Film: Vertigo (1958)
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Summary: A retired detective becomes obsessed with the wife of a friend when he witnesses some strange activity while following her.
The Moment: The opening scene of this classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller sees a criminal on the run on the rooftops as a uniformed police officer and San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) give chase. With the dark city skyline and the famous Golden Gate Bridge silhouetted in the background, the three run from right to left as the officer fires and misses twice. Then there is a dramatic leap from one roof to another, the latter a steep, red tiled crown with a rickety rain gutter at its base.T he criminal easily makes the jump and heads off with the cop stumbling before getting across. Next is Scottie, who misses the mark and loses his footing, slipping down and left scrambling for the gutter. Hanging there eight stories above the ground, he looks down and we see that the detective suffers from vertigo and acrophobia, causing him to freeze in fear. His partner returns and attempts to rescue the detective, telling him to reach for his hand, but the police officer slips and plummets to his ghastly death far below.
Score Cut: Appropriately called “Roof-top”, the musical cue was originally named Prelude and Roof-top in the 1958 release before being split in further editions. Watch the clip and listen carefully to the music.
Why The Music Matters
Dan Says: Stirring strings lead to a close-up reveal of gripping white knuckles. The camera zooms out as brass booms, revealing more and more, as a rooftop chase kicks off. The music builds momentum, creating a lot of bombastic tension to the pursuit. Once our hero nearly falls and his vertigo kicks in, the score really adds to the anxiety. Hitchcock pulls the zoom, with a freaky distending background – a shot Spike Lee and others would borrow in their art. The music here has an inhale and exhale effect, building more dread with each gasp, as our hero hangs on for dear life. Because of the impressionable camerawork and provocative score you really get a strong sense of the fear of heights.
NERD ALERT: I’m thinking this scene was homaged by the Wachowskis in The Matrix. From what I can remember about the score, the camera angles, and actions are fairly similar. The score builds in the same way, and the action with Trinity sees her rooftop chase it from shooting baddies while leaping across buildings. Seriously. I’ve got to see if this is a thing. What do you guys think?
David Says: From those riveting opening strings, which echo the rise of the climbers going up the ladder, there is a surprising amount of tension created only by the score. The swirling music already begins to feel a bit dizzy and gives the listener a kind of expectation for something to come. Herrmann paces the build-up nicely. Notice how when each figure gets up and off the ladder, there is a punch of the horns, which is then accentuated by the officers gunshots, which, if not watching, feels like it’s part of the music. There is no change in the music until it is Scottie who is unable to make the leap and left dangling high above and then it becomes about the deeper horns and we hear the now famous shrills horns and flowing harp that have come to represent this very predicament. The rise and fall of the horns adds great power to the already terrifying scene and marks a theme for Scottie’s mental condition for the remainder of the film.