‘A product of the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock distrusted words but came to trust music; it spoke a language deeper than dialogue, allowing the world of obsession and longing, his favorite subject, to have its say,” Jack Sullivan, professor of American Studies at Rider University, writes in “Hitchcock’s Music,” published by Yale University Press last month. Indeed, even the casual moviegoer identifies Alfred Hitchcock as a master of suspense — and know that music is an integral element in his films. In his new book Sullivan shares his investigations into the intricacies of the relations between sound and image in Hitchcock’s creative work, tracking the 50 films the director made during more than a half century of work.
Sullivan will talk about his insights and sign books at Barnes & Noble’s MarketFair on Thursday, January 25, and in Rider’s Student Center Art Gallery on Monday, February 19, at 4:30 p.m.
Enlivening archival research with interviews with composers, writers, and actors, Sullivan reveals how Hitchcock used music to build mood, characterization, and plot in his films. He covers all of the director’s film work from its beginnings in Britain in the 1920s, to Hollywood, where he was lured by producer David Selznick in 1939, and where he remained until his death at age 81 in 1980.
Sullivan describes the contributions of Hitchcock’s various composer-collaborators. He devotes considerable space to the intertwined relations between the director and Bernard Herrmann, his longest and probably most notable professional musical co-worker; the two worked together for more than a decade. Following the structure of a Greek tragedy, Sullivan recounts shortly before the end of his book, Hitchcock’s dramatic falling-out with Herrmann. He also delves into Hitchcock’s working habits, his reputation as a control-freak with a considerable ego, and his negotiation of the world of Hollywood politics.
The overflowing cornucopia of Hitchcock’s work has driven a cohort of researchers to produce shelves full of books about his and work. Sullivan’s book specializes. “This is a book about Hitchcock for those who want to experience his work from a different point of view — to listen as well as watch,” Sullivan writes.
Music was a Hitchcock trademark from early in his career to the end. When his British studio decided in mid-production to incorporate sound into the film “Blackmail” in 1929, Hitchcock escalated the new path by deciding that sound encompassed music as well as speech. He viewed the movie as a sort of opera and saw himself as a maestro. “I have the feeling I am an orchestra conductor,” he told Francois Truffaut in a book-length interview published in 1983. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wrote the script for “Psycho” agreed that the film was not interesting until you heard Bernard Herrmann’s music.
Hitchcock’s use of music was unfettered. His musical styles ranged from Viennese waltzes and classical standards through jazz to electronic music. Often, music was an overt component of Hitchcock’s movies. He commissioned Herrmann to write a complete cantata for the original version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and commissioned “Que Sera Sera,” which became Doris Day’s signature piece for the remake of the film.
Ironically, Hitchcock had no formal musical training. In “Hitchcock’s Music” we learn that, according to film writer Stefano, Hitchcock “had an enormous respect for composers precisely because they spoke a language he did not know.” Sullivan adds, “Stefano said that it was good that Hitchcock was not a musician. He explained what he wanted, and then got out of the way.”
Sullivan marvels not only at Hitchcock’s extensive use of music, but also at his attention to detail. “Hitchcock was an artist and did the silhouette for ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” he says. “In the silent era he did his own drawings for the storyboards. Later, he sketched every shot, or had the art director do it. He did the same for sound. He paid phenomenal attention to detail. When he asked [actress] Theresa Wright to do ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ Hitchcock told her every shot and every sound. When she saw the first screening, she had the eerie feeling that she had seen the movie before.”
Hitchcock’s own notes on “The Birds,” reproduced in the book, illustrate the minute attention he paid to balancing natural and electronic sounds to enmesh the viewer in the interplay between bird noises, many of them electronic, and the natural noise of downtown San Francisco.
Sullivan admires Hitchcock’s subtlety. “In the opening graveyard scene of ‘Vertigo,’ it’s not clear whether the gong is something the character hears, or whether it’s part of the background sound. The sound boards in `The Man Who Knew Too Much’ specify that the London Symphony Orchestra is playing and focus on the cymbals player. The next sound board tells that the overtones segue into the sound of the bus tires that follows.”
