Echoes of loss

Vertigo: the making of a Hitchcock classic

Dan Auiler <em>Titan Books, 220pp, £19.99</em>

Most films are pretty bad at exploring the obsessive, labyrinthine world of human memory. Film, unlike prose, which weaves seamlessly between past and present, has to "cut" quite decisively between the two; suddenly the viewer is in a different place and a different time-frame.

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is, arguably, unique in its treatment of memory and obsession. The memories of the characters in the film have been already viewed, in one way or another, by the audience. So Vertigo, in this sense, is an utterly self- contained unit, referring only to itself. Who can recall the kiss that James Stewart gives Kim Novak at the end without feeling his skin prickle and his eyes fill with tears - Stewart staring at Novak dressed in the clothes of the woman whom he loved and believed he had killed. Hitchcock has "earned" this moment because the scene brings together so many different strands that the film has already set up. Recurrent images, lines of dialogue and leitmotifs of music resonate to produce one of the most poignant moments in the history of cinema.

Vertigo: the making of a Hitchcock classic is the work of someone obsessed by the film. It has a brief introduction by the world's most famous Vertigo obsessive, Martin Scorsese, and the film's progress from tacky postwar French mystery novel to the marvellous, gleaming restored print of 1996 is itemised in loving, but rarely pedantic, detail.

Auiler has had access to Hitchcock's production notes and other original documents, and uses them impressively, not only in his charting of the turbulence of the actual shooting process, but in the reproduction of certain key documents such as the original storyboards, typewritten production schedules, old posters and letters. The smell of Hollywood in the 1950s rises up out of the pages and you can almost hear the clacking of typewriters, the barking of movie moguls, the sultry tones of starlets and the melancholic, Cockney drawl of Hitchcock himself.

Far from destroying the mystery of the film, this book enhances it. We learn that Vertigo was Hitch's most personal film, enabling him to explore many of his deepest preoccupations; it's quite eerie to read an early story idea by Hitchcock that is very similar to Vertigo's astonishing dream sequence. Auiler is persuasive when arguing that Vertigo could be Hitch's poem of loss about Grace Kelly. Hitch worked with the actress on two films and became besotted with her glassy beauty (he was disappointed when she married Prince Rainier in the mid-1950s and retired from films).

Part of his displeasure in Kim Novak's performance could be attributed to her not being Kelly. But Hitch's loss was definitely our gain - Novak brings an earthiness, what Auiler calls an "everywoman" quality, to the ethereal Madeleine that Kelly could never have matched. Hitch may also have disliked the adverse publicity that she brought to the film; her affair with the son of the leader of the Dominican Republic caused an international incident when Vertigo opened, and her scandalous liaison with Sammy Davis Jnr precipitated a fatal heart attack in her "keeper", Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia pictures.

Novak's claims that Hitch tortured her by making her jump repeatedly into San Francisco Bay are refuted by Auiler, who is always anxious to run to Hitch's defence (he claims a stunt woman was used).

Even the weaknesses of the film are seen as strengths - Auiler's rhapsodies, in particular, about Hitch's unconvincing back projections failed to persuade me that location shots wouldn't have been better.

Yet overall Auiler gets the mixture of critical opinion and reportage about right. He wisely avoids philosophising and quite niftily points out that the film, like a Shakespeare play, has become all things to all men: Marxist, deconstructionist and feminist critics have all put different interpretations on the work (the necrophiliac is my favourite).

And the more you watch the more you become aware of just how important Bernard Herrmann's music is for the film to attain its effects. Cut out all the dialogue but leave the music running and you could almost be watching a ballet. Any true Vertigo obsessive, as well as buying this book, should buy the CD of the digitally remastered soundtrack. Then shut your eyes, listen to Herrmann's sublime score and feel yourself transported back into the dream landscape of the film itself.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis