Music Webmaster Len Mullenger



Book/CD/Video Review:
  Douglas Gordon's vision of Bernard HERRMANN's Vertigo


CONLON/VERTIGO Book/CD/Video Review:

FEATURE FILM Douglas Gordon's vision of Bernard HERRMANN's Vertigo

This is an extraordinary visual and audio homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo and, in particular, to Bernard Herrmann's celebrated score. Vertigo, arguably Hitch's masterpiece, has always attracted attention. Acres of text have been written about the film and its deep psychological significance. Beautifully refurbished videos of the film have been released - the latest with a documentary about the film. Varèse Sarabande recordings have included the majority of the cues, including Joel McNeely's excellent 1996 recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (VSD-5600).

Now James Conlon's recording, running time 74:35, which is the heart of this project, includes all the music that Herrmann wrote for the film.

The book shows Conlon conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra in this performance of Herrmann's score. Close-ups of the conductor's head and hands were filmed by Douglas Gordon's cameras. The selection of the shots from all the different cameras and the editing were all Douglas Gordon's decisions. These close-ups shots, together with deep crimson and black background dissolves, constitute the total content of the 75-minute 35mm film which is the version I saw. There is also the video installation version that exactly parallels the time of the Hitchcock film (122.5 minutes). This version shows Conlon, in frame during the musical cues, while the camera tracks through the concert hall during the unscored sequences of the film to the subliminal accompaniment of its dialogue and background noises.

The book comprises stills compiled from the film. It includes, helpfully, a few small stills from Hitchcock's film scattered at strategic points through its pages These film stills are inset within a much larger frame of the conductor's gestures. The book has the actual CD inset so that it becomes an integral part of the front cover design. Inside the pocket, a booklet contains two detailed essays by Raymond Bellour on Gordon's work and an excellent thought-provoking article by Royal S. Brown on Bernard Herrmann's score.

Review: The Film and the Book

To quote Bellour's notes …"…to take the music and only the music whose spellbinding power and prestige lend it an autonomy which the composer's quality alone cannot explain - and to match this music to images inspired by the music itself, is a turn of the screw that strikes very near to the inner madness of its source…"

The inner madness of its source. Yes, there it is, an inner madness that so many of us know in one form or another. That is why so many of us are fascinated with Vertigo because we can see our fears reflected in it. There is the fear of falling itself. This is very much a metaphor for the process of falling in love. We may fear it because we loose ourselves in it; we become vulnerable, we are made giddy by it, we drown in it. We loose control. Consider how often composers have associated love with turbulent waters and how poets have called falling in love "a little death." We become vulnerable, at the mercy of another. Sometimes, as in the case of Scotty, the love becomes obsessive and those that have experienced such an obsession will probably know its prolonged destruction and searing pain. Taking the psychology of the film to another level, there is a sense of both the 'Lieberstot', the love death of Wagner's Tristan & Isolde and, as Royal S Brown adroitly observes, the other side of the coin, 'Toten lieb', Death love, for Madeleine's obsession with Carlotta Valdes. There is, too, the connotation of Scotty being seen as something of 'an Orphic stalker.'

The music matches the story; it is ambivalent - full of unresolved resolutions. Aural and visual images seem to combine to form a sort of dream verging on a nightmare; in fact, Scotty's nightmare is a crucial part of the film. How many of us, I wonder, can identify with such dreams? How many of us are fascinated enough to want to see Vertigo again and again so that we might discover some clue that might help us resolve its many mysteries in order, perhaps, to resolve our own unresolved resolutions? We can wonder and wonder, but we will never know what drew and held Judy Barton to Gavin Essler or what happened to Scotty after Judy's fall, or the answers to dozens of Vertigo's arcane enigmas.

I offer all these thoughts because I believe they have a bearing on the film and book. But first, I am going to admit I know little of modern art and this film comes under that heading [The Pompidou Centre, Paris's museum of modern art figures strongly in the film's credits.] I therefore refuse to swim in shark infested waters to hazard an uninformed opinion of the film as art per se. I will therefore confine myself to making remarks about how well the film conveys the atmosphere, the intensity, the passions and the emotions of the film. After all, it is supposed to be the conductor's job to draw out all of these from his orchestra. I think this film partially succeeds on this level. Certainly, such sequences from the Hitchcock film, as the opening scene where Scotty looses his grip on the hand of the detective who falls to his death is powerfully conveyed. Conlon's quivering, folded fingers appear to be grasping on with a desperate intensity before they indicate Scotty's loosening grip. In many sequences, fluttering hands in close up, looking like frightened birds, give the impression of the sensation of falling and of a great unfathomable loss. But, of course, the conductor indicates emotions with his whole body and this is where I think the close-up technique falls down in its persistency. We only get a fraction of the communicative process. It might be the most important fraction (?) nevertheless, it is a fraction. Now Mr Conlon's reading is very good indeed as I observe below but he is young. I wonder if more might have been communicated had Mr Gordon chosen an older conductor who had lived in a more emotionally ravaged body? But, then, we might not have had such a wonderful performance!

Review: The CD

The first thing one notices is that the score is played through as one complete long cue (Douglas Gordon's decision). There are no separately screenplay-indicated cue divisions. For most people who know the film and Herrmann's score well, this will prove to be no problem for they will recognise the 'mile-posts' as they pass by. The breaks are brief and the music is remarkably seamless and works well as a complete composition in its own right.

Conlon impresses immediately with great attack and lucidity in the opening credits music and rooftops chase music. He is thoroughly involved in the music all the way through and delivers a passionate, intense reading that is very satisfying. The tower climaxes are shattering in their dynamic intensity. In contrast his hushed pianissimos are delicate and sensitive to the nuances of the screenplay. I was very impressed with his take on those muted brass chords that sound so remote, so detached - a dream within a dream. His 'Scene d'amour' is approached well and its climax terraced most convincingly. This is definitely one of the best if not the definitive reading of Herrmann's score now available on disc.


Ian Lace

Film and book


Feature Film a book by Douglas Gordon (also includes the CD) is available from Artangel 36 St John's Lane, London EC1M 4BJ price £24:95 plus £6 postage and handling. Artangel e-mail: In the U.S.A., the book is available, price $45 through D.A.P., 155 Sixth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10013 (phone: [212] 627-1999; fax: [212]627 9484). For any information on screenings of the 35mm version or showing of the video installation, contact Artangel.


Ian Lace

Film and book


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