score by Bernard Herrmann
The opening notes of Bernard Herrmann’s theme for Vertigo send the audience right to the edge, and leave us teetering on it for the rest of the picture. What sort of abyss awaits if we let go? Herrmann and director Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborations are legendary, and this stands among their best in no small part because large sections of this film about looking pass without a word of dialogue. Herrmann at once gives us its protagonist’s perspective and a premonition of what’s to come. When James Stewart sees Kim Novak, a love theme must play, even though their relationship is nothing like love. As he follows her through (and mostly down) the streets of San Francisco, the music once again becomes uneasy, melodic but frightening, piquing curiosity without satisfying it. Even the suicide attempt he foils is punctuated not by the music of rescue, but the music of a nightmare – a blaring shock to the system, then that uneasy melody; he follows his terrible fate to a T. By the time the music finally, deep into the picture, truly crescendos, we all know the nightmare is complete, and there’s no escaping it.