Vertigo is nigh inseparable from its soundtrack, and as entertaining or technically proficient as the rest of the movie may be, without the work of Bernard Herrman I do not believe it would have the stature it enjoys today. The score is repetitious but by design. The chords continuously looping back and forth mirror many aspects of the plot. Namely, Scottie making the rounds through all of Madeleine’s usual stomping grounds, the dizzying feeling of vertigo itself, and the cycling back to the same moment in time over and over again that defines obsession. It’s impossible to imagine a more fitting musical accompaniment for this story, one that can be at times haunting, beautiful or both at once.
In this essay, I’ll share some thoughts on the soundtrack cues one by one. I’m not musically trained so I can’t shed light on what key a track is written in, what exact chords it uses or anything of that nature. These are just my amateur assessments.
Prelude: This track is one of the few that doesn’t use the same overarching motifs as the rest. If you were to hear it apart from the others, you might not even realize you were watching a partially-romantic melodrama. The Prelude sounds more evocative of a theme you’d hear in a played-straight mystery, which I believe was intentional. The one time this music is repeated later in the film occurs during the brief scene where Judy is getting her hair dyed. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say this is the case because the central mystery of this film is not “who killed Madeleine” but rather what Gavin asks Scottie: “Do you believe someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?” When Judy gets her hair dyed, she completely subsumes her true identity into that of Madeleine. Scottie has succeeded at bringing back the image of his dead obsession. With this act, the mystery is solved in the affirmative.
I’ve heard some theorize that this opening represents Scotties mind–the idealized vision of beauty he’s obsessed with, and spirals representing his mind taking him back to all of his memories with her ad infinitum. The spirals in the title sequence could also be stylized depictions of stairs, as in the tower, as the trigger to his vertigo.
Rooftops: This track plays during Scottie’s two big traumatic events in the film. Here it’s accompanied by the origin of his vertigo and the first death he feels responsible for. Then the theme repeats when his vertigo prevents him from saving the live of his life. This is also the first track where we hear the iconic musical sting that plays every time the effects of vertigo are depicted on screen.
Scottie Trails Madeleine: It’s very significant that we don’t hear another note of music (besides Mozart and another sting when Scottie faints) until Madeleine comes on screen. This helps her to feel special to the viewer, as she adds a meaning and excitement for us the same as Scottie. The song in Ernie’s is unmistakably about love and romance.
Madeleine’s Car: This is like a faster, jumbled mix of Carlottas “march” and Madeleine’s theme. The former is the backbone of the track while the latter constantly starts up but never concludes. I see this as mimicking how Madeleine is not yet the gravitational center of Scottie’s mind–just an attraction. When Scottie can see her in person again (not just her car) like in the flower shop and graveyard, Madeleine’s proper theme returns. These mental “snapshots” of her will be among those he spirals back to for the rest of his life. The latter has a fittingly eerie arrangement. First time viewers will find it appropriate due to the graveyard setting, repeat viewers due to the foreshadowing of Madeleine and Judy’s fate.
Carlotta’s Portrait: This is not as sweeping and grand as Madeleine’s theme, but rather more like a march. Whenever I listen to this song and its callbacks, I feel as if the characters are marching towards a predetermined fate. It will be heard again when Madeleine describes her dreams (and unknowingly predicts her own death) as well as when Scottie sees the necklace. Besides the necklace’s direct connection to Carlotta, the moment where Scottie discovers it also represents the point where both characters have gone too far to turn back. (The music that plays on the stairs of the tower in the finale might also be a slightly different variation on this theme.)
The Bay: I always interpret the beginning of this song as mirroring the beautiful landscape of the bay as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. When Madeleine stops there, the song grows quiet and peaceful, with only the slightest hint of foreboding and then explodes with her jump into the water.
By the Fireside: After a beginning that evokes feelings of calm and serenity, Madeleine’s theme takes over as we see her belongings and the woman herself, up close and personal for the first time. There’s enough variation in the theme towards the end to hint that there’s something else going on here as well. This is not just another pristine mental snapshot of Madeleine in Scottie’s mind. It’s Judy beginning to fall for him too, on her own terms. I like to think of the last half of this track as Judy’s theme, less grandiose than Madeleine’s, and unheard for most of the film, but very beautiful in its own right. (It’s just that nobody cared to pay attention.)
The Forest: The only track that doesn’t get any callbacks later in the soundtrack. (At least not that I’ve ever noticed.) It sounds spooky, as if the characters were in a graveyard rather than a beautiful forest. On the surface, this is already fitting because Scottie sees Madeleine disappear and reappear among the trees like a ghost, as well as her fits of apparition. But on a deeper level I believe the haunting theme works with the image of the tree rings themselves as well. It makes the viewer consider how brief and insignificant humans and our problems really are in the grand scheme of things. Upon rewatching dozens of times, I also see the rings as showing us how far back in time the destructive “Carlotta cycle” of men using and abusing women has gone on for. Each tree is like its own tower, representing all the past Carlottas, Madeleines and Judys throughout history. Each ring contains more sad stories like the one we’re witnessing. This way, depending on your interpretation, the forest scene and its song are either a reminder of how insignificant these two lovers are, or how massive and far back the problem of toxic relationships is. (Why not both?)
