The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs – Hampus Hagman

Norman in Psycho.

An animated gif uses the Graphics Interchange Format to create movement from still images. The outcome is a short clip with jerky motion that has been described, quite aptly, as a “digital flip book”.[1] The device has been around since the 1980s, but due to its bite-size format, the ease of circulating it, and the availability of tools for creating one, the gif has in the last few years returned to become a widely popular item on blogs and tumblrs. Content-wise, animated gifs frequently consist of a few frames culled from a pre-existing movie. This brief moment is then looped in order to give the impression of a (somewhat) continuous movement. What is noteworthy about these mini movies is that they, quite often, focus on the “minor” moments of a film, such as, for instance, scenes from Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) with Hattie McDaniel rather than the more memorable scenes of, say, the “Frankly, dear, I don’t give a damn” caliber.[2] Of course, the more iconic scenes get heavily referenced as well, but due to the brevity of the format, gifs are more suitable for mannerisms and gestures than “big” dramatic moments. The gifs that work the best are therefore those that manage to withdraw themselves from being representative of the films from which they are sourced in order to create a logic and economy of motion wholly their own.

It has been suggested that the compressed nature of the gif is ideal for our contemporary culture of distraction.[3] According to this view, the “video-shorthand” of the format corresponds to a cultural tendency toward ever-increasing abbreviation of information output and decreased temporal commitment.[4] Are we to believe, then, that gifs are part of the same contemporary logic that makes us prefer the quickness of twittering to the more time consuming activity of writing a blog post? Considering that gifs appear frequently on microblogging platforms such as Tumblr, maybe so.

But I think we miss something crucial about the attraction of the gif if we only take it to be a cultural symptom of our hectic times. The gif is more than just an easy means to share clips from favorite TV shows or movies in unaltered form. That the gif would be little more than a less time consuming, shorthanded replacement for the movie that it references is contradicted by the fact that, more often than not, the technology is used to alter the content of the original, sometimes beyond recognition. The gif, in other words, is more a matter of creation than recycling. At the heart of this creative intervention lies a recognition of cinematic movement as a force of differentiation and metamorphosis. As I will argue, the impetus behind the animated gif is as old as cinema itself.

Some historians and theorists of the moving image have pointed out that before film was organized into narrative sequences and stories, what enthralled filmmakers and spectators alike was the sheer fact that the images moved.[5] The central procedure of the gif consists in the restitution of fascination with the fundamental element of cinema: movement. It thus reveals a commitment to cinema rather than a devaluation of it. The animated gif is characterized by the attempt to make movement strange again, to assert a power of movement all its own, liberated from the responsibility of making it mean and carry out narrative goals. This inclination can be stressed by viewing the animated gif as a form of gesture.

In his short essay “Notes on Gesture” philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that “the element of cinema is gesture and not image”.[6] A true gesture, suggests Agamben, is neither a means to an end nor an end without means, it is means as such, the manifestation of pure mediality. Cinema¾at least in its earliest manifestation and the chronophotographic experiments that paved the way for it¾liberates human movement from being purposeful, it is the exhibition of the medium of movement for and by itself. Stephen Crocker lucidly brings forth this point:

The effect of Muybridge’s photographic and filmic experiments such as Man Walking at Normal Speed was to take recognized gestures and, through the technical capacity of film, to remove them from the sensory motor schemas and purposes in which they are usually embedded. Early film and photography revealed the sheer taking place, or the “means” of human embodiment. The arm swinging is no longer part of a march. It is simply an arm swinging, arrested in its being toward some completed activity. If it were allowed to continue in its stride, the swing would be a means to carrying out some ambulatory goal. Removed from its terminal point, however, it is simply a gesture, a means of moving the human body in a yet to be determined pattern. This decontextualization of movement allowed a new understanding of human embodiment, which spread into psychology, physiology and other sciences. For Agamben, it suggests that cinema is not defined by the image and the dialectic of reality/representation, so much as its ability to display the “pure mediality” of our actions.[7]

However, it should be noted that narrative cinema tends to subordinate the gesture to the larger whole in which it is embedded and through which it receives its meaning. Hereby, the gesture is not allowed to stand by itself “decontextualized”, in the word of Crocker’s elucidation but becomes goal-oriented and causal in nature. As Benjamin Noys points out, Agamben is quite hostile to narrative cinema. His sympathies rather lie with avant-garde cinema since it more prominently exhibits the medium as such. Appropriately enough for our purposes, Agamben regards repetition of images as a way to “free the gestures within them”.[8] When gesture is liberated, its pure mediality manifests itself as potential, and because of this, Agamben sees in the gesture a political and ethical dimension.

