Home > 100 Greatest Scores, Reviews > VERTIGO – Bernard Herrmann

VERTIGO – Bernard Herrmann

100 GREATEST SCORES OF ALL TIME

Original Review by Craig Lysy

Alfred Hitchcock had earlier taken notice of French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac but was frustrated in a failed bid to secure film rights to one of their novels. When they published their next book in 1954, “D’entre les Morts” (From Among The Dead), Hitchcock would not be denied and resolutely purchased the film rights. He was jubilant and prepared to finance, produce and direct the film, which was now a passion project. Writing the screenplay however was problematic. Hitchcock rejected the efforts of Maxwell Anderson and then Alec Coppel before accepting the 3rd and final version by Samuel Taylor. For his cast he chose his favorite Vera Miles for the role of Madeleine, however she had to drop out after becoming pregnant. When his second choice Lana Turner demanded too much money, Hitchcock turned to Kim Novak. James Stewart was chosen for the lead role of John “Scottie” Ferguson, with Barbara Bel Geddes as Margaret and Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster. When all was said and done Hitchcock related that both Stewart and Novak were miscast and the cause of the film’s poor reception.

The film stands as a classic Hollywood Film Noir, a romantic mystery and thriller now believed to be one of the finest films in Hitchcock’s canon. The story is told from the perspective of retired police investigator Scottie who has left the force after the tragic death of a fellow policeman. He suffers from acrophobia and vertigo as a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Well it comes to pass that his old friend Gavin hires him to investigate his wife Madeline who he believes in behaving oddly, and may be in danger. Well the investigation offers intrigue and unintended consequences as Scottie becomes obsessed and in love with Madeleine. Events spiral out of control as she plummets to her death from a bell tower in an apparent suicide. Yet everything is turned on its head when Scottie makes the grim discovery that a woman named Judy has impersonated Madeleine as part of a ruse to obscure her murder by Gavin. To complicate matters more, Judy confesses her love of Scottie and agrees to become Madeline have him. Scottie’s love allows him to conquer his acrophobia, but tragedy strikes when Judy is startled by a strange man in the bell tower and falls to her death. The film was a commercial failure, which Hitchcock and critics alike attribute to the miscasting of James Stewart. He at 49 was 25 years Kim Novak’s senor and it was felt that he was too old for a romantic lead. The film never the less secured two Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Sound.

Bernard Herrmann was the natural choice of Hitchcock given their successful collaboration on The Trouble With Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Of the eight films on which these two titans collaborated, Vertigo stands as Hitchcock’s supreme film, one that marked the apogee of his collaboration with Herrmann. Herrmann responded with what your author believes is a score for the ages, one marked by romantic obsession, isolation and the liberation of death. His prelude, perhaps the most dramatic film opening ever offered, provides a stunning example of music powerfully setting the tone of a film. For the score he provided five primary themes and three motifs including the Mystery Theme, which offers a four-note horn declaration of stunning power, but is also rendered in more subtle and mysterious forms. Madeline’s Theme offers complexity within its notes, a mysterioso with strains of an almost intangible romance bathed in darkness. Herrmann astutely captured her spirit, and we gain insight through the notes long before she speaks a word.

Carlotta’s Theme emotes as a seductive harbanera, adorned with overlapping harp glissandi woodwind triads, muted horns, and countered by oscillating statements by chromatic strings. The Valser Romantico supports the romance of Scottie and Madeline and is emoted with the classic rhythm and sensibilities of a waltz. There are two versions of this waltz, one, which speaks to Scottie’s love for Madeline, and one, which speaks of his love for ‘Madeline’ (Judy). For the Love Theme, Herrmann’s favorite classical piece, “Liebestod” by Wagner, was adapted with his own sensuous orchestrations for the 5-minute love scene, Scene de Amour, a cue filled with a powerful yearning and romantic longing. This theme is iconic and resides in the film score art Pantheon of great love themes. For the motifs, we have the Vertigo Motif with its ingenious in use of over lapping harp glissandi to inform us of Scottie’s vertigo. The Religious Motif is carried by an eerie electric organ, which is adorned with dark recurring string figures, and attended by grim bassoon. Lastly, we have the horn declared Death Chord, a grim and portentous motif, which accompanies or alludes to death.

