Artistic licence

I see that Kim Novak has expressed her upset at the use of music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the Oscar-tipped film The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and in the strongest terms. ‘I want to report a rape,’ she writes.

Her outrage, melodramatic though it may seem, is at least comprehensible. If you don’t think Vertigo is one of the greatest films ever made, then presumably you haven’t seen it. Its score may be the finest of Bernard Herrmann’s dazzling career, and that is not a claim that can be made lightly when one looks at his credits (all those other Hitchcocks, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and so on – and also Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir, a film somewhat neglected nowadays containing a Herrmann score that is one of my personal favourites, and was one of his own, I believe).

The score of The Artist consists almost entirely of original material. I noticed two obvious exceptions when I saw it last Friday: the song ‘Pennies from Heaven’, which is sung around the mid-point of the film; and, towards the end, the music from the ‘Scène d’Amour’ in Vertigo, which is stated in its entirety over the course of one of the later sequences.

I think the idea of some kind of rape is easily dismissed. If it’s legal for Hazanavicius to use Herrmann’s music, then it’s fair game. It’s not the first time the music of Vertigo has been used elsewhere, and it won’t be the last. And it’s not as if either a) the use of this music in The Artist devalues Vertigo at all (that wouldn’t apply even if The Artist were a bad film, which it isn’t) or b) the music is used at all insensitively in The Artist, let alone violently abused (as Wagner’s Tristan prelude was in Lars von Trier’s recent offering Melancholia, which I have avoided primarily for that reason, convinced that it would render the film intolerable for me – read Alex Ross on the subject). On the contrary, the music complements the visual aspect pleasingly, and the combination of the two creates a mood of great tension that is resolved brilliantly.

But in spite of the moral validity of using Herrmann’s music, there may still be a problem; and if there is a problem, then it is this: that anyone who is familiar with Vertigo will already associate the music with that film. When the music started in The Artist, I identified it in a split second, from the very first note. It sent a shiver of excitement running through my body. What a masterstroke it may turn out to be, I thought, after all of the original music that has gone before, suddenly to invoke Vertigo. Then, after a few moments, I began to have doubts. For while I was watching the faces of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (and Uggie the dog) on the screen, there were two other faces in my mind, namely those of James Stewart and Kim Novak. Try as I might, I was unable to divorce the film I was watching from the film already in my head, the one I have seen so many times before. As the emotion heightened on screen and that final exciting crescendo began to well, I was thinking in spite of myself of that climactic scene in the bell tower, where Stewart forces Novak up the steps to meet her fate.

At some level, then, the use of the music from Vertigo in The Artist must be considered a failure. I find it hard to imagine that it was chosen simply for its musical quality (though that would have been reason enough); presumably its inclusion was meant to suggest some connection between the two films, though exactly what I can’t say. But ultimately, to those who know Vertigo well enough, the music will inevitably be a distraction. Vertigo is a film of uncommon power, and for The Artist to succeed in breaking the bond between Herrmann’s music and its original application is too much to ask.

The Artist is a film of sufficient quality that the intrusion of Vertigo does not detract too much from its overall impact. The charisma of its stars, Uggie included, is great, and the charm of the film as a snapshot of a vanished golden age considerable. Ludovic Bource, the composer of the rest of the soundtrack, should be mentioned. His music is catchy and memorable (I’m still humming it now) and he is sure to win many awards for it.

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