As noted above, the gif, too, employs repetition not as a principle of sameness but as a principle of difference. By virtue of its looped repetition, movement is displaced from the circumscribed meaning it had in its original context and never reaches its narrative telos. When this happens, one is able to see beyond the representative content of movement and instead become aware of the altering force of movement to produce other meanings. I would like to argue, therefore, that the animated gif emerges in recognition of this pure potentiality of the gestural motion of cinema. By liberating a moment from its hosting narrative, the gif restores to cinema the gestural quality that has been veiled by its causal embeddedness. The gif can be said to perform the sort of decontextualization that Crocker writes of, and thereby cinematic movement is rebooted—given a second life as it were—outside the strictures of the narratives from which they originate. Hereby, the original meaning of a movement or gesture counts for little. Rather, it is the potential of movement to be put to other purposes that is asserted. Can we not, then, see the gif as a means to salvage the gesture from a cinema that has rendered it merely a means to an end and values it mainly for its accomplishment of narrative goals? A great many gifs are based on films with strong linear and causal structures. But what they do is to take hold of the excess inherent to them, to the effect that their original meanings are subverted, or at least opened up to recontextualizations.

The site GIFuniverse revels in this excessive power of movement.[9] The principle of repetition is here not only deployed temporally, but also spatially. Combining the successive repetitiveness of the gif with the spatial juxtaposition of the split screen, the whole screen is here filled with row upon row of pulsating, rhythmic and dancing imagery, all set to an accompanying musical soundtrack. The images displayed are of decidedly varied origin and content (amateur home videos appear next to clips from films and television; animation next to live action; scientific models next to low-brow visual gags) but their musical setting makes the visual field less chaotic than one might imagine. It is rather as if all the images were interacting components in a common rhythm: as if one were witness to some heterogeneous balletic choreography. Before the contemplation of specific content or the identification of visual forms can take place here, what strikes the viewer is the sheer excess of movement.

Cinematic culture has always been fascinated with the transformative and autonomous powers of movement. In his essay, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion”, Tom Gunning relates how the invention of cinema was welcomed by the changing aesthetic ideas of movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. Spearheading a lot of the new thoughts on movement was philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Gunning approvingly quotes: “In reality, the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the change of form: form is only a snapshot view of transition.”[10] In line with such thinking, the Symbolists and the Futurists saw “motion as force in itself, a plasmatic energy that creates form rather than simply moves them about”.[11] Gunning takes Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances as the exemplary demonstration of this metamorphic dimension of movement, but early cinema too celebrated movement for its own sake, with little or no narrative concerns. This leads Gunning to speak of movement as a matrix of meaning rather than meaning itself.[12]

So, is this detour through early cinema meant to imply that the animated gif heralds a return to a more “pure” state of the moving image? Blogger Kelli Marshall suggests something along these lines.[13] Indeed, as Marshall points out, on a technical and receptive level gifs do bear striking similarities to early cinema, or even proto-cinema: they are silent, they are viewed in private (Marshall is here making a comparison to the Kinetoscope in particular and how it allowed for viewing by only one person at a time) and they run on a loop. But, in addition to Marshall’s account, what is most striking about many gifs is their almost fetishistic fascination with pure movement, something they share with early cinema. The capacity of movement to transform is celebrated in many gifs. Through the circular continuity of the loop, a familiar bodily activity is rendered strange and bereft of regular sensorimotor causality. Through such forces of repetition and extension, the gif seems to tap into the matrix of movement that Gunning writes about. Gunning’s account leads us to recognize the excessive character of cinematic movement, which entails that it can take on meanings different from the one that it has reified into by serving as an agency of causal structures. Viewing the gif through the lens of Agamben’s gesture underscores this matrixial quality of movement, its dimension of pure mediality. As we shall see, however¾and this is where the digital component enters the equation¾the gif carries the gesture of movement to an ethical level beyond mere subjective cinephilia. The main difference from earlier cinema is that the gif makes our fascination with movement communicable and shareable, rather than just being the source of private consumption.

But before the gif can enter into circulation we must shed light on the logic that produces it in the first place. We must, in other words, explore what aspects of the film experience may count as “gestural”, and how these may be allowed to stand by themselves even in the face of films that work to neutralize them.

Methods of extraction: cinephilia and excess

One of the fundamental dictates of textual analysis is that the part is interpreted in light of the whole. For the cinephile, on the other hand, it is of little concern how something may or may not fit into the objective structures of meaning. Christian Keathley, quoting Paul Willeman, defines cinephilia as ”what is seen [that] is in excess of what is shown.”[14] Cinephilia is hence a stance of dissociation; of taking a detail from a movie and extracting it from the flow into which it is embedded. It is, as Keathley argues, a form of fetishism. The “cinephiliac moment” has nothing to do with those scenes inscribed into our collective memory banks, which is to say moments that are designed to be memorable, such as, for instance, the shower scene in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). It is on the contrary those moments of purely subjective enjoyment, whose precise appeal may be difficult to communicate to others. The gif can be regarded as a way of visualizing this subjective fetishism for a wider public. The animated gifs that are encountered all over the internet very seldom tell a story: on the contrary they seize hold of those purely excessive moments that carry little to no narrative purpose.

