I was thinking about this recently: music in Hitchcock’s film is not always here to create a sonar ambiance. In some case, the music really becomes part of the film, she becomes a clue, a character, a tool. So, I’ve decided to write about it and explain to you how, in some Hitchcock’s films, the music becomes important.
IMPORTANT: This article contains some spoilers
1- Waltz from Vienna (1934)
Ok, this film would be a little strange without music as it is a musical… Telling one specific moment of Johanne Strauss Jr.’s life, when he composed the famous Blue Danube Waltz, it is considered to be one of Hitchcock’s less good films. Well, if I’m not wrong, Hitchcock himself claimed it was his worst film. Of course, it’s not a typical Hitchcock’s film. No suspense, no murder or no cold blond. If you haven’t seen it, you might think, “how is it possible? A musical directed by Hitchcock?” Well, Waltz from Vienna is my Hitchcock’s guilty pleasure, because I loved it. The music is the main subject, of course. I think I really enjoyed this film, especially because, when I saw it, I was myself learning The Blue Danube waltz on piano. A beautiful six pages piece, that I have now all forgotten, unfortunately…
If you never had the chance to see this very underrated Hitchcock’s film, here is your chance to!
2- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) [spoilers]
In both versions, the music takes an important place during the Albert Hall scene. An orchestra is playing in the concert hall and we know that, at the crash of cymbals, a statesman will be murdered. Jo McKenna (Edna Best/Doris Day) also knows that a murder is about to be committed. She is in the concert hall, listening to the music and trying to figure how to save the statesman. Only, she doesn’t know when the murder will be committed. Only we, spectators, know. In this scene, Jo McKenna is really desperate and the fact that the public knows more than the characters adds a beautiful Hitchcockian suspense to the scene.
In the 1956’s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, remember, Doris Day is always singing “Que Sera Sera”. The song was composed for this film and it became Doris Day’s most famous song. At one point in the film, singing this song becomes something very important, because it will help Jo and Ben McKenna (James Stewart) to find their son who has been kidnapped.
3- The 39 Steps (1935)
The music is not that much important in this film, but, at one point, it becomes part of Richard Hannay (Robert Donat)’s life. Remember, at the beginning of the film, he assists to a variety show and some joyful music is playing. Much later in the film, after Annabella Smith ( Lucie Mannheim)’s murder has been committed and after he met Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), Richard, who is falsely accused of having committed the murder, is in a hotel room with Pamela. The two are lying in bed eating sandwiches and Richard is whistling a tune. He is wondering where he heard that tune, but he can’t remember. That’s the tune the musicians were playing during the variety show at the beginning of the film.
4- Secret Agent (1936) [spoilers]
The moment when the music becomes important in this film is when Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud) and The General (Peter Lorre) are going to a church to meet a double-agent. When they arrive at the church, someone is playing the organ, but not in a very melodic way, the same chord is heard without any interruption. What’s going on? In the church, the double agent is sitting at the organ and doesn’t seem to notice them. It won’t take long for Richard and The General to discover that the man is dead.
5- Young and Innocent (1937) [spoilers]
This might be my favourite collaboration between Hitchcock and music. Just like in The Man Who Knew Too Much, this musical sequence happens during the climax. Remember, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) is falsely accused of the murder of Christine Clay (Pamela Carme). He has to run away from the police but also has to find who is the real murderer. He is helped by the young Erica (Nova Pilbeam) and, later, by Old Will (Edward Rigby), an old tramp who is in possession of a coat that used to belong to the potential murderer. He can’t remember how he looks like. The only thing he remembers is his eye twitch. In the pocket, Erica finds a box of matches from the Grand Hotel. So, she and Old Will decide to go there, where they could maybe find the man. This is where the music becomes important. The two fellows arrive at the Grand Hotel and sit at a table. A music band is playing and a singer sings “I’m right here tell you, sister, no one can like the drummer man”. The camera gives us a view of the ballroom, the tables, and then slowly makes a close-up on the drummer’s face…. a big close up on his eyes.. we see the eyes wink… We hear the singer singing The Drummer Man’s song. There he is. Erica and Will are seated at a table, in the front row, just in front of the stage. Somehow, they are not noticing him, but WE are. I love this scene. The long camera shot is really interesting and the touch of humour brought through this song is quite appreciated. It’s an original way to set the answers.
