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The Guardian (20/Jan/2007) - A menacing buzz

(c) The Guardian (20/Jan/2007)

A menacing buzz

Steven Poole enjoys Hitchcock's Music, Jack Sullivan's fascinating study of the great director's relationships with his composers

The most famous moment of film music in history was nearly mute. Beginning post-production on Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock instructed his composer, Bernard Herrmann: "Do what you like, but only one thing I ask of you: please write nothing for the murder in the shower. That must be without music." Herrmann mused, and scored the scene anyway. After seeing it with music, Hitchcock changed his mind, responding imperturbably to Herrmann's reminder of his original instruction: "Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion." Hitchcock, who had been so pessimistic about Psycho's prospects that he was considering cutting it up for television, now knew he had something special on his hands.

It's a revealing anecdote precisely because, as Jack Sullivan's wonderful book shows, Hitchcock normally had such fine musical instincts. If he could not imagine what Herrmann would do for the shower scene, it was because nobody could. Those eldritch, shrieking string glissandi, Sullivan reports, had viewers convinced that they had heard electronic synthesizers and "screaming birds" where none existed. Herrmann's extraordinary music throughout - composed for strings only: as the composer put it, a "black-and-white" score for a black-and-white film - demonstrated, as Sullivan notes aptly, "that audiences love modern music as long as it is in a movie".

Hitchcock's original decision for Psycho is understandable, given that he had previously shown himself a masterful exploiter of silence. It had been a brilliant stroke, for instance, to use no music for the celebrated crop-duster sequence in North by Northwest, an otherwise music-drenched movie. The exclusive use of naturalistic sound-effects, dominated by the malign buzz and roar of the aircraft, contributes much to the almost unbearable, paradoxical claustrophobia of the open-air scene. Only when the plane hits the truck and explodes does Hitchcock release the aural tension with a brassily sardonic, swinging mini-fanfare from Herrmann. As Sullivan rightly says, for Hitchcock "a rest could be as significant as a note".

Especially convincing is Sullivan's argument throughout that, having learned his trade in "silent film", Hitchcock's later movies constantly aspired to that pure condition. Not the condition of literal silence - for "silent films" are, of course, misnamed: they were almost always projected with musical accompaniment - but the condition of "pure cinema", of image and music working contrapuntally together. In a way Hitchcock, who famously disdained "photographs of people talking", used the new resource of dialogue merely to set up and provide excuses for moments where the talking was over and the danse macabre could begin. In that sense it is not an exaggeration for Sullivan to call The Man Who Knew Too Much (in both versions) a "symphonic thriller"; and Herrmann described his overture for North by Northwest in explicitly terpsichorean terms: "The crazy dance about to take place between Cary Grant and the world."

Sullivan, endlessly curious of ear, does not merely cherry-pick everyone's favourite seven or eight Hitchcock movie scores, but carefully analyses the music in all of them: consideration of the curio Waltzes from Vienna, or the almost subliminal, atonal electronica for The Birds, lends nuance and depth to his larger arguments. By the end he has thoroughly justified his opening gambit: "One cannot fully understand Hitchcock's movies without facing his music. Music is an alternate language in Hitchcock, sounding his characters' unconscious thoughts as it engages our own."

In evidence, the author has also dug up illuminating documents ranging from handwritten pages of score, to Hitchcock's own musical notes, to exasperated memos from producers. Providing comic relief through one long period is the mogul David O Selznick, who berates Hitchcock's "goddamn jigsaw-cutting", and demands to know "how many violins" were playing in Miklos Rosza's glorious score for Spellbound ("You need that music to give Gregory Peck some emotion," one wag later commented). On learning the answer, Selznick demanded a re-recording to match the number of fiddlers used in Rebecca. (Rosza happily complied, but doubted Selznick could tell the difference.)

Hitchcock worked with many superb composers - Rosza, Franz Waxman, Arthur Benjamin, Henry Stafford, and a young John Williams - to whose work Sullivan devotes detailed and subtle attention. (Hitchcock even tried to enlist the services of Dmitri Shostakovich for Topaz.) But the star among them is Herrmann, who had scored Citizen Kane and who is constantly prefigured here throughout the earlier chapters: he is nixed for one project after a sound engineer refers darkly to his "musical independence". Herrmann arrives in 1955 to begin a celebrated nine-year collaboration that peaks in the astonishing triptych of Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. (It is a lovely, humanising detail to learn that Herrmann dreamed of running an English pub, "until someone told him you actually had to open and close at certain hours".)

The melancholy story of the catastrophic break-up between the two men is handled by Sullivan in a highly detailed account that is sympathetic to both. For Torn Curtain, Hitchcock was being pressured by the studio to provide a poppy, 1960s beat soundtrack. Herrmann wrote to him that he would be "delighted to compose a vigorous beat score" for the film, and then turned around to begin writing music for a surreal ensemble that included 12 "terrifying" flutes and massed low strings. Fresh from his Psycho triumph, Herrmann perhaps hoped that he could push Hitchcock in the right direction again. Hitchcock, on the other hand, no longer had the confidence to resist the philistine directives of his studio bosses, and he fired the composer. Sullivan speculates reasonably on undercurrents of jealousy and authorial rivalry between the two men. Hitchcock had said that Psycho owed "33%" of its power to the music: if anything, that was an underestimate.

As Sullivan expertly shows throughout, Hitchcock's relationships with his composers were so passionate - and thus often so troubled - because the director was himself so intoxicated by and knowledgable about music. A crucially illuminating passage reveals that he even had, so to speak, his own musical Rosebud. The score from a 20s JM Barrie ghost drama that Hitchcock had seen in London became an obsession: for several films, he instigated unsuccessful searches for the long-lost music, by Norman O'Neill. Hitchcock "was especially struck by 'the Call' connected with the heroine's disappearance, an effect produced by bagpipes and 'wordless voices' sounded from a musical saw," Sullivan writes. "He remembered it as 'celestial voices, like Debussy's 'Sirenes'."

So, too, many Hitchcock characters are obsessed by a piece of music that often becomes a clue to the drama, as in The Thirty-Nine Steps or Shadow of a Doubt. And it cannot be a coincidence that so much of the music for Hitchcock films seems to be reaching towards an ideal of disembodied, wordless voices - from Waxman's explicitly named "ghost orchestra", supplemented with electronics, for Rebecca, to Rosza's use of the spookily wailing Theremin in Spellbound (thus instigating a thousand genre-movie clichés), and Herrmann's phantom decadence for Vertigo, as well as his Psycho music, where the sirens become a choir of hideous Furies. These celestial voices have something to tell us, if we will listen.