There exists a minor tradition in film theory that seeks to shed light on those moments of films that are not contained by more dominant signifying structures, but that are, simply, excessive. In the essay “The Third Meaning”, Roland Barthes ponders a collection of stills from Eisenstein’s films and wonders just what it is that affects him about them. He reaches the conclusion that beyond the “obvious meaning” contained in the informational and symbolic levels of a film there exists a third meaning that is not as easy to pin down. He attempts to capture this dimension by writing about how different stylistic elements in the mise-en-scene interact with one another. There is one still in particular that attracts Barthes’ attention. It is of an old woman from Battleship Potemkin (1925), and in it, Barthes finds that there is something striking about the purely formal relation between the lines of the woman’s headdress, her closed eyelids, and the shape of her mouth. To the scientific mind, Barthes ruminations may appear completely arbitrary, but this is exactly the point. The obtuse meaning escapes objective determination, it has its base in subjective reaction. Despite his assertions to the contrary, Barthes appears a proper cinephile when writing: “I believe that the obtuse meaning carries a certain emotion. […][This] emotion is never sticky, it is an emotion that simply designates what one loves, what one wants to defend: an emotion-value, an evaluation.”[15]

Barthes points out that the “third meaning” might only be accessible through the film still, the fragment. In the normal course of watching a film, the third meaning is drowned in the flow of images. However, as we can see from Keathley’s text, the cinephile knows how to cling onto these fleeting moments and details, even in the process of viewing a film. One reason that s/he is able to do so is because the cinephile is prone to repeat viewings.

Kristin Thompson has built upon Barthes’s discussion of the third meaning in order to develop a “concept of cinematic excess”. Excess is that which is not contained by a film’s unifying structures: “At that point where motivation fails, excess begins.”[16] Thompson suggests that one way to become aware of excess is through experimental films that examine already existing films, rearranging and repeating their components and bringing forth other qualities than those relating to narrative. After discussing films that have proceeded along these lines, such as Ken Jabob’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969) and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (late 1930s), Thompson disclaims that she “mean[s] to imply that the spectator or critic will be led to aesthetic creations of their own as a result of watching for excess.”[17] And yet, this is precisely what has happened. A gif do not require particularly sophisticated technology. Anyone can make one: software is available for free online and there is an app on the iPhone.[18] The availability of means to intervene into a movie¾to dissect and reconfigure its components¾has entailed that the excessive details from movies that were previously stored in the private memory banks of individual cinephiles have now become public property. By intensifying the excessive moments through repetitive looping and posting them online, viewer has now become purveyor of cinephiliac moments.

Some sites manifestly thrive on the excessive details of cinema. The blog If We Don’t, Remember Me wears its cinephile tastes on its sleeve.[19] Originator Gustav Mantel here posts shots from classic films such as The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987), 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963), and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) to mention but a few. The technique he uses to present them is called “cinemagraph”, which makes use of the gif format, but is visually different from traditional animation uses of it in that it can more properly be described as a combination of still photography and video. The results are “living movie stills”, as Mantel calls them: images that are essentially still but for a small part. Many of the images collected on the blog appear, at a casual glance, completely still. But attending to them long enough, something suddenly jolts into motion.


In an emblematic image, Edward Norton from Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) sits with his eyes closed in an airplane chair—as if frozen in a dream—for what appears to be a quite significant amount of time. Suddenly, the image springs into motion the very same moment that he opens his eyes to directly face the viewer.[20] The effect is not unlike the moment in Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) when, in the midst of a film composed of still images, there is a sudden eruption of movement as the girl opens her eyes. The coinciding of the opening of eyes with the moment of animation makes the sequence resonate with symbolic implications in regard to the gif’s repurposing of cinematic movement. According to one of the founding stories of cinema, the first exhibition of the Lumière brothers’ film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896 started with a still image. Only after a while was it jolted into motion to render the impact of movement all the more striking. Similarly the cinemagraph explores the relation and difference between stillness and movement in order to let the viewer see movement anew with, as it were, freshly awakened eyes.

Even though the creators of the technique of the cinemagraph states that it was “born out of a need to tell a story in a fast digital age”[21] it is used more frequently to intensify a moment that may have little to no narrative purpose. The animated gif can therefore be seen as a properly cinephiliac gesture, underscoring minor moments that are lost in the more regular circumstances of viewing a film. Consider, for example, two gifs of Marlon Brando, the first from A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951), the second from On The Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954). The first intervenes in a flirtatious scene between Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) and Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). Brando leans toward Leigh and cracks a little smile. Decontextualized and looped, the original meaning of these gestures never reaches their assigned destination. Instead, Brando here takes on an almost vampyric quality, appearing as if about to take a bite out of Leigh.[22] In the clip from On the Waterfront, Brando points to his nose while chewing gum and arching his eyebrows.[23] Nothing more significant than that. Here meaning is drained from the image to the extent that it is difficult to make any sort of determinations or analogies as to the proper content of these gestures whatsoever. Rather, it’s all about the gestural interplay of the lines and shapes of the image: the way Brando’s profile lines up with the angle of his finger and the way that his arched eyebrows serves as an exclamation mark to this little fugue of movement.

“The third meaning: Brando demonstrating the excess of movement”

That it is Marlon Brando that appears in these clips is therefore highly symptomatic from the viewpoint of excess. His method acting offers a gallery of eccentric mannerisms and excessive gestures, all ripe for cinephiliac appropriation. Originally, of course, Brando’s technique was developed in view of lending psychological depth to his characters, and hence meant to be deployed in the service of narrative. But as Kristin Thompson notes a propos excess, “stylistic elements may serve at once to contribute to the narrative and to distract our perception from it.”[24] Once we are consumed by the excessive detail it parts way with the (objective) story and enters into another (more subjectively defined) story. This is why Thompson regards excess as counter-narrative.

