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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As it happens, three of those five examples, which I chose at random, turn out to be from scores that Bernard Herrmann wrote. What truly motivates a study of "Hitchcock's music" is Herrmann's work, which struck me half of my life ago when I first saw about a dozen of the films, despite being unaware of Herrmann's reputation. Psycho, then, is natually Herrmann; another useful exercise is to watch, on DVD, the opening of Torn Curtain with Herrmann's scoring, and then with the music of John Addison, who replaced Herrmann after he and Hitchcock had a permanent falling out. With Herrmann's music you know you're in good hands: for Torn Curtain he had a clutch of twelve flutes twittering fiercely in dense, ominous harmonies over an orchestra that included eight double basses and nine trombones. With Addison's syrupy score—when Paul Newman lets Julie Andrews know that he is not, as she supposed, a traitor to the United States, the orchestra points this up with purple surges from the string section—we might as well be watching Magnificent Obsession.

But Herrmann actually only wrote seven scores for Hitchcock, all in the late Fifties and early Sixties. That leaves a lot of films, and one problem Sullivan has to dance around is that, however professional or even artistic the scores of many of the earlier American ones were, Hitchcock himself often found them too schmaltzy. Rebecca was an example: the obsessive producer David Selznick insisted on almost wall-to-wall music, including rising strings to signify passion and so on. Hitchcock's Forties scores are full of this kind of thing: as a kindly blind old man does a sentimental solilioquy in Saboteur, the orchestra creeps in with noble-sounding music; the strings surge and shimmer as Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck embrace in Spellbound. Such scoring was par for the course at the time, and hence no blot on Hitchcock's genius, but neither can these films be adduced as meaningful evidence of a distinctive gift for marrying music to story.

Sullivan, one senses, intends an argument that, even if bounded by limitations of fashion, Hitchcock was especially masterful in getting the most out of the scores for his films. But this is persuasive only if we willfully forget what the state of the art was for film scoring when Sullivan discusses a particular film. From Sullivan's presentation one might almost forget that Max Steiner and Erich Korngold existed, for example. It is also unclear to me that composers who worked with Hitchcock came up with scores distinctly more artful than their normal standard. For example, is Alfred Newman's work on All About Eve really small potatoes compared to his work on Hitchcock's also-ran Foreign Correspondent?

Another questionable argument is that the singing and playing of music had an unusual pride of place in Hitchcock's films. Okay, Hitchcock was clearly a more musical soul than John Ford. But in an era before high fidelity recordings, more people played instruments and sang, period. And what about Frank Capra: Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed singing "Buffalo Girls" in It's a Wonderful Life, Essie dancing to Ed's xylophone in You Can't Take It With You, Frank Sinatra doing "High Hopes" in A Hole in the Head (despite it not being a musical)?

Ultimately, Sullivan is driven into forced argumentation by his format, which is to describe the scoring in every single Hitchcock film year-by-year. The truth is that more than a few of the films— the wan screwballer Mr. and Mrs. North, for example—simply do not merit musical discussion; The Birds has no music at all, while Rope only has music under the opening credits and one character playing that theme on the piano now and then. Yes, the scores that Hitchcock got out of Bernard Herrmann are indeed art for the ages. And some Hitchcock fans may well enjoy listening to the Late Romantic chocolate-box scores of Rebecca, Spellbound, and Notorious. Still, as to whether all of Hitchcock's scores taken together are a cut above normal Hollywood scoring, my verdict was neatly illustrated at a bookstore appearance by Sullivan that I attended.

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