“Prelude” presents a brilliant score highlight, and one of the greatest film openings in film score art, which offers a testament to Herrmann’s genius. As Saul Bass’ hypnotic design optics spiral with imagery that includes brief images of Madeleine’s eyes, so too does Herrmann’s music spiral in an endless cycle of oscillating, and alternating minor and major modal triplets assaulted with an unsettling and relentless crashing chordal tidal dissonance. Herrmann introduces nascent identities for several of his themes, swirling in a dissonant vortex mysterioso where illusion and obsession contest – an allusion to what will unfold. Twinkling celeste mesmerizes us as thundering horns declaration sound the four-note Mystery Theme. What unfolds in this dramatic opening statement is an astounding joining of strings, woodwinds, celeste, vibraphone and harp. Powerful horn chords sow terror and propel a stirring ascent by strings at 1:04, ushering in the nascent, and intangible Love Theme, which is unable to coalesce into a cogent statement. What is remarkable is that the recurring triplets unfold with a waltz like sensibility, which juxtaposes romance and the horror born by the horns. At 3:18 the roll of the credits end and we segue into “Rooftop” where we experience a dramatic shift in tempo, an accelerando carried by an ostinato by low register strings energico and dire horns feroce. The music carries Scottie’s roof top pursuit, which ends in tragedy – he fails a jump, clinging for life to gutter only to witness the death of his partner who loses his balance an falls while trying to save him. As he gazes down he experiences acrophobia born by a chilling Death Chord of dissonance joined by grotesque harp glissandi. The cue’s Golden Age finish is classic, closing with powerful timpani roll and a gong strike.

Returning from the flashback film opening, we see Scottie responding to a request to meet from his old friend Gavin. Gavin relates that something is wrong with his wife Madeline and that she is acting, strangely. He asks Scottie to investigate and solve the mystery of her behavior. Scottie is reluctant, but agrees. “Scotty Trails Madeline” offers a senary cue, which is multi scenic. It reveals his first observation, and then later his shadowing of Madeline in an attempt to gain insight, and a better understanding of her. Worth noting is Hitchcock’s genius, in that in each of the settings, there are associations with death, a subtle allusion, which portends her doom. We open with “Madeline’s First Appearance” where Gavin has asked Scotty to observe her that evening at a restaurant at which they will be dining. She is stunning in her beauty, and Herrmann introduces Madeline’s Theme, which is carried by lush strings romantico. There is complexity within its notes, a mysterioso with strains of romance bathed in an intangible and unfathomable mystery. Herrmann astutely captures her spirit, and we gain insight through the notes long before she speaks a word. At 1:22 we segue into “Madeline’s Car” as we see Scottie observing her depart a hotel. Her theme is emoted on strings as a mysterioso, which carries her progress and his pursuit. As she parks in and alley and enters a building Herrmann sows mystery with pulsing woodwinds, and a string ostinato. Repeating string figures, pizzicato strings and plaintive woodwinds join to create tension. At 3:06 lush violins emoting Madeline’s Theme introduce “The Flower Shop” where Scottie sees her purchase some flowers. At 3:49 harp glissandi usher in “The Alleyway” where we see Scottie depart and return to his car in the alleyway before Madeline exits the store. Low register string figures and a forlorn solo flute carry his pursuit. He again follows her car, and at 4:48 we segue into “The Mission” atop the Religious Motif with its eerie electric organ, dark recurring string figures, which are attended by grim bassoon. At 5:21 we segue into “Graveyard and Tombstone” where he observes Madeline standing in contemplation over a tombstone in the church graveyard. Her theme is carried by upper register violins, which are countered by low register bass clarinets. I found this juxtaposition mysterious and, unsettling. As she departs Scottie goes to the tombstone and discovers that it bears the name Carlotta Valdes, which Herrmann accentuates at 8:06 with dark orchestral utterances. In each of these scenes Herrmann successfully sows mystery and intrigue utilizing a minimalistic approach, which enhances Hitchcock’s narrative.