Trying to describe the strange, twitching movements contained in these clips I find myself struggling to find words. This is not exactly the stuff of high drama, which is why it is quite hard to capture the exact appeal of the gif, or even offer an adequate description of it. Their reconfiguration of human embodiment by technical means places them in the Freudian category of the “uncanny”: they are both familiar and unfamiliar. The meaning they communicate is indeed “obtuse”, to use Barthes’ word. Barthes suggests that the obtuse third meaning cannot be described, that it resists meta-language. It is a “signifier without a signified” and, as such, can only be indicated by “pointing” to it rather that representing it in words.[25] This is why, according to Barthes, the third meaning is where the specifically “filmic” resides. The third meaning accentuates what language is not: the part in a film which escapes the grasp of words and therefore asserts itself as a wholly different medium. This returns us to Agamben’s gesture. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. The gesture displays nothing more than its own potentiality, it has no meaningful content. Gesture is about suspending and supporting, about “enduring” rather than accomplishing and carrying through.[26] The gif asserts this supportive power of movement through its presentation of looping as a method of continuation.

Looping as enduring

Most gifs do not offer closure. As I have suggested above, their purpose is not to capture an event in its entirety, where beginning and end are clearly marked, and the loop is just a way to show the sequence all over again. The point is rather to make the looping structure enter into the perception of the content. The challenge of the gif is to isolate a moment from a film that is compatible with the technique’s looping structure. To this end, the most successful gifs make use of the repetitive or circular motions already present in the original source. It is no coincidence that animated gifs are frequently used for porn. The repetitiveness of the thrusting motions in porn makes the intervention of looping nearly indistinguishable from the original content. In these cases, the gif carves a slice out of a fleeting moment of movement and extends it to a hypothetical infinity that is already a logical possibility of the activity inherent in the original source. The satisfaction is that of isolating a moment of motion that appears self-sustaining, closed in on itself in a perfect loop. They can hereby be said to employ excess as a method of suspension and continuation. Through this logic we are presented with, for instance, Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” stirring his White Russian in The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998),[27] or Charles Foster Kane’s resolute clapping in a scene from Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)[28] extended, hypothetically, ad infinitum. The natural repetitiveness and circularity of these kinds of activities puts them in close proximity to the artificial manipulation of looping. What is striking about these extensions of movement is their excessively useless character. Their purpose is not to represent anything or carry some point across. It is simply to sustain a basic motion for as long as possible.

“Motion as sustaining force: The Dude locked in a perfect loop”

There are, of course, “punch-line” gifs that carry a more explicit purpose. In these cases, a movement is altered by the structure of the loop in order to suggest a repetitive action with a meaning that subverts the original content. It is popular, for instance, to loop a hip movement in order to give it a sexual connotation that it does not have in original form.[29] But in both its extending and altering modes of movement the gif can be said to explore movement as nothing more or less than a sustaining force. The motions produced by these gifs are not inherent to the original sources. Nevertheless, we are able to read them as continuous activities. But the movement is neither a means to achieve goals beyond itself (it is not employed to carry out narrative goals), nor is it an end (to be quite literal about it, the looped gif does not come to an end: as is evidenced by the examples above, movement can here be extended to a hypothetical infinity). Agamben writes: “What characterizes gesture is that in it nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”[30]

“The punch-line gif: the altering power of movement: Twilight”


Gesture as circulation

This is what the gif does: it shows movement as pure support; as the medium that carries actions and events. It is not a matter of communicating a particular content, but of showing movement as a medium of communicability as such. In itself, it is pure becoming and process, and this is key to understanding its success as an item of networked circulation. Through its decontextualized status as pure medium, it is free to enter into many different contexts. Gifs are frequently used to answer a question from a follower on a blog. In these contexts the gif can be supplied with a more definite meaning. When the gif is recontextualized as a response to a question, the excess set free at the first stage is “sutured”, given a home as part of discourse, and is hence supplied with a more definite meaning. [31] We might say that in these cases, the empty signifier of the gif is completed with a signified with the consequence that pure gesture is reified into image. But the reason it can do so is that it is recognized in its pure mediality in the first place. Recontextualization is hence only a by-product of a preceding decontextualization of movement. And it is this momentary suspension of movement that makes it resonate in many different contexts and hence spurs on its circulation. The gif presents movement not as a vehicle for achieving a particular goal (for instance narrative closure) but as pure mediality and communicability.

