Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo may be the greatest movie of all time. It wouldn't be in that conversation without great acting performances by Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and a sumptuous score by Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann. It's a soundtrack so haunting, so beautiful that the SF Symphony will perform it live this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with the movie projected above the stage. In addition, at 7 p.m. both nights there will be a pre-performance Q&A with Novak, who is flying down from Oregon where she retired from acting to devote herself to painting.
Bernard Herrmann's scores are everywhere, he wrote music for Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver, among others. But he reached iconic status with Alfred Hitchcock: You can hear the violin screams of Psycho in your head right now, can't you? For Vertigo, Herrmann wrote a lush romantic score, with a Wagnerian love theme which borrows the delayed chord resolution of Tristan and Isolde to coincide with Kim Novak appearing, transformed, before Stewart. Conductor Joshua Gersen will make sure the orchestra and movie reach their apex at the exact same time. We chatted with Kim Novak ahead of her appearance in San Francisco.
Did you have any idea of the music as you were shooting the movie?
You know, Alfred Hitchcock met a lot with Bernard Herrmann. He knew exactly what it was going to sound like. He was very aware of every aspect of what the film was going to look like, sound like. He thought out everything in advance and planned on it. We didn't know what it was going to be like. Everybody that knew him knew he had all that figured out in advance, because of the way he worked.
For instance, the scene in the staircase going up in the bell tower, he worked that with a metronome, believe or not. The dialogue had a certain pace and rhythm to it. I'm sure he had worked it out musically as well, so it had the rhythm. Bernard Herrmann at the same time watched that scene as we did that. He had in his mind the rhythm for that scene. Knowing that he did, you had the confidence the whole thing had a feeling to it musically, because you were aware of the music, you had a sense it was orchestrated. Everything by Alfred Hitchcock was orchestrated.
He tried as much as he could to keep a rhythm in the whole piece. The way he blocked out, you could see these large cardboard worksheets he drew out. It was all blocked out for him. You'd be on the set, and see the worksheets of the set. You would see all the bits and pieces that were prepared before you were actually there. It was like looking at a map that was plotted before you got there. You saw where it was going. You never did that in other movies. Other directors did not have that map in front of them.
I found that so fascinating, he was the only director I've worked with he who worked with his map. It was very important that you follow his map. By the same token, I'm sure he did that with Bernard Herrmann as well. He also allowed you, all the artists involved, whether Bernard Herrmann or the actors, he would allow them to bring their own interpretation. You were allowed to go your own speed, slow down or speed up, you interpretation could adapt to it, but you still had a map to follow. And I loved that, it was a wonderful thing. He brought in the people who could bring these colors to it.
Did you know Bernard Herrmann personally, you said he was on the set?
On rehearsals, he would come and visit. We met him. I didn't know him other than meeting him there. He intensely watched as we performed. I would have liked to know him better indeed. He was part of the making off the film, part of the make-up of the motion picture.
In the kiss scene, the embrace seems rather cold by today's movie standards, but the music makes it very passionate and sexy. Do you feel that way?
The scene was very strong. He wanted to build the passion that was felt, and make it very strong as far of the colors of the characters, and establish the music for both characters. There was a strong identification musically in bringing them together. We didn't know how he was going to do that until we saw the film. But we saw how much he was planning for that, how much he met with Bernard Herrmann. I was more aware of what he was doing with the camera. Musically, it was, oh my God, it was a great surprise to me and for Jimmy too, when we saw the film, how wonderful they did musically. I got to see the symphony orchestra in Toronto and it just gave me goosebumps to see that music live. It's going to be such a thrill to hear the SF orchestra. I'm going to be there, and do a Q&A on stage.
When the movie The Artist used the Vertigo music, you condemned their use of the music. Why is it important to you?
I was upset, for one thing, it was a wonderful movie. Why do they need to use it? Why borrow somebody else's music, why not use their own? There is a pride of ownership for Vertigo's music. For one thing, it's the love theme, it's my love theme, you know, I was hurt! They didn't need to, I was offended. I felt very bad about it.
What they were doing was borrowing the feelings of that scene, all of the sudden the passion that happened in that scene, using emotions that was arose in a scene by Jimmy Stewart and myself. Hitchcock worked up to that scene. They had their own emotions, they didn't need that. Why steal it from us? You don't want at that moment to think suddenly about our love scene. I love that movie. All of sudden, to hear my theme, it hurt. It felt like a rape. I was raped as a girl. It felt distasteful to me.
You are retired from movies, what keeps you busy nowadays?
I'm an artist, I paint, you can check out my website at www.kimnovakartist.com, I'm a visual artist, I'm a wonderful artist. I would never give up the arts. I can express myself completely as I feel it. I don't have to use someone else's interpretation. I express completely what I feel about what I'm painting. As I go to the SF Symphony hall, I'll bring a picture I made about Vertigo. It's called Vortex of Delusion. It's a picture of Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart and myself and the Golden Gate Bridge. I'm displaying it in the Symphony hall. I was influenced by Hitchcock in my art, I do rather surrealistic art, there is a lot of mystery in my paintings.