“Carlotta’s Portrait” is multi-scenic and offers classic Herrmanesque brilliance as he creates a wondrous mysterioso. Scottie follows Madeline to an art gallery, where we see her captivated by a painting of “Carlotta”. His detective acumen discerns that Carlotta and Madeline bear a striking resemblance, including hairstyle and identical flower bouquets. Herrmann supports the scene with Carlotta’s Theme, a mysterioso graced with the classic Castilian auras of the habanera. What is striking is that the habanera is emoted perpetuo, never resolving, ever repeating, a mesmerizing melody, which induces in Scottie at first captivation, and later, obsession. He follows her to a hotel where he discovers she has been renting a room under the name of Carlotta Valdes, but she somehow manages to elude him, deepening the mystery.

In “The Bay”, Scottie has discovered that Carlotta and Madeline are related, which explains their resemblance. It turns out that Carlotta was a tragic figure, Madeline’s great grandmother who suffered from depression, which lead to suicide. As Scottie follows Madeline through the Presidio to the bay, Herrmann supports their progress with interplay of her twinkling theme, and the habanera. As she reaches the bay, she slowly plucks the flowers from the bouquet and then drops them one by one into the cold waters. Herrmann bathes us in a truly sad rendering of her theme, which dissipates into the Habanera. Then, inexplicably at 1:49, Madeline throws herself into the cold waters. Herrmann supports the suicide attempt with sharp, descending chord strikes, countered by high register French horns figures, which achieve a horrific cacophony. Scottie comes to her recue, by jumping into the water to save her, and then taking her to his apartment. As he takes her to his car a plaintive rendering of her theme reprises. In “By the Fireside” recurring foreboding string and woodwind figures create mystery as Madeline sleeps. When she awakes from her sleep and moves to the fireplace to warm herself, she relates to Scottie that she has no recall of the events that lead her to fall into the bay, and also denies ever visiting the art gallery. A subtle and sad rendering of her theme carries the scene.

“The Forest” offers a scene where film narrative, cinematography and score achieve a sublime confluence. Scottie and Madeline agree to go for a stroll through the majestic sequoia woodlands. In the film her theme carries their scenic drive, but this did not make the album. The Mystery Theme heralds their arrival at the forest and establishes the mood for what is to follow. As Madeline expresses her feelings regarding life and death, Herrmann bathes us in shifting minimalist auras, which perfectly support her narrative and the verdant forest beauty. Later as she disappears from sight amidst the trees, Herrmann sows mystery and unease with an ethereal rendering of the Religious Motif. In “The Beach” we bear witness to one of the score’s most powerful emotional moments. Madeline confides to Scottie her vision of walking down a long corridor, which ends in an imperceptible darkness – yet another allusion to death. Herrmann supports the scene with diffuse, descending string mysterioso figures bearing fragments of her theme. As she further explains her visions, low register woodwinds and diffuse string figures underpin her words. At 2:22 tremolo strings ascend as Scottie and Madeline at last surrender to passion. Their emotional release is emoted by a stirring and passionate major modal crescendo upon her theme as waves crash behind them.

“The Dream” reveals Madeline in torment as she rushes to Scottie’s apartment. She relates to him her fear of the recurring dream, in which she describes a bell tower in a Spanish village. Scottie recognizes her description as that of the local Mission of San Juan Batista and convinces her to join him in visiting it, as he believes the resolution of the dream lies there. Herrmann supports the scene with the Carlotta’s Theme as a mysterioso, the Habanera now adorned with harp and chromatic strings. In “Farewell and The Tower” we come to one of the score’s finest and most powerful moments. Scottie and Madeline arrive at the mission and park in the livery stable on its grounds. Herrmann sows disquiet and mystery with recurring string and woodwind figures. We see Madeline once again succumb to her recurring waking state dream, which portends her death. She is clearly unsettled and turns to Scottie to express her undying love for him, which Herrmann supports with the Mystery Theme, now rendered as a stirring valzer romantico, which joins with the Love Theme, culminating in a dramatic and sublime confluence. Yet the moment is shattered at 4:10 by Madeline’s sudden flight up the stairs of the bell tower. As Scottie follows, low register strings energico, dire horns feroce and over lapping harp glissandi join in a horrific reprise the ostinato first heard in the Prelude to carry his progress, replete with the dissonant Death Chord, which informs us his acrophobia, and portends death. Tragically he is too late, and he watches in horror as Madeline plummets to her death. We conclude with a dire horn declarations and a diminuendo of pain as we see in Scottie’s eyes, his complete devastation.