If we may so bold as to call the art of the gif an ethics of cinema, it is because it emerges in recognition of movement as a medium of support and circulation. The gif is gestural not only in the sense that it, in a cinephiliac manner, feeds off and liberates the gestures of cinema, but also in the sense that the gif itself gestures toward further use. The distributive chain of movement as gesture that the gif performs, and which I have here attempted to sketch, can be summarized thusly: a (cinephiliac) viewer recognizes an element of excess in a movie. By “giffing” it, this element is detached from its original meaning, but not, necessarily, in order for it to take on another definite meaning. What is released at this creative stage is simply movement as a deterritorialized force. Posted online, another viewer recognizes the strange and altered form a (possibly) familiar moment from a film has taken, and hence becomes aware of movement as pure potential. Quite literally, it gestures to him or her. Maybe this viewer has a blog and decides to use the gif for his or her own purposes. Now, integrated into a personal discourse, it can receive a temporary meaning. But another viewer can put it to other purposes. Hence, the gif can achieve many different closures in many different contexts rather than one absolute, determinate meaning. Hereby the gif asserts the generalizable character of gesture, its status as example. As Stephen Crocker writes: “to stand out as an example, the phenomenon must be able to suspend its own functionality and purpose, because only then can it show how it belongs to the set. What it displays in that case is not only its own singularity, but also the thing in its medium of activity.”[32]

Showing the thing in the “medium of activity” demonstrates a potential and can hence instigate further activity. This is why Agamben attributes to gesture an ethical and political dimension. The gif can in accordance with this be considered an ethical gesture not only in the sense that it liberates and re-potentializes cinematic movement, but also in the sense that it gestures toward further circulation and sharing of the moments of cinema.


Agamben, Giorgio. “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983.

Cubitt, Sean. The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Gunning, Tom. “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003.

Keathley, Christian. The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000.

Oudart, Jean-Pierre. “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977.

Thompson, Kristin. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” (1981), in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


Online References

Alexander, Leigh. “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on

Crocker, Stephen. “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published 3/28/2007 on

Marshall, Kelli. “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early  Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011 on

Nelson, Noah J. “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted  April 20 2011, on

Noys, Benjamin. “Gestural Cinema: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004 on

Wortham, Jenna. “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted  April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,


Blogs and Tumblrs

3 Frames:

A Pebble in my Shoe:

Bye Gurl, Bye:

Everything You Love to Hate:

Fuck Yeah Reactions:

GIF Party:


Gif World:

If We Don’t, Remember Me:

Reaction Gif:

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot:



[1] Jenna Wortham, “Instant Loops of Images, From an iPhone App”, posted April 7, 2011, on the New York Times blog,, checked November 9, 2012.

[2] See the blog A Pebble in my Shoe:, checked November 9, 2012.

[3] Leigh Alexander, “Why We Love Animated Gifs”, posted May 24, 2011 on Thought Catalog, checked November 9, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See for instance Sean Cubitt’s The Cinema Effect, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. Cubitt proceeds from the pure difference of movement¾which he conceptualizes as “the pixel”¾ as the theoretical and historical first principle of cinema which is only secondarily tamed by narrative.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture” (1992), in Means Without End: Notes on Politics trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 55.

[7] Stephen Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions: Pure Mediality in Serres and Agamben” published on, 3/28/2007., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[8] Benjamin Noys, “Gestural Cinema?: Giorgio Agamben on Film” in Film-Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 22, July 2004., checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[9], checked November 9, 2012.

[10] Ibid. 87. Bergson’s quote is from Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, Boston: University Press of America, 1983. 302.  

[11] Tom Gunning, “Loïe Fuller and the Art of Motion: Body, Light, Electricity, and the Origins of Cinema”, in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, eds. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003. 80.

[12] Gunning beautifully sums up Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances in these words: “As the embodiment of Symbol, she was meaning divorced from specificity, an image unmoored by reference or representation, becoming purely the flow of movement in all its sensuality and its constantly changing, evocative pursuit of analogy – the pulsing matrix of meaning itself.” 81. See also p. 85.

[13] Kelli Marshall, “Animated Gifs, Cinemagraphs, and our Return to Early Cinema”, posted on June 8, 2011., checked November 9, 2012.

[14] Christian Keathley, “The Cinephiliac Moment”, in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, issue 42, 2000. Available online:, checked November 9, 2012. Unpaginated.

[15] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning” (1970), in Image-Music-Text, transl. by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 59. Emphasis in original.

[16] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”, in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 135.

[17] Ibid. 141.

[18] See, checked November 9, 2012.

[19], checked November 9, 2012.

[20] Come to think of it, many of Mantel’s clips revolve around eyes that are suddenly opened to look out at the viewer. See for instance clips from Psycho, Darjeeling Limited, Moon, Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Orlando, Solyaris, Alphaville.

[21] Noah J. Nelson, “So Long Animated GIFs, Hello Cinemagraph”, posted April 20 2011,, checked November 9, 2012.

[24] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess”. 134.

[25] Barthes, “The Third Meaning”. 61.

[26] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[29] See for instance, checked November 9, 2012.

[30] Agamben, “Notes on Gesture”. 56.

[31] I am here riffing on the theoretical notion of “suture”, popular in the 1970s and 80s. According to the importer of the term into film theory, Jean-Pierre Oudart, the purpose of the reverse-shot in film is to answer the question that is posed for the spectator in a previous shot. Suppose, for instance, that we are shown a shot of a landscape. After a moment’s enjoyment of this view, the spectator soon begins to wonder why it is being shown to her or him. The reverse shot gives the answer to this query, because in it we are usually shown a character to whose vision the previous shot supposedly belongs. One image hereby bestows meaning upon another, to the effect that the spectator is released from interpretive responsibility. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Cinema and Suture”, in Screen, 18 (4), 1977. The blog Everything You Love to Hate is notorious among its followers for its “cheeky” use of gifs in response to questions and comments. Some examples:,,, links checked November 9, 2012. On a related note, there are entire blogs devoted to “Reaction gifs” that just seem to cry out for re-appropriation. Some examples:, and, links checked November 9, 2012.

