Friday Film (24)

The next film-music posting in this series will be uploaded soon.In the meantime, have another look at this modified clip from Hitchcock’s ‘North By Northwest’, and ponder the extent to which the additional music does — and doesn’t! — contribute to the clarity and effectiveness of the scene…

This is the subject of the text that I am currently writing.

Tell your friends: they won’t get this kind of quality anywhere else

*     *     *

Okay; I’m back. Sorry for the lateness; but I’m desperately short of free time right now, so things like blog postings get put on the back burner unless they happen to be things I can do in half an hour or less…

So: back to North By Northwest — and that clip with the ‘added music’. Just to be clear: it wasn’t me that dubbed that extra music onto the famous ‘crop duster’ sequence. The only reason the YouTube upload has my name on it is that I had to grab the video and slow it down by about 4%, as it was playing back at a speed that was very obviously too fast — probably as a result of having been recorded from an old TV broadcast where a telecine machine working with AC electrical power at 50Hz had to play a 24fps movie at 25fps… Yes, even at that ‘only slightly faster’ frame rate, the effect on the ‘feel’ of the scene was great enough to interfere with any attempt at spontaneous, subjective comparison, so I had to try and ‘equalise’ the two as much as possible…

Speaking of ‘spontaneous and subjective’, there’s something else I ought to say right at the start, before we immerse ourselves in clips and our (hopefully) self-aware reactions to them. And this relates to the fact that, no doubt as a matter of personal psychology and nothing more, I am actually rather ‘resistant’ to Hitchcock films. Yes, there are a few that I value, and moments or scenes in several more that I consider well-executed and worth studying; but on the whole I find that I really don’t care all that much about his output. Not only do I find his expressive range extraordinarily narrow and his psychological preoccupations a long way away from mine (Nordic-looking blonde women aside); but in addition — and in absolute opposition to all those ‘film studies’ types who drone on and on about the ‘perfectionism’ of this ‘auteur’ — I find much of his film-making to be shoddy beyond belief.

hitchcockmarnieset[[Pause … while a thousand enraged Hitchcock fans offer up prayers demanding that I receive a thunderbolt from the gods of pitifully ineffective back-projection and crudely obvious ‘visual symbolism’…]]

Having got that topic carefully in the way right at the outset, we can move on to the first of the clips I want to use as my ‘approach’ to the one above. What it does, is allow everyone to hear what is the opening title music of the film…

If you haven’t realised already why I’ve included that clip, I’ll make it clear in a minute. In the meantime, welcome to Shoddyville: someone’s decision to sneak the music in while the MGM logo is still being shown means that the very opening motivic shapes are partially drowned out by the lion’s roaring. Well done, that someone! Oh, and did you notice that, in the passage where the music hops feverishly between chords of B flat major and E major, a few of the players get out of step at one point — meaning that, fleetingly, we hear B flat major and E major sounding together? And — ooh, look! —  there is Hitchcock himself, getting his irrelevant and self-hatingly narcissistic cameo in right at the start. Yawn.

All right, let’s move on.

You know, I can barely stand this scene’s outpouring of shoddy — and this is a Hitchcock film that I actually quite like! I noted 23 shortfalls in various dimensions, there, before I stopped counting: how anyone can watch that scene’s seemingly infinite ineptitude and not throw something at the screen, I really can’t imagine. But, plainly, people manage; so let’s focus on the score — which, as you will surely have noticed, eventually allows itself to re-present the title music in full (albeit partly drowned out once again).

Now I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it on here; but I do have some thoughts collected on the relatively rare but by no means unknown phenomenon that is the full-length reprising of title music within the body of a film. As far as I can see, there are some circumstances in which it is a jolly risky strategy — and others in which it may not be. If you want an example that shows the damage it can do, there’s a striking one to be found in Scott of the Antarctic (1948) whose score (a few brief oddments aside) is by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The fact (as I believe it to be) that this film begins with one of the most artistically substantial pieces of title music in the history of cinema means that the reprise, late in the film, as accompaniment to the doomed Polar Party’s struggle to climb the Beardmore Glacier, lends a simply massive weight to that scene. Which is precisely the problem: within the context of the film’s overall structure and plot, the encounter with the Beardmore Glacier is not in any way decisive — which means that the only way in which the crushing return of the magnificent opening music will fail to be deeply misleading both narratively and emotionally is if you happen not to be paying attention to it. Needless (I hope) to say, it wasn’t the composer who put it there: we gather that it was re-used because someone in the studio noticed that the filmed sequence was ‘just about the right length’. In such a way are the most proudly catastrophic musical decisions made in film-land…

Quite what kind of decision lies behind the reprise of our title music in North By Northwest, I have no idea; but, whatever happened, I’d say that this example falls into the category of ‘not so risky’. And the reason — so it seems to me, at least — is that, while in Scott a late-stage return misleads and confuses by falsely implying a denouement where none occurs, here the music is able to act as clarification, initiation, and confirmation.

Think about it: neither we nor our main character know at that point why these strange things have suddenly started to happen to him — but the reappearance of the title music gives us a signal that the plot, in spite of everything, really is ‘on course’. In addition, the fact that the reappearance happens in a sequence where he finds himself in a life-threatening situation helps us realise that this kind of danger is going to be facing him all the way through the film. And, on top of this, the degree of ‘momentum’ that this ‘recalled’ stretch of music possesses by way of the regularity and predictability of its musical units helps to bundle us through a potentially diffuse sequence that has a lot of rapid cutting in it (and some truly terrible technical deficiencies). As a final point, the fact that the opening music is being reprised so soon after the start ensures that, for all the motoric ‘excitement’ and ‘thrill’ of the scene, an element of ‘lightness’ is clearly emphasised: there is no danger of it being taken to mean ‘denouement’, nor is the action likely to contain anything especially significant where the music plainly knows that it doesn’t have to halt or change to perform some special interpretative function (until we get to the very end — where ‘serious events with consequences’ begin to be signalled again…)

Why not watch it once more — and see if you agree…?

Now I want to jump to the last few minutes of the film and allow everyone to take in what happens there (You need to start the second clip as soon as the first one ends.)…

Let’s discuss that next Friday…


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2 thoughts on “Friday Film (24)

  1. I’d quite like to hear that with the original sound effects removed – just the music. Indeed, why not overlay the aerial dogfight from Walton’s Battle of Britain music in place of the Herrmann. I don’t think it will work, but it might be kinda interesting to find it…


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