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the Vertigo of love

I have been ruminating on this piece.

Rewatching the film.

Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

And it occurs to me that Bernard Herrmann’s music was truly indispensable.

That late-romantic palette…Mahler…Richard Strauss…Wagner…early Schoenberg.

Herrmann’s musical materials are largely drawn from the death of tonal music.

The “common practice period” in Europe was pulling apart.

At the end of the 19th century.

And the beginning of the 20th.

The famous “Tristan chord”…that half-diminished 7th…indeed, the piece which heralded modernity’s birth:  Tristan und Isolde.

Bernard Herrmann is able to evoke the longing of love with his music for Vertigo.

Falling, wistful motifs.

These practices date back at least to J.S. Bach.

Text painting (or word painting).

But now it’s shot painting (or movement painting).

And yet the dialogue is still a part of this gumbo.

It’s just not sung (as it would be in a Bach cantata).

But Tristan und Isolde seems to be the main touchstone for Herrmann’s soundtrack.

The Wagnerian brass is evident from the opening titles.

But let’s switch gears slightly.

To Olivier Messiaen.

Messiaen once said (and I paraphrase), “Love is like a feeling of dizziness.”

That quote sums up Vertigo more than anything I know.

And Messiaen elaborated on this by composing his Turangalîla-Symphonie (considered by some to be his masterpiece).

Turangalila’s translation (from Sanskrit) is roughly, “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death.”

That very much describes the bizarre adventure which Jimmy Stewart has in Hitchcock’s film.

Dizzy.  Weightless.

The Lissajous curves in the opening titles.

Spinning.  Approaching.

Kim Novak’s eyeballs like planets…with spinning hurricanes clouding her vision.

Or a direct view into her soul.

But let’s get one thing straight:  it is Stewart who suffers for love.

In the quack house.

The shock.

Mute.  Unable to speak.


Unresponsive even to close friends.

A heavy depression.

Love heavily, hurt heavily.

I been there.

But the process…it started with Stewart tailing Madeleine (on her husband’s orders).

A private eye job.

And something about those hills of San Francisco.

And Bernard Herrmann’s impressionistic music.

It could even be Pelléas et Mélisande.

We get the feeling from the music that he is falling…deeper and deeper into something dangerous…and dark.

But he is drawn.

The die has been cast.

He is no longer in control.

Like a magnet pulled by another of its kind.

And so we look to Vertigo for answers.

Of all the Hitchcock films, none has this haze of mystery about it.

A bit metaphysical.  A metaphysical false-flag.

But always that music which lulls you over the next hill…or into the bay.

And then there is the flute.  And those martial rhythms which evoke Spanish Colonialism.

As the forensic detective tries to make sense of what appears to be a woman possessed.

And time is always ticking on Stewart’s good Samaritan act.

As the echoes of paso dobles are ever insistent upon FATE.

Which brings us finally to Beethoven.

And the quest for perfection.

For this, we must bring our auteur (Alfred Hitchcock) to center stage.

I would maintain that Hitchcock’s “trilogy” (his three best films) should contain the films Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.

The first is perfect.  Though it does not necessarily lend itself to multiple viewings.

The second is overlong.  Yet it is a masterpiece all the same.

The third is the most enjoyable.  And the film I come back to the most (of these three).

1954, 1958, 1959.  These three years are the high points for me…regarding Hitchcock.


It might be said that Beethoven’s symphonies are the most “Hollywood” of all the forms in which he composed.

His string quartets, for instance, would be more akin to art films.

But let’s look at the early symphonies.

And just three.

Symphony 1 in C Major.  It starts with ingenuity, but it is largely a ripoff of Mozart and Haydn.  UNTIL THE FOURTH MOVEMENT.  So Beethoven was showing signs of greatness (though they were faint).  It’s possible to think of his first symphony as Vertigo (though 7 or 9 would probably be more representative).

In any case, Symphony 2 was in D Major.  One whole step higher.  Again, it is mostly an aping of Mozart and Haydn.  EXCEPT THE LAST MOVEMENT.  The final movement begins with a shriek which should shortly pull all this together.  And so his second symphony could be thought of as North by Northwest (though I think 5 would fit better).

And then Beethoven sells his soul to the Devil.

Or he puts it all together.

But his Symphony 3, in Eb Major (again up a step, but only a half step this time), is like a completely new composer.  It’s shocking.  Liberating.  It is as close to rock and roll as could be heard in 1805.  And it fits the next film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre (if only in the spirit of boldness)…a film which I have yet to review on this site:  Psycho.

Funny enough, there is probably no Beethoven symphony which matches Psycho better than the 3rd (except, perhaps, for the 5th) [or the 7th].

But I have hardly talked about love.

And I wish that I could.

But I’m like that catatonic Stewart.

I’m making little strides every day.


Beethoven (obviously).

Once upon a time, a friend and I listened to all nine Beethoven symphonies in one day.

It takes most of the day.

And you end up questioning your sanity after such an exercise.

It’s a bit like “hanging out” with a person all day…sightseeing…while playing an odd theoretical version of “the quiet game”.

That is also really a mind fuck!

But now I am like little Jimmy Stewart (if not Little Jimmy Dickens).

I’m just waiting on love to come down my road.

And I’ll gladly go out to meet it.

But every day, just planting and tilling.

In the weatherless brain.

Every day with my nose to the grindstone.

Turning corn into cornflower.

And making the tortillas of knowledge.

Every day walking to school…uphill both ways.

And carrying the water from the pump.

Milking the books and lugging the buckets.

Every night hoping, looking in the mirror, that my time hasn’t passed.

And simultaneously thanking God for all the blessings which have filled my long life so far.

Good morning or good evening, wherever you are, my friends 🙂


4 responses to “the Vertigo of love

  1. Excellent Post Paul,
    Like you Vertigo , Rear Window and North By North west are my favourite Hitchcock Films but I love Vertigo the best wasn’t Jimmy Stewart lucky to be paired with an actress like Kim Novack she is excellent in the Film but we must not forget Barabara Bel geddes who provides a useful Foil and in the Re mastered Film there is the abstracted Images of him falling . The colour photography is amazing. Brilliant Cinematic images some of the Best in the world. As I commented before I loved the san Francisco streets the Bridge, the scenes in the Bookshop all Brilliant Hitchcockian stuff. Laurencex

  2. You have a beautiful soul, Paul. A real and transparent person.

    I drafted an essay on Vertigo several years ago that I hope to finish at some point. I was intrigued by the plot motif of a man finding renewed identity in rescuing a woman.

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