[32] Crocker, “Noises and Exceptions”. Unpaginated.



Hampus Hagman is putting the finishing touches to his dissertation, which examines the split screen as a meta-reflexive device for the management of unrepresentable content. He is also a freelance writer.    



“A series of emotional remembrances”: Echoes of Bernard Herrmann – Daniel Golding

1965 was not a good year for Bernard Herrmann. In his personal life, after fifteen years, his marriage to Lucy Anderson had ended in divorce. In his professional life, his career as a film composer was stagnating. Despite a decade of collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock during the peak of his commercial success, including Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959), new composing assignments were running dry. Lionel Newman, the new head of music at Fox, told Herrmann that their producers didn’t want him – they were “running with the new kids.” (Smith 1991, 275) Herrmann and his style of composing were no longer popular in Hollywood, and Herrmann knew that Hitchcock was under pressure from his studio bosses to find another composer (Smith 1991, 268). They were to have only one further collaboration: the aborted score to Torn Curtain (1966), a definitive and bitter end to their creative and personal relationship. Hitchcock fired Herrmann during the first day of recording and they never worked together again.

While Herrmann seems to have looked towards Torn Curtain with what in retrospect seems a somewhat naïve optimism (“I feel certain it will be one of Hitch’s greatest films. I just know it will be so”, wrote Herrmann (Smith 1991, 270)), 1965 saw him enter into one of the darkest depressions of his life. Creatively, the result was the string quartet Echoes, one of Herrmann’s last concert-hall compositions. A note on the title of the work as printed on the full score is revealing: “The term ‘Echoes’ is meant to imply a series of nostalgic emotional remembrances” (Herrmann 1966).

Echoes is strongly reminiscent of Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine” (Smith 1991, 264-265). Was Herrmann attempting to eulogise his career? At this stage, Herrmann’s deepest wound stemmed from his divorce – the acrimonious conclusion to his Hitchcock collaboration was yet to come. Nonetheless, these “nostalgic remembrances”, while almost certainly referring to Herrmann’s personal life, equally apply to his body of work as a composer. In many ways, it was the echo that defined Herrmann’s work as Hitchcock’s composer – from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than “a series of emotional remembrances.”

Nonetheless, repetition has often been cited in order to disparage and criticise the art of film music: perhaps most notably by Theodor Adorno, who in 1947 condemned film scores as “autonomous music [subject to] standardization within the industry” (Adorno and Eisler 1947, 3). According to Adorno, “no serious composer writes for the motion pictures for any other than money reasons,” (1947, 54) and “by the use of standard configurations, [film music] interprets the meaning of the action for the less intelligent members of the audience” (1947, 60). However, the scores of Herrmann challenge this argument: it is precisely because of repetition that his work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. In order to argue this, I will examine Herrmann’s use of repetition within three different planes: repetition within specific cues or motifs; repetition of these specific cues or motifs within an entire score; and repetition within his entire Hitchcock oeuvre. In these three instances, Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition (along with others of plagiarism which I shall discuss later) within film music and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to further meaning within, and beyond the film. It also draws attention to the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as (as is more usual) to the director, and therefore implicitly challenges the traditional status of Hitchcock as sole auteur of his films.

The auteur

Before I begin on Herrmann’s style and the analysis of his modes of repetition, a note on the Herrmann-Hitchcock relationship. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was acutely aware of the effect of music in his films, and would often create extensive annotations to a film’s script to send, as instructions, to his composer. According to Sullivan, “Hitchcock employed more musical styles and techniques than any director in history … one cannot fully understand Hitchcock’s movies without facing his music” (Sullivan 2006, xiii). Previous to Herrmann, Hitchcock had had numerous successes with film music, and his list of composers reads like the highlights of 20th Century film composition, including Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Ron Goodwin, Maurice Jarre and John Williams. Hitchcock did not, however, always get what he wanted from his composers. This was most clearly illustrated in Herrmann’s scoring – against Hitchcock’s instructions – of the infamous shower scene in Psycho. “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion,” was Hitchcock’s clarification to Herrmann upon being reminded that he initially request there be no music in the now iconic sequence (Smith 1991, 240). These divergences did not always work out so amicably, however. Asked many years after the Torn Curtain split whether he would work with Herrmann again, Hitchcock is said to have replied: “Yes, if he’ll do as he’s told.” (Smith 1991, 274) This was far from an isolated incident with Hitchcock’s composers. Towards the end of their period of collaboration, Hitchcock sent a terse cable to Herrmann:

So often have I been asked, for example by [Dimitri] Tiomkin, to come and listen to a score and when I express my disapproval his hands were thrown up and with the cry of “But you can’t change anything now, it has all been orchestrated.” It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. (Smith 1991, 269)

