Hitchcock and the Sound of Suspense

Among his many strengths, Alfred Hitchcock had a good ear for film scoring. He didn't compose his own music but he knew exactly what he wanted. Hitchcock showcased this attitude really well in a scene where he debated with his wife whether or not Psycho needed music cues during the shower scene. We all know how that turned out. There are two modes of Hitchcock film scoring and both serve as potential models of film scoring as a source of suspense. The first is the introduction of a pervasive theme that haunts the mind as the story explores unexpected territory. The second is a hard set of stingers to amp up reaction and focus during key moments of visual storytelling.

The most iconic of the first style is the theme from Vertigo. Bernard Herrmann introduces a maddeningly cyclical motif that matches the literal highs and lows of vertigo the disorder. The arpeggio switches between the violins/clarinets and the bells as the horn section overpowers the disorienting pattern with dissonant chords. The theme evolves beyond the literal cycle of the strings over the course of the film. Yet the opening prelude forces the association between the balance of the orchestra and the sensation of vertigo, building suspense in unexpected places.

By the time the protagonist is forced to climb up the bell tower, the literal representation of vertigo is gone, replaced with fast, moody scoring. The association remains because of the chord progression and orchestration.

Compare that to the stinger school of suspense. The film will have limited or ambient scoring until a key scene is in progress. Then it switches to loud, shocking blasts of sound that force you to focus. It's the film screaming, "Pay attention!" The sudden sharpness of the direction creates suspense. Now you don't know when the shock will come back but the knowledge of what it could be sets you on edge.

Psycho is the clearest example of this. Bernard Herrmann scored Psycho at Hitchcock's insistence and used a different technique entirely. The opening theme--a feverish and syncopated blend of strings and low reed instruments--is used intact throughout the film. It doesn't draw attention to itself because of the lack of clear melody. There are four bars of an actual theme played only twice and it's not nearly as impactful as the violent bowing of the strings. All the rest is ambiance until the shower scene.

The shower scene does not play on previously established music until the final moments of bass and bassoon. The screech of the violins, violas, and cellos comes from bowing below the bridge where the strings are at their highest tension. The shifting pitch comes from which pair of strings is being pulled on which instruments. The lowest screeches at the end are on the viola and cello.

There is nothing inherently cinematic or suspenseful in that composition. There's a rhythmic quality that establishes a fast pulse and the high pitch disorients the viewer after so much low-key exposition. It's bad enough that Hitchcock shocked the world by killing off his signature Blonde a third of the way into the film; he rubbed it in our noses by SCREAMING out the importance of the turn with film scoring.

These aren't the only Hitchcock films to employ these same techniques. Miklos Rozsa's Academy Award winning score to Spellbound works the same way as Vertigo, with the haunting beauty of the theremin brought back in various forms to disorient the viewer. Most of the score is lush orchestral arrangements, but those moments of theremin send a tingle up the spine like nothing else. Sala and Remi Gassmann pushed the shock factor of Psycho to new levels with Hitchcock's vision of a scoreless film in The Birds. Everything was done on one of the earliest synthesizers including the bird calls and the music only appeared in the big attack scenes.

As I said yesterday, a huge draw for me to do the Spring Into Suspense theme for April is the chance to deconstruct how suspense works in various media. I have another post on suspense film scoring planned that looks at the third most prevalent style in cinematic history. Hitchcock was hesitant to pull the trigger on that scoreless film in The Birds but many directors since have gleefully taken on the challenge. Sometimes, the only thing more tense and foreboding than a well-planned music cue is well-crafted silence.

Thoughts on Hitchcock's suspense scores? Sound off below.

The Preston Files Teaser 1

Guts by Chuck Palahniuk and Non-Linear Suspense