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Book Review

Hitchcock's Music

Hitchcock's Music
Jack Sullivan
New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006. 354 pp
ISBN: 0300110502
ISBN 13: 978-0300110500
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Words for music.

A lovely bit of gravy came from reading this book: it made me want to watch Hitchcock movies again. Hitchcock lies in our minds, a bit like Shakespeare. That is, we think, "Sure, he's great," but we don't seek him out all that often. We take him for granted as part of our usual mental furniture, like the table in the formal dining room we walk past and never sit at. In the past few years, I've had North by Northwest and Lifeboat come my way on cable, and passed them up. And yet I think of North by Northwest as a perfect movie. So right now, I'm looking at Strangers on a Train and, after that, Vertigo.

We think of Hitchcock primarily as a visual director because of all those wonderful set pieces: the jazz drummer in Young and Innocent, the shower scene in Psycho, the rooftop chase in Vertigo, among many, many others. After all, Hitchcock is a product of the silent era, influenced by both Eisenstein and the German Expressionists, where one routinely finds that type of virtuoso caprice – the awakening lion, the Odessa steps sequence, just about every scene in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the creation of the treacherous robot in Metropolis. But Hitchcock, accustomed to the structuralist thinking of montage, expanded it to sound, including music. I used to think that the consistently terrific scores in his movies a bonus – the product of the director's good taste, of course – but nevertheless a happy accident.

Sullivan, however, has taught me different. In fact, I learned quite a lot from this book. By no means a film scholar, I'd describe myself instead as a movie fan, not even a buff. So I probably still have a lot to learn.

Among other things, Sullivan shows how precise, even obsessed, Hitchcock was with the "sound design" of his movies. Almost every one of his films has detailed notes about music and sound-effects. Indeed, he made very little functional distinction between either. Music to him was another sound-effect. However, he did discriminate between sound and dialogue. In general, he disliked dialogue for the movies. "Photographs of people talking" was how he put it. He wanted to tell his story visually and musically. However, he was, as with everything else, determined to get as good dialogue as he could. His movies, even the early ones, have dated almost not at all in their dialogue. Even the less-good ones, like Topaz and Torn Curtain, have scenes it wouldn't surprise you to find in a really brilliant screenplay today.

If he didn't actually invent the modern soundtrack, Hitchcock was the first to exploit its possibilities fully. Ahead of his time, he distinguished among source music (music that arises from the players and props in the scene – a radio, for example), underscore (what we normally think of as movie music that supports a scene), sound-effects, and silence, especially silence. Hitchcock's silences are powerful. One thinks of the murder of the East German police agent in a clunker like Torn Curtain, to me one of the three best scenes in the movie, and one of the best in all of Hitchcock. Of the other elements, Hitchcock liked underscore the least and often called for "inappropriate" underscoring – music at odds with the mood of the scene: a light little fox-trot just before a brutal rape and murder in Blackmail!, "The Band Played On" signature for the psychopathic Bruno in Strangers on a Train, for example. He favored "counterpoint" over "synchronization" with the ostensible scene, thus layering the drama with irony and ambiguity. He came up with sound experiments. Rope, famous, of course, as the "anti-montage" film, gets rid of underscoring altogether in favor of a pianist murderer who plays Poulenc. All of the music is source music, an aesthetic taken up by film composers like David Shire decades later. Same with Rear Window. Still, Hitchcock could push underscoring to its limit, as in the museum scene or the dressing scene of Kim Novak in Vertigo (as Hitchcock put it, the undressing scene). All music; no dialogue, no sound effects. As the director said to Bernard Herrmann, "We'll have just the camera and you." The most radical of these soundtracks is probably The Birds – all sound-effects, electronically manipulated. Indeed, it's an electronic score in a commercial movie not about outer space. For me, it's still the boldest soundtrack of all.

Normally, however, Hitchcock saw these elements as fluid, one blending into the other, giving a kind of ambivalence. Underscoring routinely blends into sound effects (meticulously described by the director in his music notes) and vice versa. Underscore drops off a cliff into complete silence. In both versions of the Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much, source music (the "Storm Clouds" Cantata) becomes underscoring, even an essential character in the scene.

Furthermore, music assumes many symbolic functions in the canon. It can be seen as an essential plot element, as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, the key to the mystery, as in The Lady Vanishes, the sign of healing and breakdown, as in Rear Window, Stage Fright, and Young and Innocent, the mark of character and its lack, as in Saboteur. In the last, love of classical music – "good taste" – comes from the blind pianist, Philip, and from the criminal mastermind Tobin. Hitchcock sees music as essentially healing, but recognizes that a villain can pervert it to evil use, to cover up an assassination, for example.

I admire Sullivan immensely. He does the hard thing: a readable book, full of close analysis. He creates a sensibility you enjoy spending time with, in non-pedantic prose. Sullivan details the ins and outs of how extremely complex sound-schemes support and comment upon the dramatic and psychological action, fixing the subtleties that I as a casual movie-goer accept and absorb subconsciously. He's particularly good in Shadow of a Doubt, another of my recent rentals. Furthermore, none of his analysis gets truly technical, musically speaking. He points out what anyone can hear. Best of all, he makes you eager to watch these films again. He deals with all of Hitchcock you've seen and a lot of the Hitchcock you haven't. Indeed, a seminal work turns out to come from the British period, Waltzes from Vienna (about Strauss and the "Blue Danube" Waltz), something I've never ever heard of but which I now really want to watch.

Hitchcock often compared himself to a composer and a conductor, although he lacked any practical musical talent or formal musical education. He did have, however, a tremendously detailed and powerful aural imagination and an open mind. He used not only symphonic, but pop, avant-garde, and jazz idioms – just about everything except, in spots, rock. How many film directors knew about Frederic Delius in 1942 (used as source music in Saboteur)? How many ordered recordings of Boulez and Stockhausen for their own listening? He worked with just about every great film scorer in the business: Arthur Benjamin, Richard Addinsell, and Louis Levy in England, Rózsa, Waxman, Tiomkin, Roy Webb, Maurice Jarre, and (at the very end) John Williams in Hollywood. Even though some never got chosen (Richard Rodney Bennett, Benjamin Frankel, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, for example), every top-flight film composer wanted to work with him. In almost every case, they produced their best work for him. The collaboration with Bernard Herrmann is arguably the greatest in the history of film. Its only two serious rivals seem to me Eisenstein and Prokofiev, and Olivier and Walton. This isn't really luck.

Sadly, the book show signs of the sloppy editing, by now common in serious books. Arthur, not Walter, Benjamin is the British composer of the "Storm Clouds" cantata, to cite just one example. And this is Yale University Press, after all. Bad show, Yale.

Copyright © 2007 by Steve Schwartz.