Yet despite Hitchcock’s later complaints, the autonomy of his composers was often on his own instigation. “As far as I’m concerned he does as he likes,” Hitchcock said in a joint interview with Herrmann in 1964 (Telescope, 1964).[1] Clearly, despite Hitchcock’s suggestions and guidelines, Herrmann routinely made his own decisions, as Jack Sullivan illustrates (Sullivan 2006).[2] Indeed, Hitchcock appreciated the skills of his composer and often allowed Herrmann long stretches of film without dialogue to compose for. Regarding the recreation sequence of Vertigo (1958) (“Scene d’Amour”[3]), Hitchcock told his composer, “We’ll just have you and the camera” (Sullivan 2006, 167). Indeed, the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) could be viewed as Hitchcock’s testament to the power of music in film, as it is the diegetic music itself – Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds cantata, written for Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and in this case arranged by Herrmann – that anticipates and to some extent generates the narrative climax (a gunshot) for the audience. The on-stage conductor, of course, is Herrmann, in a Hitchcock-style cameo, musically creating another murder for Hitchcock. Even though this sequence is found merely in their second collaboration, the cameo – an indulgence afforded to no other Hitchcock composer – is indicative of Herrmann’s strong role in their projects.

Uncharacteristically, Hitchcock went as far as to acknowledge that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” (Smith 1991, 241). Hitchcock was usually reticent about crediting his collaborators with his successes, but according to Joseph Stephano, the screenwriter for Psycho, “Hitchcock gave [Herrmann] more credit than anyone else he ever spoke of.” (Smith 1991, 241)

Herrmann’s style

By their first collaboration, Herrmann was already a noted composer, and had written a number of celebrated scores such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, for which he won his only Oscar), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). On a basic level, Herrmann’s approach to musical scoring differed greatly from those of his contemporaries. The first few decades of film scoring had seen composers like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner become the leaders within the film music industry, bringing with them a marked Viennese influence (with lavish and elaborate scores like Korngold’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood and Steiner’s 1933 King Kong) (Dickinson 2003, 1-13). The Wagnerian tradition of the leitmotif quickly become the popular mode of composition in Hollywood, whereby a melody is assigned to specific characters, places or ideas, and is played when that which it represented is on screen.[4] In contrast, and although Herrmann used the theory of musical association underpinning the leitmotif system in a number of his scores (including those for Hitchcock, but perhaps most effectively for Citizen Kane), he disliked leitmotif itself. Herrmann:

…I don’t like the leitmotif system. The short phrase is easier to follow for an audience, who listen with only half an ear. Don’t forget that the best they do is half an ear. You know, the reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars, which limits you as a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish – eight or sixteen bars. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about. It’s putting handcuffs on yourself (Brown 1994, 291-292).

Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores are almost wholly vacant of traditional melody or “tunes”, and are instead populated by vast stretches of short patterns and impressionistic, ambient musical sketches. His approach was more of mood and tone: “In Hitchcock,” noted Herrmann, “one has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of Psycho or the turbulence of a picture such as Vertigo” (Herrmann 2004, Track 11). Indeed, ‘landscape’ seems the most appropriate term to describe Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. Though there was at least one attempt to extract a pop hit from a Herrmann score (Marnie (1964), with dire consequences),[5] each film scored by Herrmann has more of an overall identity, or ‘sound’ than distinct melodies. Critics like Royal S. Brown and Graham Bruce have argued that this particular sound, unique to Herrmann’s Hitchcock work, is fuelled by a ‘Hitchcock chord’, a half-diminished seventh that dominates much of his music during this era (Bruce 1985, 117-121; Brown 1994, 148-174). Yet most immediate of these ‘sounds’ for Hitchcock is Herrmann’s use of orchestration: in Vertigo the harp speaks strongest of all the orchestra, while Psycho’s only accompaniment is the frantic and bare string section. Herrmann’s aborted score to Torn Curtain was to be his most adventurously orchestrated Hitchcock yet, calling for sixteen French horns and twelve flutes (Sullivan 2006, 281). “The sound of twelve flutes,” said Herrmann, “will be terrifying” (Sullivan 2006, 282).

Herrmann’s abandonment of melody was key to his success composing for Hitchcock. According to Brown, “melody is the most rational element of music” (Brown 1994, 154). Despite Hitchcock’s occasional complaints, then, we can see the lack of melody in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores as supporting the irrationality often shown in Hitchcock’s films: the compulsion of Marnie Edgar, the phobias of Scottie Ferguson, and the split personality of Norman Bates. These are all musically supported via Herrmann’s landscape approach. Melody, as rationality, has no place in Hitchcock.