In “The Nightmare and Dawn” we are offered another powerful score highlight, with just astounding writing by Herrmann. Scottie is judged by the court to not be responsible for Madeline’s death and the Love Theme supports his visit to her grave. Later as he sleeps we see that Madeline’s suicide has exacerbated Scottie’s PTSD, resulting in a nervous breakdown. He now suffers from a recurring nightmare with images of flowers, Carlotta, and falling through Carlotta’s grave into abysmal blackness. Herrmann supports Scottie’s tortured illness with a truly grotesque rendering of the Habanera Theme punctuated with the dissonant Death Chord. Midge, his former fiancée visits him, but is unable to rouse him back to reality. At 2:28 she departs, full of regret, never to return. Her departure is carried by a painful low register string dirge of regret. Later at 3:00 as we see a wondrous panorama of the San Francisco skyline, refulgent strings adorned with harp resound and crescendo upon quotations of the Love Theme as Scottie is finally well enough for release from the sanitarium. Tragically he reengages life, but not the present, but rather, the past as his obsession for Madeline drives him to seek out a facsimile. He finds his new ‘Madeline’ in the form of Judy, who bears a striking resemblance.

“The Letter” offers a stunning revelation to the audience through a letter written by Judy. We discover from this letter that Judy is Madeline! She relates her part in a conspiracy with Gavin to murder his wife. Her part was to make Scottie fall in love with her and lead him to the tower, depending on Gavin’s calculation that his acrophobia would prevent him from rushing up the tower after he throws his wife over the edge. She confides that she did not anticipate falling in love with Scottie and is now conflicted as to whether she should flee or continue the romance/deception with Scottie. She tears up the letter and cast her fate with love. How Herrmann supports this scene is masterful. We reprise the tower scene, but now with the missing footage of the murder by Gavin. The dramatic music from the Rooftop chase again drives the very intense scene. As conflicted Judy muses with the letter, we have a joining of the string line from the Habanera and a subtle rendering of the valser romantico. When she decides to cast her lot with love, the waltz blossoms for a lush statement.

“Goodnight and The Park” offers another testament to Herrmann’s mastery of his craft. The scene reveals Scottie and Judy dating, but it is apparent that they are in love with different people – she with him, but he with Madeline. This film narrative brings about exquisite tragedy, which Herrmann underpins with exceptional insight. He supports the dining scene with a sad rendering of the valser romantico, which flows into a statement of the Love Theme. At 2:24 we segue into a scene change to the next day. We see the two strolling through the park, and we bear witness to a beautiful new waltz, which is also romantic in its articulation. What we observe in both scenes is that the romantic melodies never culminate thus informing us that Scottie’s obsession with Madeline dooms Judy’s hope of fulfillment. For each of Hitchcock’s films Herrmann took his oblique detached imagery and provided music, which spoke to the emotional dynamics of the narrative and hidden emotional drivers of the characters. These two scenes offer a classic example of how Herrmann enhanced Hitchcock’s storytelling.

“Scene d’Amour” offers the score’s emotional apogee, a brilliant piece, which forever echoes through time as one of the finest examples of film score art ever written by the hand of man. Judy realizes that for her to win Scottie’s heart, she must accede to his wish to become Madeline. This requires a physical transformation from a makeover at a beauty salon. As he waits in the apartment for her to return the Love Theme begins with an anticipatory longing. When she arrives, her hair is not pulled back and Scotties begs her to pull her hair back as did Madeline to complete the transformation. She agrees and goes inside the bathroom. At 2:14 as he waits, quivering strings begin a stirring ascent as we see a desperate longing in Scottie’s eyes. The strings build and build to an ardent crescendo of passion at 2:52 as Madeline enters reborn, and slowly walks to his yearning embrace. As they embrace we see some remarkable filming – Hitchcock circles the couple with the camera and offers a surreal background of imagery from Scottie’s past where Madeline dwells. Herrmann speaks to this powerful imagery with a full and unabashed rendering of his iconic Love Theme. He found inspiration for this piece from his favorite classical piece, “Liebestod” (Life-Death) by Wagner, which he adapted with his own sensuous orchestrations. The synergy of film and music here is transcendent as we are overcome by the imagery and Herrmann’s evocative score, which abounds with a powerful yearning and romantic longing. Please note how the piece concludes with a statement of finality, not hopefulness as Herrmann informs us that this love will never be consummated.

