I’ve watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train at least six or seven times, including when it recently aired on Reel 13. With its tight screenplay adapted from the book by Patricia Highsmith (author of the Tom Ripley books), fabulously evil villain played by Robert Walker, pivotal train scenes and tense back-and-forth between Farley Granger’s Forest Hills tennis match and Walker’s evidence-planting trip to the scene of a murder, the film has always been one of my Hitchcock favorites.
Of course, music plays a huge part in Strangers on a Train, as it does in all Hitchcock movies. Many individual Hitchcock films have been studied for their music—particularly the films scored by Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the most famous film-music cue, the shower scene in Psycho—but Jack Sullivan’s detailed guide to music in Hitchcock films, which comes out in paperback on May 20, appears to be the most comprehensive. The book, Hitchcock’s Music, covers all the Hitchcock films, from the early silents to the British films like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes and the best-known films like Rebecca, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. The book, which won a 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Best Book of the Year award in the concert music category, is so detailed that you may feel the need to go watch numerous scenes again, just to listen to the music cues you somehow missed.
Recently I spoke to Jack Sullivan about Alfred Hitchcock’s film music, how the director’s carefully plotted approach to making movies extended to its music, and the post-Hitchcock era of film scoring.
Jennifer Melick: How far back does your interest in Hitchcock’s movies go?
Jack Sullivan: Back to my childhood. I was just old enough to probably sneak out and see Vertigo. Then right after that I saw North by Northwest and Psycho. As a kid, I remember being riveted by the music. Vertigo is very twisted—I remember being just blown out of my chair by the music. With North by Northwest and then Psycho, I was hooked on Hitchcock/Hermann. And also I watched the TV show that aired during the sixties.
So the seeds of the book were planted long ago. The idea for the book started with my previous book, called New World Symphonies (1999), which is about how American culture has changed European music, instead of the reverse, which is often assumed. In that book I wrote a chapter on émigré composers, a section on Hollywood composers, and a section on Hitchcock—an émigré himself—and his composers. Once I finished that book, what could my next project be? I love Hitchcock, and I realized that that paragraph could become a small book. Originally the book was going to be music from eight essential Hitchcock films—including films with Hermann, as well as Rebecca and Spellbound and a few others. Then I realized that every single movie had remarkable music, and every single one was a different experiment from the others, experimenting with sound and music genres.
JM: How did you research the scores themselves?
JS: At first I started doing the book the way I see a lot of film music books these days, people’s thoughts about films they are watching on video. Then I thought, who wants to read this?—it’s boring. So I made a zillion phone calls, then went to Hollywood, to L.A., went to all the music archives—in Austin, Texas, in Rochester, New York, and so forth. Some people were generous and sent me things, but I also had to travel to the West Coast and I dug up the archives for the scores.
JM: Did you make any sort of surprising discoveries when you were researching the book?
JS: What’s special are the very detailed music and sound notes to composers. A real gem of what I uncovered was all sorts of dramatic letters and quarrels—all sorts of great stories, the struggles with composers behind the scenes. The archives are meticulously organized, because Hitchcock was so organized himself. It’s easier to remember the music and separate it out, because Hitchcock is unique: his story lines are tied to the music, so they’re not even separate. There are musical secrets, musical codes, it’s embedded in it [the plot]. Even when it’s not embedded in it, it’s so striking, as in the main title to Vertigo, those incredible triplets spiraling in contrary motion, or the shower cue in Psycho.
JM: In the book you discuss the music as character, as central player in Hitchcock’s movies.
JS: First of all Hitchcock started using music as part of the plot from the very beginning: in Blackmail, Cyril Richards singing a song, “Miss Up to Date,” to the heroine, the prelude to an assault/murder. Right at the beginning the music is as a story line. He hired a singer as a leading actor, almost like an opera director. This is something he did from the very beginning. When he started using Hollywood scores like Rebecca, he got such a great score from Franz Waxman, that Piatigorsky asked for a suite based on Rebecca’s theme, which I believe was broadcast on the Standard Oil Symphony Hour, and Waxman was asked to conduct the piece as a classical piece—the first time that ever happened, I believe. For Spellbound, Stokowski loved the score so much that he had it broadcast in advance of the film’s release. So it was a way of selling the movie in advance. You have music used not only not just an underscore or background, but an essential part of the movie.