The Beach: This track is a lot more dynamic than what’s come before–especially at the ending. I think this is because it’s where we first hear Madeleine admit she knows what’s wrong with her. It’s where the true malevolence of Carlotta’s ghost and the threat of losing Madeleine herself become real to Scottie. Up until now it’s all been about discovery for him, like his previous cases, but now he’s emotionally invested. When Madeleine describes her dream, Carlotta’s theme returns. Then the music builds to a crescendo as the two kiss for the first time.
The Dream: Picks up right where the last track left off, the screech of the orchestra is Madeleine completely vulnerable and reliant on Scottie for the first time. Then we return once again to Carlotta’s theme as she describes the dream yet again.
Farewell and the Tower: This one begins with touches of the Madeleine theme interspersed with new variations to set the location and mood. Then we get a brief, new arrangement on the Carlotta theme as one last reminder that our protagonist is unwittingly completing her legacy. The music builds to a climax again when they kiss twice, for the last time, in the memory that will haunt Scottie for the rest of his life. This is the most complete and powerful version of Madeleine’s theme we’ve heard yet. When Scottie chases her, the music spirals into a series of loops as if to signal this as the central point in his memories, the scene he will always loop back to. The vertigo sting returns to accompany Scottie recognizing Madeleine’s intentions in scaling the tower. From there we get a callback to the rooftop theme, getting more frantic after each vertigo sting. Then the music appropriately loses its bombast and becomes more somber as if to reflect the loss.
Nightmare: This song is generally cacophonous and threatening to signal Scotties mental breakdown, and culminates in the most dramatic vertigo sting on the soundtrack. The dawn half of this track I always saw as the film signifying that all should be at peace. It’s a beautiful day, a respectable amount of time has passed, a normal person would be in the process of moving on by now. And then we see Scottie in the hospital and realize that this isn’t a normal grieving he could just shrug off and move on from. Some traumas consume a person, and that’s what we’re witnessing.
The Past and the Girl: Anyone who’s known heartbreak will find themselves vaguely familiar with this track. Somehow, it feels like this song is weighted down. Then this feeling of heaviness and tension is relieved towards the end when Scottie sees Judy.
The Letter: The rooftop theme plays again as we see the staircase chase, then more cycling music as another character relives that tragic day again. The more delicate theme that plays at the end sounds to me like “shedding some light on the subject.” It plays as Judy openly tells the audience her identity, hopes and true feelings.
Goodnight and the Park: The new melody that’s playing as Scottie and Judy return from their date gets quickly overpowered by Madeleine’s theme as Scottie notices her profile against the window and is reminded of his dead obsession.
Scene D’Amour: I think this scene is meant to be sexual intercourse set to music. It starts off very diminished, wavers back and forth for a bit, then builds to an overwhelming climax. The notes that play right as Judy walks past Scottie into her room strike me as intentionally discordant and melancholy. She’s deeply unhappy and the music expresses it. But while Scottie is still not quite satisfied, he sees even more of Madeleine now and you can hear it in the up-tick, the new playfulness the score takes on from there. When Judy leaves the room to fix her hair, things slow down again, and then finally explode when the form of Madeleine emerges again. As Scottie flashes back to the old Spanish Mission the music performs another dizzying series of loops, mirroring Scottie’s constant return to that memory where he last held Madeleine in his arms.
The Necklace: We hear the loudest and most threatening variation of the Carlotta theme in the entire score, as Scottie discovers the necklace. Then a somber, reflective variation of Madeleine’s theme as Scottie briefly recalls the loss (before unwittingly repeating it once more). The music that plays while they’re driving is scattered and almost violent with itself, representing Scottie’s frenzied, emotional state. When they arrive at the Mission, the music could be lifted from Vertigo and placed in a straight-up horror film without sounding out of place.
As Scottie and Judy get out of the car the music becomes more looming and deliberate. I interpret the “heavier” notes followed by “lighter” notes in this section as a fitting representation of Scottie pushing Judy along to the tower, while she feebly tries to escape.
Once they’re inside the church, my favorite part of the entire Vertigo soundtrack begins to play. The music is, on its face, very sweet and delicate. It’s like the embodiment of Judy in this moment–beautiful, but fragile. It’s emblematic of all relationships that had messy conclusions–the memories were originally sweet but become extremely painful. The contrast of the sensual Madeleine theme, (played somewhat disharmoniously,) over the image of Scottie violently dragging Judy onto the stairs is very powerful. It’s a cue to the audience that passionate, uncontrollable love is what paradoxically led to this terrible moment (and every other moment where a jealous lover caught their partner cheating/felt betrayed and violently lashed out.)
The music gets more bombastic as they go up the tower and Scottie pulls his victim through the trapdoor. Finally we hear the love theme one last time as Judy pleads her love and begs for protection. For a second the score seems poised to end here, until the foreboding organ sounds come in and Judy falls to her death.