The Sublime Subliminal in Cinema

Cinemaby Jon N. Hall2/19/16
In my last little article on cinema, I let drop that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo “is regarded by some as the greatest film ever.” And just as I predicted, some took the bait and commented. They implied that Vertigo isn’t even Hitchcock’s best, much less the world’s all-time greatest flick. To disabuse my “errant” commenters, I cite the poll that Sight & Sound magazine (a publication of the British Film Institute) conducts to decide which films are the greatest of all time. The survey has been conducted every ten years since 1952, and lo, the 2012 winner was … Vertigo.

Of course, lists of bests can be pretty silly. Sillier still are awards, as in The Oscars. You see, Vertigo didn’t get the Best Picture nod in 1958, Gigi did. In fact, Vertigo wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, nor was Hitch up for Best HitchcockDirectsNovakDirector, nor was there a nomination in another category that we’ll get to shortly. Moreover, the previous holder of Sight & Sound’s top film honor, Citizen Kane, was also snubbed by the Academy — so much for the Academy’s insights into greatness. At least Orson Welles and his film were nominated.

But why is Vertigo so great? The aspect of Vertigo that for me is most masterful is its magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann. Indeed, I can’t even imagine Vertigo without Herrmann’s music. Excuse me for talking big, but Herrmann’s score is one of the most perfect in all of cinema. It’s perfect not just because it’s beautiful in its own right, but because it perfectly complements the other elements of the movie. With lesser music, one doubts that Vertigo would be history’s greatest film. But back in 1958 Herrmann’s great score wasn’t even nominated by the Academy.

Regardless of how wonderful a movie’s music might be, some moviegoers claim to be oblivious to it. And in some scenes the music can be so subtle that even music lovers might fail to notice it. Yet, music is integral to many movies; it makes us feel what the moviemaker wants us to feel. Except for those who are dead to it, music in a movie often operates on a subconscious level; it’s subliminal. Let’s look at a couple movie scenes where the music is subliminal.

The Imitation Game (2014) is a biopic about Alan Turing, ImitationGameone of the fathers of the machine that I typed this on and with which you are, presumably, reading. The film is about Turing and his team’s breaking of the Enigma code, the Nazi secret code during WWII. It’s a terrific film well worth screening, but I mention it because of one short powerful scene in which the subliminal figures. It’s when Turing confronts his fiancée Joan Clarke to break off their coming nuptials:

JOAN: Alan, what’s happened?

ALAN: [pause] We can’t be engaged anymore. Your parents need to take you back. Find you a husband elsewhere.

JOAN: What’s wrong with you?

ALAN: I have something to tell you. I’m… I’m a homosexual.

JOAN: Alright.

ALAN: No, no, men, Joan. Not women.

JOAN: So what?

ALAN: I just told you…

JOAN: So what? I had my suspicions. I always did. But we’re not like other people. We love each other in our own way, and we can have the life together that we want. You won’t be the perfect husband? I can promise you I harboured no intention of being the perfect wife. I’ll not be fixing your lamb all day, while you come home from the office, will I? I’ll work. You’ll work. And we’ll have each other’s company. We’ll have each other’s minds. Sounds like a better marriage than most. Because I care for you. And you care for me. And we understand one another more than anyone else ever has.

ALAN: I don’t…

JOAN: What?

ALAN: …care for you. I never did. I just needed you to break Enigma. I’ve done that now, so you can go.

JOAN: [slaps him] I am not going anywhere. I have spent entirely too much of my life worried about what you think of me, or what my parents think of me, or what the boys in Hut 8 or the girls in Hut 3 think, and you know what I am done. This work is the most important thing I will ever do. And no one will stop me. Least of all you. [pause] You know what they were right. Peter. Hugh. John. You really are a monster.

I’d say Joan’s a bit miffed. But Joan’s fury is not what we feel as we listen to her vent. For underneath this dramatic faceoff, Alexandre Desplat’s elegant score makes us feel something rather different: a terrible sadness, perhaps the sadness of Alan Turing. The scene has no music until just before Joan says “Because I care for you.” And it’s all done with the repetition of three descending notes. But that subliminal “minimalist” insinuation into the scene changes it utterly, (it put me in mind of Bernard Herrmann). Monsieur Desplat’s lengthy oeurve is impressive; I particularly liked his score for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Sadly, I couldn’t find an unedited video of this scene, so I recommend screening the entire movie, (so you can be on the lookout for the subliminal, heh heh). But the flick is currently playing on SHOWTIME, where you can watch the trailer, find stills, and decide how to screen it. And I will be on the lookout for more fine films from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum. (If you’re really antsy to watch the above scene, all I can do for you is this YouTube video, which has been edited. The first half is pristine, but the last half of it is overlaid with subsequent footage. However, you can still hear the dialog and those three haunting notes.)