In “The Necklace, The Return and Finale” we have a revelation as Judy asks Scottie to attach a necklace, one that he instantly recognizes as belonging to both Madeline, and Carlotta before her. Herrmann informs us of Scottie’s recognition with interplay of the Habenera and Mystery Themes. The necklace precipitates an epiphany for Scottie who realizes Judy’s complicity in Madeline’s murder. He takes Judy to the mission, declaring to her “One final thing I have to do, and I’ll be free of the past.” Recurring chromatic strings and fluttering woodwinds carry their journey to the mission, ending with their arrival. As they ascend the tower stairs a wounded rendering of the valser romantic carries their progress, replete with portentous statements of the Death Chord. When they reach the top, he confronts her angrily as he exposes the ugliness of her foul deed. Dark and ominous woodwinds sow his contempt, but the Love Theme returns as first he, and then Judy confess their undying her love. They embrace, and as the Love Theme crescendos its melodic flow is severed by the Religious Motif, which supports the appearance of a nun who startles Judy, precipitating her stumble and fall to her death. The crushing devastation and finality of the Death Chord resounds to mark her death. As Scottie looks down on her dead, broken body, he realizes that he is cured of his acrophobia and vertigo, but tragically he pays a heavy cost, as he has again lost his beloved Madeline. A final wounded rendering of the Love Theme closes the film tragically upon a crescendo of pain, which culminates with a flourish.

Please allow me to offer a heartfelt thank you to Robert Townson for this magnificent re-recording of Bernard Herrmann’s masterpiece, Vertigo. The conducting under the masterful baton of Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra provides a superb rendering of Herrmann’s masterwork with pristine audio quality. Herrmann understood that Hitchcock’s films always took the perspective of a third party observer, one that was detached from the narrative, yet never the less were vehicles of expressing his latent fears. As such he composed music that fleshed out the passion, romance and psychology of Hitchcock’s oblique narratives, thus making his films whole. In my judgment Vertigo stands as the pinnacle of their collaboration offering one of the finest examples of film narrative, cinematography and musical synergy in cinematic art. The musical five themes Herrmann created perfectly provided the mystery, intrigue and romance of the story, as well as fleshing out Hitchcock’s characters, and their complicated emotional drivers. His powerful and dramatic Prologue, which opens the film, and iconic Love Theme are legend, enduring testaments to his genius. Vertigo is one of the finest scores ever written, and a classic from the late Golden Age. I highly recommend you add this superb re-recording to your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link for the powerful “Prologue and Rooftop” cue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJPTw5uW1KM

Buy the Vertigo soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude and Rooftop (4:35)
  • Scotty Trails Madeline [Madeline’s First Appearance/Madeline’s Car/The Flower Shop/The Alleyway/The Mission/Graveyard/Tombstone] (8:22)
  • Carlotta’s Portrait (2:34)
  • The Bay (3:08)
  • By the Fireside (3:39)
  • The Forest (3:25)
  • The Beach (3:27)
  • The Dream (2:42)
  • Farewell and The Tower (6:42)
  • The Nightmare and Dawn (4:10)
  • The Letter (3:53)
  • Goodnight and The Park (3:08)
  • Scene d’Amour (5:09)
  • The Necklace, The Return and Finale (7:47)

Running Time: 62 minutes 41 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-5600 (1958/1995)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Joel McNeely. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. July 3, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Another great review Craig.

  2. July 15, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Hi Craig, unfortunately, the video link you posted is for a video that is no longer available. Might I suggest this rendition of the ‘Scene d’Amour’ as an alternative: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyoPshuNzDg

  3. July 16, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    Greetings! I know this is somewhat off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website?
    I’m getting tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers
    and I’m looking at options for another platform.

    I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

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