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Vertigo is now recognized as Hitchcock’s most personal project, a disturbing study of romantic obsession, guilt, and death. But upon its premiere in 1958, it met with mixed reviews and indifferent box office. "We liked it," Herrmann told an interviewer, "but even in the States, people thought [Vertigo] was a backache or something."
Instead, it is the symbol of detective Scottie Ferguson’s (Jimmy Stewart) obsessive love for the elusive, doomed Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), and her apparent double, Judy Barton (also Novak) -- a psychological maelstrom illustrated in one of Herrmann’s most exciting main titles, set to the swirling geometric imagery of designer Saul Bass.
When it came to filming Vertigo’s emotional climax -- the scene in which Ferguson is "reunited" with Madeleine, after convincing Judy to make herself in Madeleine’s image -- "we’ll just have the camera and you," Hitchcock told his favorite composer. True to his word, the director kept dialogue to a minimum, knowing that Herrmann could convey more effectively the emotions of this troubling, complex film.
The resulting five-minute sequence may be cinema’s most powerful evocation of romantic longing, as "Madeleine" steps out of a ghostly green light, to be embraced by Scottie, as Hitchcock’s camera travels a full 360 degrees around the lovers. Scottie’s literal embrace with death is given another layer of meaning by Herrmann’s theme: a paraphrase of Wagner’s Liebestod (love-death) from Tristan und Isolde.
Steven C. Smith is the author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991), and a recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for writing on music. He is currently a writer/producer on the A&E television series Biography.