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Hitchcock’s Music
Hitchcock’s Music
Jack Sullivan
Yale University Press, 2006
384 pp., $40.00

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John H. McWhorter


Cue the Violin

Was Hitchcock a master in his use of music?

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It's no surprise that Jack Sullivan's Hitchcock's Music, has gotten so much press. The title alone gets anyone thinking about the most searingly memorable wedding of image and music ever filmed. Do I need to specify? The violin shrieks as Janet Leigh is knifed to death in the shower in Psycho.

However, one could reasonably ask what Sullivan was going to fill out the pages of his book with besides that scene. Hitchcock fans may think of the eerie theremin on the soundtrack in Spellbound; then the creeping triplet figure under the opening credits of Vertigo seems to have made a certain impression. But Sullivan is interested in more than these easy scores, as it were. Hitchcock's Music argues that Alfred Hitchcock was especially sensitive to music for a director, and that throughout his oeuvre, Hitchcock applied music in so studious a way as to render it a kind of character in itself.

Despite having always enjoyed Hitchcock, I had never been aware of this as a defining trait of his, and so I took Sullivan's book as an occasion to watch no fewer than 30 of Hitchcock's 50-odd films—that is, all of his films considered to have passed the test of time. (With the exception of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, I left out the twenty-and-change films he made in England before coming to America, most of which were forgettable programmers, with rather sparse music due to budgetary constraints, as Sullivan acknowledges.) And after approximately 72 hours—no, not continuous!—of soaking in Hitchcock's fusions of story and sound, I judge Sullivan's thesis to succeed only partly.

His argument reminds me of the historiography of Broadway musicals, in which a guiding theme is the emergence of the "integrated" musical: the songs propel the plot instead of stopping it short with snappy but narratively irrelevant "acts." Often, the biographer of a Broadway composer or composer/lyricist team labors under the notion that his subject was uniquely committed to this trend toward dramatic integration: the Gershwin brothers with Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing, Rodgers and Hart with early efforts like Chee-Chee, or later ones like On Your Toes with its narratively pertinent "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet, Jerome Kern and his collaborators with the Princess Theatre shows and Show Boat, and so on. Yet the truth is that between the wars, various composers converged upon the integrated musical idea, to such an extent that it became the default mode by the early Forties. Theatergoers during this period did not experience any one production as unprecedentedly integrated, regardless of modern chroniclers designating their favorite artists' shows as transformational keystones.

In this vein, Sullivan's descriptions of Hitchcock's music often imply something uniquely insightful on Hitchcock's part in techniques that were standard industry-wide. The techniques of timing, limning the ambiguity of characters' inner thoughts, interweaving themes, and so on that Sullivan describes were less conceptions driven by Hitchcock than the results of a communal development of the art of cinematic music from a period when at first there was none.

Yes, none. In early talkies, there was a conventional sense that music had to be realistic within the bounds of the narrative, such that if a sentimental tone was required for a scene, someone would turn on a radio, or an orchestra playing at a nightclub would suddenly fall into a pretty ballad. The idea of disembodied music just playing in the background seemed odd at first—and it still is, if you think about it. One can imagine an alternate universe in which music in American films was still sparse and "literal," just as in Europe, there never arose a tradition of animated film shorts featuring talking animals wearing gloves.

The Psycho scene is, to be sure, a quintessential culmination of the art of film music as it has become. Seeing it without music, as one can in a Bonus Features segment on the DVD, points this up exquisitely. But over the whole span of Hitchcock's career, the music in his films, while always and utterly professional, would hardly have motivated a book-length study on its own merits.

Make no mistake, there are wonderful musical touches throughout Hitchcock's output. The music for the titles of The Wrong Man is, on the surface, an anodyne bossa nova—but with a quiet touch of discord in one recurring stretch that tells you glum things are in store. In North By Northwest, the trenchant chords that stab the soundtrack whenever one of the pursued looks at Mount Rushmore, knowing that he or she can escape death only by rapelling down, are a perfect musical summation of acrophobia. In Suspicion, the "real" waltz music of an orchestra at a party propels Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant outside, gradually transforming into "abstract" ominous musings—certainly not what the orchestra inside is playing—as the characters come into conflict. Much of the soundtrack music for Marnie is plangently lush, which contrasts quizzically and, ultimately, bracingly with Tippi Hedren's contained, icy protagonist. Similarly in Frenzy, set in London, the music for the opening and for many early exterior shots is stately Elgaresque promenade, which clashes ironically with the grubby low-class goings on that the film will depict, and thus becomes in its way a mocking narrator.

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