About this work
Vertigo is regarded by many as the greatest and most characteristic of Alfred Hitchcock's films. Scottie (James Stewart) is a San Francisco police detective who slips and nearly falls off a roof. A policeman who tries to rescue him falls to his death. Scottie then falls and is severely injured, but makes a full physical recovery; psychically, though, he is scarred by guilt over his partner's death and develops a severe fear of heights. In time, he agrees to help an old school friend who expresses concern that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), is falling into a hereditary pattern of suicidal madness. In long, achingly lonely silent sequences set against a beautiful San Francisco backdrop, Scottie follows the woman, piecing together the details of what clearly emerges as a fatal obsession with a tragic ancestor, Carlotta Valdez. None too surprisingly for a film by Hitchcock, monstrous deception and true evil lurk beneath it all.
Herrmann's lengthy and masterful score weaves together and energizes the film and, at times, provides the main narrative force. As Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, the harmonies and orchestration become richer, the pulse-beat underlying the scene stronger. At the same time, though, the heartbeat has a slightly broken effect, a hesitation that serves two purposes: i t both predicts the hopelessness that is Scottie's apparent fate and develops into a Spanish rhythm that portrays Madeleine's obsession with the tragic figure of Carlotta. Scottie's love theme, the "Carlotta" rhythm, and a third motive, the "vertigo" effect, provide the main musical material for the score. The first of these is a long, lonely theme on the violins which seemingly avoids assuming a definite shape. The second is a bizarre, violent fandango with a harsh descending line in half-steps, representing a descent into madness. The powerful "vertigo" motive is dizzying in the way it ascends and descends through two major and minor chords at the same time.
The concert suite that Herrmann drew from the score comprises three sections, each based on the most characteristic form of the three motives noted above. The composer's genius for depicting inner drama is revealed here as never before, and his score, though immensely satisfying as "pure" music, provides a striking object lesson in just how effective film music can be in the hands of so capable a craftsman.