New Series: Hitchcock’s and Herrmann’s Vertigo

by Matthew Raley

This month, the British Film Institute’s journal Sight and Sound announced the results of its poll of film critics, distributors, and academics asking, “What is the greatest film of all time?” For the last 50 years, the answer has been Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But this year, the 846 panel members chose Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

This is one more in a series of critical reevaluations over the last couple of decades that has saved Vertigo from the cool response to its release, from relative obscurity, and even from the ravages of physical decay in Paramount’s vaults.

Bernard Herrmann

But there is something these two films have in common, which makes this poll a vindication for one artist in particular. The scores for both of the top films were composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), the brilliant and belligerent composer who worked with almost all the major directors of his time.

Why did Vertigo have trouble gaining critical and popular acceptance?

One reason may be that its plot turns on a coincidence. Scottie Ferguson fails to save Madeleine Elster from suicidal obsession. After Madeleine falls to her death, the lovesick Scottie stumbles on another woman, Judy Barton, who reminds him of Madeleine. He makes Judy over to look like her, only to discover that, in fact, she is Madeleine—the fraudulent Madeleine he loved. The happenstance of seeing Judy enables him to solve the murder of the real Mrs. Elster.

In outline the scenario seems, to say the least, contrived.

In a series of posts, I will argue that Vertigo‘s plot is not as contrived as it may appear, and that the plot’s success is due in large measure to Herrmann’s status as co-narrator with the camera. Hitchcock and Herrmann, for both of whom this film was personally important, deserve the praise they are now receiving.

In the process of analyzing Vertigo, I will also be reflecting on matters of importance to Christians. Are films important spiritually, or are they just entertainment? How should a Christian interact with a film that conflicts with the biblical worldview — as almost all films do? Should films provide us only with examples of people who “do the right thing?”

I hope this series will not only influence the way you look at films, but also the way you listen to them.

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