The need for a book about Hitchcock’s music already occurred to Sullivan in 1999, when he published “New World Symphonies,” which dealt with the influence of American music on Europe. What took so long, I ask him. “It takes a long time to write a book,” he answers. He points out that actually, he had a jumpstart on the Hitchcock book since it is related to a section on Hollywood emigres in “New World Symphonies.” “I didn’t have to start a new project; I could just take off.” Still, he had never written a book about film before.
Shortly after the year 2000 Sullivan committed to writing the Hitchcock book. For almost three years he chased down archival material. His trajectory took him to archives at movie studios and at the Oscar-granting Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood, along with the Austin, Texas, archive of producer David Selznick, and archives devoted to composers Franz Waxman and Miklos Rozsa in Rochester, New York. “Once I got the archival material together in 2003, it didn’t take took long,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan then started talking to people close to the process of creating the Hitchcock films. “I talked to stars as well as musicians. There were so many giving, cooperative people.” Among those who told Sullivan their stories were screenwriter Joseph Stefano and actress Janet Leigh, both of whom died before publication of the book.
In preparation for the book Sullivan viewed the films, which are available on DVD, multiple times. “You never really get tired of watching. There are so many spectacular shots. And there’s an enormous variety of music so your ears don’t get tired.” On December 31 Sullivan viewed Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” for, he estimates, the 1000th time, after providing introductory remarks for a festival celebrating the movie music of Franz Waxman at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Sullivan had additional exposure to the Hitchcock films in the classes he teaches at Rider and at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Moreover, in a sort of busman’s holiday, he looked at the movies with his sons, who are now almost adolescent. “The kids love Hitchcock,” Sullivan says. “They can recite the lines. They like obscure movies like `The Trouble with Harry,’ and they compare remakes. They’re Hitchcock scholars.” Protectively, Sullivan has not yet let his children see “Psycho” or “The Birds.” “They’re too gruesome,” he says.
Sullivan was born in 1946 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a mathematics professor father and a piano teacher mother. As a child his instruments were piano and guitar. He remembers watching “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” shortly after his parents bought a television set in the 1950s, and succumbing to the music in “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature and music from Furman College in Greenville, he earned a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His Ph.D. thesis, a study of supernatural stories in 19th century England, was the basis for his book “Elegant Nightmares.” In 1974 he took a course with theologian and biographer Donald Spoto, who has published several books on Hitchcock, at New York’s New School. Spoto inspired him to become a Hitchcock scholar.
Sullivan’s wife, Robin Bromley, is executive editor of “The Grapevine,” the magazine of Alcoholics Anonymous. The couple’s children are Geoffrey, 12, and David, 11.
Head of Rider University’s American Studies Department, Sullivan has taught enthusiastically at Westminster Choir College since 1992, when it merged with Rider University. “I became a fan of Westminster Choir College when I first moved to New York in 1969 and heard the choir perform with the New York Philharmonic,” he says. “When the merger took place, I ran to the phone and asked the dean if I could do something there.” Sullivan’s Wednesday night film course has become a staple at the choir college and has inspired one of his students to create the website: www. Hitchcocksmusic.com.
“In the book I tried to do what Hitchcock did — appeal to different audiences,” Sullivan says. “Hitchcock was unusual in appealing to both intellectuals and general audiences, and to all multiple generations — my kids, my students, older folks. Younger ones, and those in the middle. I tried to pitch the book to everybody: scholars, movie lovers, Hitchcock specialists, and groupies.”
Every serious fan of Hitchcock needs this book. Its movie-by-movie account of Hitchcock’s music reveals how the director made sight and sound work together for riveting enticements into suspense.
And in case you have questions not covered in “Hitchcock’s Music,” Jack Sullivan can explain further. He knows more than he could fit into some 300 judiciously-footnoted pages.
Hitchcock’s Music, Thursday, January 25, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor, and Monday, February 19, 4:30 p.m, Rider University Student Center Art Gallery. Jack Sullivan introduces his new book about the innovations Alfred Hitchcock created in film music. www.bn.com or 609-716-1570.