Being a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan, I have watched Vertigo probably five times, and thought it is a good Hitchcock film, though not my favourite of his. I think the reason for this is because it’s such a heavy film, and I find it distressing and uncomfortable to watch John Ferguson (James Stewart) change Judy Barton’s (Kim Novak) appearance into what his former lover Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) used to look like. In one case, I focused only on the use of music, which was composed by Bernard Herrmann. The use of music is what I plan to write about in this paper. I noted down every time the music changed, was intensified, and when no music was included at all. I found that the music was mainly used to create suspense, to shock the audience, to create emotions within the audience, foreshadowing, to accompany scene changes, to reveal some of the emotions felt by the characters in the film, and tension between characters.
The music in the opening credits is very appropriate, and gives the audience a taste for how Hitchcock will be using louder and a different tone of note when something surprising occurs (when some of the titles appear). The audience is immediately expecting a very suspenseful movie. Hitchcock did at this time have a status as “the master of suspense”, and so his audience knew what to expect from his films.
Whenever there was a very suspenseful scene, music was used to emphasize this. This music was often very intense and made me almost prepare myself as I knew something exciting was about to happen. A good example of this is when John is running, trying to catch up with Madeline in the Mission San Juan Bautista. When she first starts running towards the Mission, the music builds up, but when John enters and can’t see her, the music quiets down. When he sees her starting to run up the tower, the music starts up again. As he runs after her the music keeps building in intensity. Whenever he looks down and the dolly zoom effect is used (this involves a zoom out or in of the camera combined with the effect of pulling/pushing the camera from/towards the action), the music climaxes, sounding almost like a scream. The dolly zoom, the music, and the fear on John Ferguson’s face all combine together to create a suspenseful and shocking moment for the audience. It can be said that the dramatic context, along with the music, are combined to create shock in this tense moment. Music is sometimes juxtaposed within the setting such as when John enters a Mission while we hear a church organ playing. Hitchcock makes a clear distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘suspense’ in an interview with François Truffaut: “Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised. [...] Let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it” (1985, p.73)
Hitchcock often uses music without the dramatic context to create suspense, and his use of music often turns out to be false alarms. Instances of this in Vertigo are when, for example, John follows Madeleine wherever she goes around San Francisco. There is one moment where Madeleine drives into a back alley, gets out of her car, and walks into a building. As John follows and exits his car the music has a beat that sounds like a heart. It is almost as if we’re listening to John’s heartbeat and that we can hear his growing tension as he walks toward the door. When he opens the door, instead of aloud noise, the music turns into a soft, romantic melody as we watch Madeleine in a flower shop. This is the same music that way playing the first time John saw Madeleine in the restaurant. Again the music works as an indicator as to what the characters are feeling, as John has romantic feelings towards Madeleine.
There are less exciting scenes such as those where John and Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) are having conversations. In these instances there is either no music at all, or soft classical music played in the background. Twice in scenes with John and Midge classical music is played. The first time occurs in the second scene of the film after the rooftop chase. The classical music in this scene with Midge is very quiet and relaxing, but John complains about it, saying that he’s having a dizzy spell because of it. Later, when Midge is visiting John in the mental hospital, she puts on a Mozart record for him to listen to because a woman in musical therapy recommended it for people in John’s situation. Midge says it’s “the broom that sweeps the cobwebs away.” He is melancholy and feels guilt resulting from the death of Madeleine. What surprises me is that she puts the music on even though she knows John doesn’t like that type of music. Perhaps this is an indicator that they are badly suited. There is only one more instance when there is use of diegetic music (music which is also heard by the characters in the film), and this occurs when John and Judy are out dancing.
In scenes such as when John is talking to an old college friend, or when he’s talking to the man in the bookstore, there is no music playing at all. This may be because Hitchcock wanted the audience to be able to hear everything being said in these scenes without being distracted by mood-music. Those scenes do contain very important information regarding the plot of the film.
I noticed how the music usually changed whenever there was a change of scene, becoming different by the use of adding different beats, more instruments, and/or becoming louder or quieter (in some cases turning off completely). Music often changed within the same scene too, becoming more or less intense, and even being turned completely off. In some instances it puzzled me, and I began to wonder why Hitchcock decided to stop and start the music at those exact moments. I will study this in the scene where John has saved Madeleine from drowning after she jumped into San Francisco Bay and they are in his apartment. At first there is slow music playing which stops completely when John answers the phone. He talks a little to Madeleine, and the music continues when he has closed the door on her room. As he watches her enter the same room as him, the romantic music now associated with Madeleine is heard, causing us to know what John feels for her, while also making us look at her in a more romantic way and as a romantic interest for John. From this moment the music softens and becomes quieter until it suddenly stops when Madeleine says “you’re terribly direct in your questions.” I believe that there are three reasons for this: 1. it indicates a contrast between John’s frame of mind and Madeleine’s; 2. it emphasizes John’s shock in response to Madeleine’s very direct (and correct) observation; and 3. it creates an opportunity for a larger shock when the music begins again very loudly when John realizes that she has left his apartment, and even louder when he sees that her clothes have gone from the kitchen. During the quiet section the audience may believe that she is beginning to suspect John of investigating her; the slow music would have been too relaxing to create an impression like that. In other words, the lack of music, when juxtaposed with the romantic music just before, creates suspense. Also, without the music there is more tension between them.
To conclude, I think the main purpose of the music in Vertigo is to create suspense and surprise for the audience. It creates suspense by having music communicate to the audience that something gripping is about to happen (though this is also sometimes used to portray false alarms). This device also creates a sense of foreshadowing of the action. Sometimes the music would also be turned off to create a tension between two characters, such as when John and Madeleine are in his apartment. The music used when trying to surprise the audience is often a higher pitch or the music suddenly becoming louder. Insight into the emotions of the characters (in particular John) was created by use of beats, almost making them sound like a heartbeat as John is about to enter a building he knows Madeleine is in, or when he sees Madeleine for the first time where romantic music is playing. Finally, the music often changes when the scene changes.
François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster 1985) p.73.