Movies from the Trenches: SF Symphony’s “Vertigo”

"Vertigo" featured image

On February 12, 2016, the San Francisco Symphony screened Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) at Davies Symphony Hall with live orchestral accompaniment.  Live accompaniment is a popular trend in vintage movie presentation: in similar fashion, a national tour of The Wizard of Oz with live orchestra made the rounds in the summer of 2015, and the San Francisco Symphony plans to perform the ET soundtrack in March of 2016.  It seems to me that Vertigo is probably one of the most desirable films to see and hear in this way.  Its astonishing score by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, is a symphonic landmark and Herrmann’s personal favorite of his many compositions.  Given the high quality of the music (let alone of the film itself, which was ranked number one on Sight and Sound’s 2015 poll of the greatest movies ever made), this seemed the perfect opportunity for me to explore the phenomenon of live soundtrack recreation.

Live accompaniment in the theater is not new, of course.  It is as old as movies.  The earliest movies, all silent, had accompaniment on piano or organ, with sometimes even grander arrangements for small orchestras.  Most of this, however, was probably largely improvised, recycled often, and never written down.  What is remarkable about performances like the San Francisco Symphony’s is that its job in playing the Vertigo soundtrack is to sync the score with the film as perfectly as the original recording did, so the performance is a reproductive act and one that is severely constrained by the legacy of the original.  Accordingly, because the Vertigo score is so famous, many of us in the audience were presumably listening for our favorite parts.  For example, I knew that I would be listening closely to the castanets during James Stewart’s partially animated dream sequence to hear if they were as sharp and syncopated as the ones in the original film.

The presentation works by removing the instrumental soundtrack from the film and leaving the dialogue and sound effects tracks in.  Yet in spite of the separation between what was being said in the movie and the live music, I nevertheless experienced no discontinuity between the two.  The orchestra’s timing was excellent; I noticed conductor Joshua Gersen had a digital clock on his stand to keep time with the film, and presumably also a list of cues.  There was only one scene where the orchestra’s volume overpowered the dialogue: the scene on the coast when Kim Novak and James Stewart embrace by the crashing surf.  To be fair, the emoting on the part of the actors in that scene is a bit over the top, so a part of me felt that if Novak and Stewart were permitted to overact, the orchestra could be, too.

Bernard Herrmann conceived of his soundtrack as a three-part suite, consisting of the Prelude (the title sequence), the Nightmare (Stewart’s aforementioned dream), and the Scène d’amour (the scene of Novak’s transformation).  Each part is characterized by extremely repetitive lines that reflect the obsessive mindset of Stewart’s character, John “Scottie” Ferguson, an ex-police detective turned private-eye who is hired to follow a San Francisco woman (played by Novak) who believes she is possessed by the suicidal spirit of a deceased Spanish woman.  As stirring as all three episodes of the suite are, it is always another moment in the soundtrack that most moves me.  I cannot adequately describe the sensation of hearing live the music that begins early in the movie when we first see Stewart sitting at the bar in Ernie’s restaurant.  He is there to observe Novak in person for the first time.  As the camera pans left through the crowd of diners, we see the back of a blond woman in a revealing black cocktail dress leaning over a table.  We cannot see her face, and we know that Stewart cannot either.  Who she is is a mystery.  But soon the camera stops panning and starts to move in towards her, and we realize that this must be the woman Stewart has been sent to investigate.  The theme that begins as the camera pulls towards her exposed shoulders is moving beyond words, so completely full of longing, intrigue, and sorrow all at once.  The score encourages us to feel so many emotions, and we have not even seen Novak’s face yet.  Because the score was being played live, I had the distinct pleasure of feeling the sounds of the orchestra swelling throughout the music hall e as Scottie gazed upon her, already falling in love in spite of the music’s warning.  It was an extraordinary moment.

There is still another reason that this performance was worthwhile.  I must confess that I often struggle when seeing films in public because I find most people’s behavior at the theater to be atrociously ill-mannered.  And yet, during the suite’s third episode, when Stewart fully embraced Novak in her apartment, as the camera spun around and around them and the music grew as it modulated for the first time from a minor key to a major resolution, I was transported.  All of the whispering, texting, gum smacking, candy-wrapper opening, fidgeting, toe tapping, coughing, and sneezing in the world could not have prevented me from savoring every moment of that climactic sequence.  In fact, I felt truly grateful to be out in public sharing this unique performance with people other than myself.  Believe me, that is not something I can often say, but great things of beauty have the power to move us more than we would believe.

For a thorough summary of Vertigo and its chief themes, I recommend Roger Ebert’s article on the film, which he included in his study of the Great Movies.