JM: What do you think of the programming trend of orchestras performing film scores on their own?
JS: It’s fine as long as people realize the music really was written for the movie. It’s not like sculpture, or like a novel. That particular tempo you hear in Vertigo was created for the film. It’s a radically different experience, not at all the same as two different Beethoven Sevenths, by a different maestro and different orchestra. The music was really created for the film, that was the essential performance. But why not perform the film scores? The more complex scores do work on their own.
JM: Did your kids also like Hitchcock’s films?
JS: They’re 12 and 13—I started them out with British Hitchcock. The movies they like most are the ones with a lot of action: North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
JM: How about Shadow of a Doubt? That is my daughter’s favorite.
JS: It was Hitchcock’s favorite of his films. Of course in Shadow of a Doubt the Merry Widow waltz is part of the story line, part of the essential clue that nobody can prove—the tune seems to transfer telepathically. Hitchcock was fascinated with waltzes all his life.
JM: What has been the reaction from devoted Hitchcock fans? Do they nitpick details in the way opera fans will argue every little point of a favorite opera?
JS: Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. Hitchcock fans are very generous and very nice and not that way at all—the musicologists are that way! They don’t like it when you don’t talk about the Vertigo chord in terms of describing exactly what type of bitonal or tritonal chord is used—the book describes music for a general audience. But even the musicology thing was not as much as I feared, because the ASCAP people are musicians, and they loved the book the most.
JM: Of the people you interviewed personally for the book, who had the most stories?
JS: The two most amazing sets of stories were from Joseph Stefano and John Williams. Stefano had such an incredible memory. He was there for the entire Psycho project, because he was a musician himself, and he changed and got tired of doing film music, and switched to being a film writer, and did the script for Psycho. Hitchcock asked him to stick around—he valued Stefano’s judgment because he knew Stefano was a musician. Stefano was the first person to hear the Psycho score; he was very friendly with Hermann, and a great source of information. The other interesting thing was that Williams not only talked about the score for Family Plot but also about how Hitchcock seemed to know the whole concert scene and performances—Heifetz and the Walton violin concerto and others, Vaughan Williams and the whole British concert scene … I did see in the files how he had saved a clipping about Boulez being appointed to the New York Philharmonic in 1971, and how Hitchcock had ordered records of everything from Debussy to Stockhausen.
About Hermann’s interview with Royal Brown in the 1970s, Stefano confirmed to me that Hermann had in his head all along that he wanted to use a strings-only orchestra for Psycho. There’s a scene [in the opening of the movie, between Janet Leigh and John Gavin], where a geyser of music just kind of erupts, very melancholy, tawdry stuff. It’s so beautiful.
JM: Is there one Hitchcock film that sticks with you more than the others?
JS: Vertigo is the one I keep coming back to. I discussed it way back in a Soundcheck interview with John Schaefer [on National Public Radio]. During a survey for the listeners, it was the 100 percent choice for music in a Hitchcock movie. The movie—now 50 years old—was a flop at the time, though. Vertigo is a good example of Hitchcock telling Hermann to isolate “the camera and you”—in the dressing scene he took dialogue out, sound out, all the sounds of the cars outside the hotel. It’s the most extended sequence of symphonic music in any movie. Hitchcock let Hermann have his way with that. The scene is disturbing but incredibly beautiful.
JM: The book discusses music in all Hitchcock films—not only the well-known American films. What about the early British films, done on a budget, without as much music?
JS: Well, there just aren’t very many archives on those films. The British Museum people and the British Film Institute people told me there wasn’t much—Hitchcock burned all his bridges when he came to Hollywood. Most of what I write about those films is pretty direct; there isn’t a whole lot of score there anyway: songs, marching bands, the music of real life. Of course later, Rear Window was Hitchcock’s greatest example of using popular music to shape the narrative—musicians warming up, music coming out of windows, and so forth.
JM: Is there anyone you can point to today who might qualify as a successor to someone like Hermann as film composer?
JS: John Williams. Williams told me his earliest impressions were of the Hermann/Hitchcock sound, that they got under his skin early on, and he was profoundly influenced by it. You can see the way he works with Spielberg very closely on every film; their offices are right next to each other, the same way Hitchcock collaborated with Hermann. The Spiderman [scored by Danny Elfman] main title sounds a lot like Vertigo, and in The Fugitive [scored by James Newton Howard] there are so many Hitchcockian devices, even the hero disguising himself in a marching band.
