Kevin Clifton

The Anatomy of Aural Suspense in Rope and Vertigo

My presentation explores the dramatic employment of music in two classic Hitchcock films, Rope (1948) and Vertigo (1958), both of which effectively sustain suspense throughout the filmic narrative. In Rope, Phillip Morgan, one of the killers, gives an on-screen performance of the first movement of Francis Poulenc’s Mouvement Perpétuels (1918) during a macabre dinner party, where one of the guests lies dead in a trunk. While Hitchcock never spoke about his use of music in Rope, he undoubtedly understood that Poulenc’s pre-existing music—music not composed for the film, but rather chosen by Hitchcock himself—added value to the image track. The music in ­Rope can be interpreted on different analytical levels: discrete levels of purely musical forces as well as possible extra-musical meanings. Working outwards from this interpretive framework, the filmic viewer will be able to appreciate the employment of Bernard Herrmann’s music composed especially for Vertigo with a fresh set of new ears so to speak. In particular, both films feature dramatic moments of aural suspense in which music actively yearns for closure yet concomitantly resists this closure at the same time. As we will see and hear, these moments of musical ambivalances—or suspenseful ‘open endings’—brilliantly counterpoint the narrative complexities of both films.