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CLASSICAL  September 2007

CLASSICAL September 2007

Subject:

Musical Hitch

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 24 Sep 2007 08:43:49 -0700

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Hitchcock's Music

Jack Sullivan.
New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006. 354 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0-300-11050-0

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 *un*dressing 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, Rozsa, 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.

Steve Schwartz

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