Vertigo 1958 Hitchcock

With the Academy Awards just a few days behind us, and a complete Hitchcock retrospective at Film Forum ongoing, it seems like an ideal time to ask why there is no Oscar for Best Title Sequence.  True, it’s a challenging form, constrained by the artificiality of its purpose, and overshadowed by its more photogenic cousins, the music video, the short film, and the commercial.  But so many of the great directors excelled at it.  Think of the not-so-subtly erotic airplane rendezvous with which Kubrick introduces Dr. Strangelove, or the mournful sax and Dante-esque columns of steam that set the mood perfectly for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  A film’s title sequence, like the title itself, is a crucial meta-text: a preview of the tone the director will try to establish, and a simplification of the story she is about to tell.

Even compared with the likes of Kubrick and Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock had a remarkable knack for a good title sequence.  Is it any wonder?  Hitchcock was the most playful of the great directors of world cinema; making a movie was a game to him, to be played in private, then finished on the set with the satisfying inevitability of the winning solitaire cards being sorted into their respective piles.  While he could always make his audiences forget they were watching a movie, he himself never lost sight of that fact: like Humbert Humbert, he told his stories coolly and craftily, amused that anyone could become overwhelmed by them.  That’s the reason for his famous cameos: they’re winking reminders, (ones that no cinephile can heed for long), that this is all just a movie.  Hitchcock’s title sequences are miniatures of his movies, confirming all of his artistic quirks and credos.  They acknowledge their artificiality and still manage to be hugely entertaining in their own right.

Hitchcock’s best title sequences, like his best films, were born out of collaborations with a few key allies.  The name of Dimitri Tiomkin has been unjustly forgotten, but he composed the score for four of Hitchcock’s best films: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), and Dial M for Murder (1954).  Shadow of a Doubt’s title sequence sets the stage for an intense psychological drama in large part thanks to Tiomkin’s clever use of music, quoting Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz in anticipation of our introduction to Joseph Cotten’s Merry Widow Murderer.  Still, the lion’s share of the credit belongs to Hitchcock himself, who displays his talent for disorienting visual effects, later perfected in Vertigo, with a kaleidoscopic circle of dance partners, the men dressed in black, the women in white.  It’s a clear metaphor for the relationship between the two Charlies in the film – one young and innocent, one old and evil, each perversely drawn to the other – as well as an omen of the sinister things lurking in ordinary places.

The eerie alliance between the sinister and ordinary dominates Hitchcock’s oeuvre, never more so than in Strangers on a Train, which kicks off with a chance encounter in the most banal of places.  This time, Tiomkin’s title sequence score is an unambiguous warning of the horrors to come, counterpointed with a bland shot of Penn Station.  The view tells you to breathe easy, but the music tells you to be on your guard.  The music, of course, is right.  The titles for Spellbound – featuring that most innocent of images, a tree, and set to Miklós Rózsa’s experimental theremin score – exploit the same tension between what’s heard and what’s seen.  It is as if the electronic whine of the music is stripping the leaves away, leaving only the naked branches. Hitchcock was a lifelong Freudian, so it’s only appropriate that his most explicitly psychoanalytic film should open with one of the most blatantly psychoanalytic scenes he ever directed.

Then there are the three masterful title sequences designed by the graphic artist and filmmaker in his own right Saul Bass.  Bass’ gift for generating a strong message from a simple image was legendary: anyone who can picture the logos for the Girl Scouts, AT&T, or Quaker Oats con quickly confirm his talent.  Consider the two abstract titles he created for North by Northwest and Psycho.  Though on the surface they’re nearly identical, (lines and words trickling across the screen) no one could fail to recognize their tonal differences.  Psycho’s stark black and white and severe right angles suggest an especially sinister strain of banality, even by the director’s standards; North by Northwest’s green background and energetic diagonals, by contrast, announce a fun, adventurous movie.  The famous transition in the latter, whereby abstract lines become the floors of Cary Grant’s skyscraper, suggests Hitchcock at his most whimsical; what you’re about to see, he seems to be saying, is nothing but a great cartoon, sketched on the pages of Ernest Lehman’s globetrotting screenplay.  Of course, no small part of the difference between these two title sequences comes from the contributions of Hitchcock’s most important musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.  It’s a cliché, and wrong to boot, to describe Herrmann’s work as dreamlike – the plummeting strings in Psycho, like the pounding horns from North by Northwest, don’t exactly transport us to another world, but rather intensify the events of our own.  This is a crucial difference for Hitchcock, maybe even the crucial difference for understanding his appeal.  The story on the screen may begin as a mere cartoon, but eventually it lands somewhere too familiar to be laughed off, whether it’s a bathroom or a hotel bar.

Or the streets of San Francisco.  There’s no better evidence that Hitchcock title sequences are miniature Hitchcock films than Bass’ work for Vertigo.  As Herrmann’s minor key arpeggios set the room spinning, extreme close-ups circle around a woman’s mouth, her chin, and her hair, before arriving at her black, gleaming eye. It’s clear, if one thinks of the famous shot of Janet Leigh’s pupil from Psycho two years later, that Bass had a major influence on Hitchcock; there are even some diehards who swear that he directed the entire shower scene, though it’s more likely that he just drew some of the storyboards.  In Vertigo, he proves himself to be a remarkably perceptive reader of the themes Hitchcock’s audiences wouldn’t pick up on for decades.  Scotty falls in love with an idea, not a woman, and spends most of the third act trying to reassemble it piece by piece.  How appropriate, then, that Vertigo should begin with the “fragments” of a woman’s face, culminating in the eye – the window to the soul whose emptiness makes those fragments all-important.  We don’t yet understand what we’ve seen, but the images won’t leave our heads for the rest of the film.

There’s been a considerable movement in recent years to get Best Title Sequence on the Oscar ballot.  The New York Times and Vanity Fair have given away mock awards, to Argo and Oz the Great and Powerful, respectively, and there’s a great website, artofthetitle.com, devoted to the work of Bass, Maurice Binder, Richard Greenberg, and other masters of the form.  But these publications’ enthusiasm seems suspiciously like nostalgia to me.  It’s probable that titling at the Oscars, like bowling at the Olympics, is doomed to come frustratingly close to a reality.  The bigger truth, which I’ve been avoiding so far, is that the title sequence is in danger of returning to the blandness from which it emerged sixty-odd years ago.  Contemporary directors tend to save titles for after the movie, when the audience is ready to go home, and many of them stick with the simple credits crawl.  Watch the clips in this article, with their clever foreshadowing and psychological complexity, and it’s difficult not to think that the decline of the title sequence marks the twilight of a certain kind of director, too, the kind who weighed every artistic decision carefully and who could carry on intelligently about his methods for an hour or more at a time (for evidence of this species’ near-extinction, contrast Hitchcock’s interview with Truffaut with the DVD commentaries by auteurs as talented at Fincher, Tarantino, and P.T. Anderson).  The first five minutes of Vertigo or Strangers on a Train are as clear a portrait as any of a filmmaker who always knew exactly what he was doing.