6- The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Of course, in The Lady Vanishes’s music is important as it becomes a code for secret agents to communicate with each other. We first hear this song sung by a guitarist outside of the hotel. Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) seems quite fond of this beautiful music. It’s later in the film that we learn that this is just a secret code. Iris (Margaret Lockwood) and Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) shall not forget it! What’s also interesting is the fact that Iris and Gilbert first meet “thanks to” music. How? It’s almost time to go to bed. The hotel residents are going to their rooms. We still hear the singer, it’s beautiful and relaxing. Suddenly, the ceiling starts moving, a clarinet is playing, people are dancing upstairs. Miss Froy and Iris come out of their bedroom, look around, wondering what’s going on. Iris decides to call the manager explaining that “Elephants are playing musical chair”. The manager goes to the room where this cacophony is coming from. He enters. There, a young man (Michael Redgrave) is playing clarinet and members of the hotel are dancing, like elephants indeed. Boris, the manager, asks the man to stop, but this one refuses. So, he returns to Iris’s bedroom and explains the situation. She really wants this “musician” to move out, so she gives money to Boris so he can do a “better job”. Later, the music has stopped. It’s all dark in Iris’s room. She’s peacefully sleeping. Suddenly, the door opens. Someone enters and opens the light. That, of course, wakes up Iris. Angry, she asks the man who just entered in her room “Who are you? What do you want?” He introduced himself by playing 2, 3 notes with his clarinet. So, that’s how they musically meet. Of course, Iris doesn’t appreciate him much because of this impolite intrusion in her bedroom!
7- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
In this film, the music is associated with a crime. Uncle Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) is indeed suspected of having murdered some rich widows. The Merry Window Waltz composed by Franz Lehar becomes the main musical theme of this film. When Charlie’s niece, young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright), has the misfortune to hum it, this makes him very nervous.
The beautiful Merry Widow Waltz performed by André Rieu and his orchestra
8- Spellbound (1945)
Well, in this film, music isn’t really part of the story, but Spellbound wouldn’t be the same without the beautiful score composed by Miklos Rozsa. Of course, the film is excellent, but the music adds something unique to it. It just perfectly represents the atmosphere of the story and accompanies the moving images in a perfect synchronization. Sometimes, because of this music, the moving images seem to “dance”.
9- Rope (1948)
Well, this is not much, but one of the characters in this film, one of the two guys who has killed a student just to see what it would feel like and then invite his family and friends for dinner, this Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) is a pianist. He plays piano on some occasions during the film, especially when he’s scared that someone might discover what he and his friend have done. The nervous man needs to calm down…
10- Rear Window (1954)
This might be the most musical of all Hitchcock’s film. Remember, (James Stewart) is stocked in a wheelchair in his apartment because he had an accident. His leg is broken. The only interesting thing he can do during his long and boring days is to observe his neighbours. That’s how he will suspect one of them to be a murderer. Well, his neighbours are people who like to listen to music. One of them is a music composer and often plays piano, the sexy Miss Torso practices her dance routines and the other ones just like to listen to music on the radio. The various sources of music are really part of the film and we hear them just like if we were in Jeff’s apartment, not very distinctly. It adds a very pleasant ambiance.
11- Psycho (1960)
What would be the shower scene without this music created by strident violins? At first, Hitchcock didn’t want this scene to have music, but Bernard Hermann convinced him with his brilliant score. There is nothing melodious about this music, but it adds a lot of creepiness to this scene and it surely helped it to become the most famous scenes in movie history.
12- The Birds (1963)
The particular thing about the film is that there is no music. This one is created by the birds’ screams. Just like in Psycho‘s shower scene, these sounds make the film even scarier than it already is Actually, the only “real” music we hear in this film is when the children are singing a song at school, the radio, and when Melanie (Tippi Hedren) plays the piano. But these are, just like in Rear Window, part of the film and not a score that was composed for the film.
Well, what do you think? I think Hitchcock was someone who appreciated music and knew perfectly well how to use it in his films!