In Dressed to Kill [scored by Pino Donaggio], there are so many shots I remember—the art gallery, with tracking shots, that’s a pretty overt homage to Hitchcock and Hermann. The most overt is Obsession, with its riffs on Vertigo, the New Orleans version.
JM: What did you learn from your interviews with Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, Hitchcock’s daughter?
JS: I had thought Hitchcock must have been a musician, but O’Connell said he was not: he just loved music and had this incredible curiosity, went to lots of concerts, all of it was intuitive on his part. He storyboarded them and plotted sounds just the way he did images. The sounds are so carefully plotted. Hitchcock was fascinated by music even before he could use music in film—even in his silent films, there are dancers and singers and orchestras.
JM: You mention in the book that Dimitri Tiomkin, who scored Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder, and Strangers on a Train, has many detractors. What is that about?
JS: I think it must be snobbism. For them, maybe his music is too obvious, too heavy, it’s just very Russian, over the top. I think some don’t like him, because he did not do the balancing act that Hermann and Waxman did of being a serious concert composer and also a movie composer. Tiomkin gave up concert music to do nothing but film music. He was a considerable pianist, but his widow told me he didn’t like the solitariness of it, the isolation; he liked people and collaborating, that’s how he got into movies and writing movie music. He and Hitchcock got along because they loved to party, they loved to have these elaborate dinners and wine-tasting parties.
JM: What approach did you take in describing music in the book?
JS: In many cases I was able to find the score, and it’s important to me to be able to see a score. Yale [the book publisher] wanted a book that could be understood by a general reader—so terms like moto perpetuo, appassionata, though it’s important to me to see on the score what the tempo or emotive indications are, my job is to create images for the layman. But for me, it is comforting to see the score somehow. Sometimes I would get ideas from it, and I got Yale to print as many as possible. It’s fascinating to look at these score pages in the book—they have value on their own. It doesn’t really matter whether a person knows how to read a score.
It was actually very difficult to get the Psycho and Vertigo scores; to find them and get the rights to print them was time consuming and anxiety producing. But I had a lot of wonderful luck with scores, because people were so generous, the David Selznick collection in Austin, Texas, people in Rochester, people in Hollywood. If the scores were around, they would let me use them, as long as I gave credit where credit was due. I had access to lots of scores. The ones that were really hard to get were from Universal Pictures: Psycho and Vertigo. Yale was reluctant at first to let me use score images, but they ended up letting me do quite a few.
JM: Do you have other books planned?
JS: I’m taking a break now, but I’m thinking about doing a book on contemporary post-Katrina New Orleans jazz. I go to New Orleans frequently. There are huge numbers of books on people like Armstrong, but there are so many wonderful players now, and no book about any of them. That would be a real departure for me.
JM: You’re a professor of English and director of American Studies at Rider University. Do you teach a course on Hitchcock or his music there?
JS: I’m now teaching “Alfred Hitchcock in America,” an American Studies course that I created. I’m the director of that program. And actually we start with The 39 Steps, and we’re about to do Rebecca.
JM: Have you seen the Broadway show The 39 Steps?
JS: Yes, I really enjoyed it. They take all the poignant and serious aspects to the movie and toss them away. At the very end of the semester, I’m going to take the class to see the show, since it includes jokes from all the movies. I usually end the class with The Birds, which is so austere: I don’t like to end on that note. So The 39 Steps will be a review of the whole course, in a way.
JM: Who excites you nowadays when it comes to film music?
JS: John Williams—Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich—they are a departure from things like classical things like Star Wars … I’m contemplating a book on John Williams, still alive and very popular. He shows no signs of any diminished energy whatsoever. Who else? James Newton Howard, who wrote the score to The Fugitive. I think he’s very good. There are a lot of composers, but I am continually amazed by how good John Williams is. Sometimes the best thing about the movie is his score. Even the Harry Potter movie he did not score was the lesser because he did not score it—which he didn’t do because he was preoccupied with Memoirs of a Geisha and Munich and War of the Worlds: three pictures at the same time!