In my aforementioned last article on the talkies, I touched on the unusual ending of Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). That flick has another scene, and it works subliminally. The flick concerns a young pop diva who is waiting for the results of her medical tests. CleoWalkShe’s narcissistic, vain, a bit of a prima donna, and childish. And she’s quite distraught over the possibility of testing positive for cancer. The film might be said to be divided into two parts … by a change of clothes.

In the middle of the film, Cleo sings a new song, “Sans toi,” for her lyricist and pianist. It’s a depressing song, certainly not what she needs while waiting her diagnosis, and she throws a fit. Emotionally wrung out, she goes behind a curtain to change clothes. Her assistant remarks, “she gets so upset,” and that’s the end of the first part of the flick, (at least as I see it). We then see a black screen, which we learn is the curtain as Cleo pulls it back to reveal herself wearing a black dress. She spits back to her lyricist his lyrics: “pale, ashen, alone.” She then tears off the ridiculous wig she’s worn during the first half of the flick to reveal her platinum, white-blonde tresses. Cleo needs to be alone and goes out for a walk. Though it is summer, she puts on the winter fur hat she’s just purchased, descends her stairs and enters her “courtyard,” and this is where our video begins. In the courtyard, there’s a small child sitting on a curb banging on a toy piano. As Cleo turns a corner we hear music which sounds like the plucking of a toy instrument; it sounds to my ear like the strings are plastic. Underneath this plastic pizzicato, instruments swirl in arpeggios. Cleo goes through her gate and out on the street, and rather than appearing like the young airhead of part one, she looks like a queen. Is it her worry over the possibility of a cancer diagnosis that has made her bearing so regal?

Perhaps the subliminal figures in Cleo’s transformation, you see the music we hear as Cleo takes her walk is an instrumental arrangement of “Sans toi,” the song she’s just sung. As I see it, the poignancy of the song, including its depressing text, is transferred into this instrumental arrangement and hence into Cleo’s stroll, and for most moviegoers I’d imagine that it does so subliminally, at least in their first screening. Her walking interrupts a crowd of birds; she stops and then goes to a storefront window. As Cleo looks at herself in a mirror she takes off her winter hat and we hear her thoughts. (You can stop the video at this point.)

What I recommend is that you first listen to “Sans toi”; the video is from the movie and Cleo’s pianist Bob is played by composer Michel Legrand, who wrote the score for Cleo. And after that, watch the video of Cleo’s walk through Paris. Also, you might watch this charming French trailer of Varda’s Cleo. If it interests you, watch the whole movie for free at Hulu.

I’m afraid I’ve barely scratched the surface of the subliminal, much less the “sublime subliminal.” But I feel an irrepressible need to go to the concession stand for a Coke, and something, something I’m not totally aware of, something that I can’t quite put my finger on, is urging me to … stop.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (1073 views)

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5 Responses to The Sublime Subliminal in Cinema

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    I certainly enjoy music, but probably not at the level needed to appreciate these movie scores as you do. Of course, one Hitchcock movie in which music plays a crucial role on more than one occasion is the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, with James Stewart (who was also in Vertigo) and Doris Day.

    • David Ray says:

      James Stuart, a conservative, risked his life flying bmbing runs. His liberal friend, Henry Fonda, did not.
      Instead he burdened the U.S. with a treasonous fool. (That acorn didn’t fall too far.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        So true, David. I’d read that director John Ford slugged Henry Fonda during the filming of Mister Roberts for some anti-American comments. I don’t remember the details. But there was a difference between the Ford/Wayne clan and the Fonda/Fonda clan.

        Still, Fonda fought for his country in WWII. And it must be said that the late great Ronald Reagan fostered some libtard children.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Jon, I promise to watch Vertigo again. I don’t think I’ve seen it in 30 years. I’ll give it my uber-objective review as always.


    I agree that Bernard Hermann was a truly great film composer, and he did a great job on Vertigo. But I must say I have very little respect for Hitchcock, a manipulator and no artist, and have always regretted that Hermann didn’t have better films than his to compose for during that period. He did of course compose for what I would say were better films: Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and a number of Twilight Zone episodes.

    As for Vertigo, technically Hitchcock was at his best. He got a good performance from the inexperienced Kim Novak and a superb one from Jimmy Stewart that basically made the film along with Hermann’s score and Novak’s great beauty (important to make Stewart’s obsession seem believable). But it falls apart near the end under the accumulated weight of psychological and other improbabilities. That’s the problem when your basic method is to hold the audience in suspense through manipulation; you must forfeit not only believability but also the higher purpose of interpreting human experience. It’s the difference between the tragedy of Hamlet and a tear-jerker like Love Story – in fact, the term “tear-jerker” pretty well explains what I mean by “manipulation” even though the specific emotions involved are different with Hitchcock. Hitchcock drags the audience into a state of nervous tension rather than sadness, but drag them he does. A real artist does not.

    Music is indeed an important part of drama. I believe I mentioned a while back that Star Trek: The Next Generation was somewhat poorer for eschewing music compared to the generally good scoring of the original series. Of course, its drama was minimal in any case.

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