Vertigo: Herrmann’s Use of Forms

by Matthew Raley

One of the visual abstractions we noticed in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was his evocation of famous paintings. We saw that his shot of Madeleine floating in the Bay alludes to the painting of Ophelia by Millais, and that references like this give an unconscious emotional atmosphere to the film.

Bernard Herrmann uses a similar abstraction in Vertigo‘s score. He refers to musical forms in a way that intensifies the cultural and psychological atmosphere. Two such references are important to the score’s role as co-narrator with the camera.

First, Herrmann employs a habanera rhythm in relation to Carlotta. The habanera was a Cuban dance that made its way to Spain in the 19th century, and thence to Europe, becoming famous through Georges Bizet’s Carmen. As a cultural artifact, the dance is associated not just with Hispanic atmosphere but also with seduction.

Second, Herrmann uses ecclesiastical forms in his cues at Mission Dolores. He draws the church modes into his harmonies, employing sighing motifs, and using a pipe organ.

Both references, which David Cooper calls “extraopus intertextuality,”[1] remain at some distance from their antecedents. They are not literal. No one dances a real habanera during a café floor show. Scottie doesn’t pass an organist on his way to the graveyard. By remaining abstract, these references allow one’s imagination to play at a less conscious level, and with profoundly ironic implications.

Yet another aspect of Vertigo’s intricacy.


[1] David Cooper, Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo: A Film Score Handbook, Film Score Guides (Westport  CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 65.

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