her psychosis and thievery (and in ‘love’), he’s obligated to stop and ‘fix’ her.

Just as Rutland uses word association to pick apart Marnie’s damaged memories and find buried truth, Scotty takes Madeline’s patchy nightmares and shows her every icon in her nightmares is tied to something that exists. He’s also become obliged to save her from further damage, and like Rutland, wants to fix her.

The same happens in NBNW where Roger realizes he’s in deep with suave, bourbon drinking, scumbag killers, but he has to save the pretty blonde before she too becomes a disposable utensil.

In each of these films, Herrmann’s music is given generous screen time, but the music is still sparingly applied because the composer knew when silence worked best. You don’t score the famous cropdusting sequence with music, you slam the audience with a fandango when the plane crashes into an oil truck and explodes. And when Mitch’s mother discovers a friend dead and eyeless in his farm’s household, there’s neither music nor a scream but the trail of road dust rising up to the sky as Hitchcock holds on a wide shot as Lydia Brenner drives ferociously across the screen.

Psycho’s shower murder is scored, but prior to the slashing knife music are eerie cues that establish unease as Norman Bates peers at Marion Crane through a peephole. The strings are watery, stirring about and ready to swirl, but instead of a surge of notes, Herrmann applies the opposite: shrill killing music. What follows isn’t silence or music that captures the ugliness of a cadaver, but music for the horror Norman Bates experiences in having to hurriedly clean up the murder scene while thoroughly disgusted by the mess made by ‘mother.’

I’ve said that if I were on a deserted island, I’d have to have Psycho’s music because the colours within that masterwork are always enlightening and riveting. The celli in Vertigo (and Passion of Joan of Arc, for that matter) are guaranteed to make me cry, but in Psycho, there’s stirring vibrato, fat tones, layers of intense sound, and swirling metaphors: in one particular cue, a gulping bass just jumps up from the bowels of the hotel.

Vertigo ‘live’ wasn’t about the film per se, but the music and seeing what instruments performed the sounds I knew so well. You had violin and violas up front to the left, celli and string bass to the right, brass in the rear, plus vibes, percussion, harp, and Herrmann’s most iconic instrument: the bass clarinet (two of ‘em).

It was also about hearing nuances not always visible on LP or CD recordings. There were a few passages where Herrmann created a brief blur of sounds with strings drifting away from their locked play; it was like getting close to riptide and swimming away before it pulls you under.

The natural follow-up for the TSO would be Herrmann’s Psycho. It has to happen, especially now that the orchestra’s shown it’s very adept at performing his work. (I’d just better not be working on that night.)

Vertifo_HitchAfter the concert, Kim Novak (whose returned to her first love, painting) engaged in a brief Q&A with Handling, offering some anecdotes: Harry Cohn’s reluctance to loan out Novak for what he felt was a weak script; working with Jimmy Stewart was “like putting on the most comfortable pair of morning slippers… so cozy and comfortable”; and some defensive words in favour of Hitchcock, who’s been often described as a kind of robust, wry, obsessed weirdo:

“I’ve got to defend that man… He was an upright man was very much in love with his plump sweet wife. Alfred Hitchcock was a decent human being. He was an artist. A very fine artist.”

Rather than view Vertigo as the work of a man obsessed with ice cool blondes, one can also assess the film as an impossible romantic dream coming to life, and the repercussions of chasing after the unattainable. The other blonde dramas tended to feature blondes saved by the dashing (or in NBNW, bumbling) man, but in Vertigo it’s a parable of what happens when you chase a dream as reality: you go mad.

(One can argue Psycho’s first blonde dies, nuking the happy ending, but Marion Crane’s sister Lila develops a friendship with and is seeded with a potential romance with her sister’s lover Sam. You know they’re going to become a couple not long after Marion’s six feet under.)

Birds_Hedren_Hitch_sIf anecdotes within Donald Spoto’s biography The Dark Side of Genius (1983) is added to the mix, Hitchcock’s firm grasp of reality became a little loose when the line blurred between the characterization of his impossible blonde archetype, and actress Tippi Hedren, who was cast to play the central blondes in The Birds and Marnie.

In both films, Hedren’s characters start off confident, but after the upheaval of a brutal bird attack and a full confrontation of bad memories, she’s rendered mute, struggling to walk, and in need of serious shrink work. Only at the end in Marnie does the character speak, and her final words – ‘What’ll I do?’- ensure the man (arguably Hitchcock’s filmic alter ego) will forever be responsible for her future. It’s the dark Hitchcockian finale to an impossible romance that’s filled with dented psycho-sexual subtext.

After Marnie, Hitchcock never achieved the same creative success, except with Frenzy (1972), a film that showed a great agile filmmaker shooting on location a grim tale of murder, featuring stellar kill scenes, his usual ‘innocent man thrust into extraordinary circumstances’ archetype, and an almost diabolical, darkly comedic script.


Yup, this happens in Frenzy. Grotesque, isn’t it?

Frenzy is brilliant, and a bonafide comeback film; it’s full of energy and ugly subject matter that’s handled with a dry directorial hand. There’s no swearing or gore, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness which is something Hitchcock knew how to handle with discretion, and once in a while smack the audience with a little grotesquerie.

How Herrmann would’ve fared scoring Hitch’s later films would make an interesting essay, because the rift that severed their professional and personal relationships after Torn Curtain (in 1966 the composer and his music were dismissed and replaced) also pushed the director into a state of maybe not confusion, but a greater search for stories and characters that he could fashion into another mystery.

Herrmann lost his greatest collaborator, but found some amazing opportunities in scoring Ray Harryhausen fantasy films in the sixties (Jason and the Argonauts, Mysterious Island, The Three Worlds of Gulliver), plus he wrote exceptional music for Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and The Bride Wore Black (1968).

Their professional marriage – one dry and peculiar, the other combustible and alienating – would likely have ended at some point, either due to the quality of Hitch’s chosen subjects (Herrmann wouldn’t have been able to save Topaz nor Family Plot), or a basic need for change. The break in heavy scoring assignments gave the composer time to reassess his work, and produce a series of great albums for Decca featuring his own work, and those of composers he championed.

Not unlike Otto Preminger or Stanley Kramer, it’s tough to keep directing, but even tougher when the studios have less faith in veteran directors whose peak period was often tied to works that were ideal for their time. They may have been able to direct great works at the end of their lives – witness John Huston (Annie and Phobia excepted) – but the Hollywood system isn’t geared to give room to older directors unless they deliver blockbusters (and even then, there’s the ongoing battle against ageism).

I can’t recall the exact source, so I’m working from memory, but there was excitement among the ULCA and NYU film school brats when Herrmann was scoring Sisters (1973), It’s Alive (1974), Obsession (1976), and Taxi Driver (1976). They knew who he was – a legend – and they would’ve been his new patron saints for a career chapter that would’ve been rich. Herrmann felt he was onto something new with Taxi Driver, using aspects of jazz in a grim tale about a loser who puts peach brandy on his cereal. The violence didn’t seem to phase him, nor did the director’s camera and editing style – proof that as an artist, Herrmann could create when the subject matter was as innovative as Psycho, if not an art film like Vertigo.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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