Repetition One: within specific cues of motifs

The notable musical ideas that are present in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores often have a heavy focus on internal repetition. Frequently, sections of Herrmann’s music will consist of a short idea which is repeated in a number of different ways; used on the one hand to partially disguise this repetition, but on the other to aid the suspense and mood of obsession and cyclic falls, chases or journeys often found in Hitchcock. The most notable of these repetitious strategies are chromaticism[6] and instrumentation[7]. Perhaps the best example of these used in conjunction can be found in North By Northwest. Brown argues that the film contains:

not one example of anything that could be designated as a theme on a cue sheet … Instead, it is made up of numerous, brief motifs sewn together in sometimes audaciously chromatic harmonic progressions and presented in brilliant orchestral colors, with totally unhummable interval leaps being the order of the day. (Brown 1994, 159)

The ‘Journey’ cue, which is most often heard when protagonist Roger O. Thornhill is travelling, combines a chromatic, cyclic repetition with variations of instrumentation. ‘Journey’ is essentially a one bar pattern of sixteen semiquavers that could conceivably be repeated endlessly via chromatic descent, with no necessary resolution other than a continuation of the loop. This cue reappears in multiple forms throughout North By Northwest, and aside from the opening fandango, is probably the most memorable piece of music found in the film. The motif, as short and malleable as it is, suits the mood of the film perfectly: cyclic chromaticism here creates a driving feeling of perpetual movement, which for North By Northwest, translates as a sense of travelling endlessly without destination – a clear parallel with the film’s plot. The addition of varied instrumentation adds to this mood. In “The Auction”[8], the pattern is played interchangeably between the string section, and the clarinet section, before shifting to alternate between the flutes, strings and clarinets, seemingly changing instrument section every note. ‘Journey’ is played in a number of different ways throughout North By Northwest, and its various uses demonstrate Herrmann’s skills of subtle variation. The theme, while remaining melodically and harmonically intact, is played as foreboding (“The Airport”), as suspenseful and dynamic (“The Ledge”), and as frenzied and exciting (“The Police”).

Chromaticism is combined with ostinato[9] in many similar sequences in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. This ostinato/chromaticism figure first appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, during the sequence where Jo and Ben McKenna (Doris Day and James Stewart) attempt to find their son at the Ambrose Chapel. A harp plays a steady ostinato on one note, while strings and clarinets alternate chromatic harmonies in thirds. This idea returns in Vertigo’s “Carlotta’s Portrait”, with an altered rhythm being played by a harp. This time, the rhythm of the ostinato is relates to the plot of the film, as it is a habanera, reflecting Carlotta’s Spanish origin and creating a musical presence for her. These sequences have much in common: they are both searching sequences, and the probing nature of both cues reflects this. Again, as in North By Northwest’s ‘Journey’, we may see the chromaticism as a strategy employed to encourage the feeling of travel without destination, though in this case, tweaked to suit the feeling of a search.

However, what is most interesting, and for our purposes important, is that chromaticism not only allows Herrmann to repeat short phrases endlessly, but it also augments the suspense and overall mood of a scene. It is a device of Herrmann’s ‘landscapes’, and we can see it as the first of Herrmann’s notable ‘echoes’.

Repetition Two: within an entire score

Herrmann’s use of repetitive, short phrases can also be seen to increase the feeling of psychological fixation within an entire score, often mirroring that of Hitchcock’s characters. This is the second level of repetition – that within an overall score. Herrmann’s repetitive use of short phrases can be seen to create a feeling of a myopic, tunnel viewpoint: a feeling of a single idea recurring again and again. Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho best illustrate this mode of repetition. In Vertigo, the score is divided into roughly two sections. “Madeline’s Theme” which plays over a number of extended sequences, such as “Scotty Trails Madeleine” and “Beach”, dominates the first half of the film. However, after Madeline’s ‘death’ the landscape changes abruptly to focus almost exclusively on what Brown titles “The Love Waltz”, while “Madeline’s Theme” returns only occasionally (Brown 1994, 167). This “Love Waltz” perfectly illustrates Herrmann’s use of repetition to indicate mental fixation – it is, of course, a very short (only one bar long) phrase that, via chromaticism, can be repeated endlessly. The “Waltz” reaches its climax in the “Scene d’Amour” and leads us into an overblown variation of “Madeline’s Theme” in 6/8 timing. The music here has been described as “the gushiest Hitchcock music since Spellbound, and a potent rejoinder to the claim that Herrmann avoided Romantic hyperbole” (Sullivan 2006, 126). Howard Goodall, however, claims that this overstated nature was intentional: “Because we’re in a fantasy of Scotty’s making, the strings are unashamedly colourful and symphonic.” (Goodall 2004) Indeed, Herrmann’s use of vibrato in the string section is highly unusual. In contrast to his contemporaries, Herrmann usually required the strings to be played with little or no vibrato, as in the entirety of Psycho. Goodall suggests this disregard for vibrato was a first since the time of Mozart, (Goodall 2004) – though of course, as Midge rightfully asserts at Scotty’s rehabilitation clinic, “I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all.” The “Scene d’Amour” is the musical climax of the film, and the counterfeit emotion felt by Herrmann’s strings, in support with the myopic repetition of the score, parallels the unreal passion felt by Scotty. The landscape of Vertigo is clearly populated with the echoes of nostalgic reminisces; and the melancholic and fixated character of the film’s score is almost wholly created by Herrmann’s repetitions.

Perhaps most famously, Herrmann’s score for Psycho relies on an overall feeling of repetition to create suspense and drive the meaning of the film. In particular, the musical structure of the film is extraordinary: not only is the film monochromatic in terms of its orchestration (the unaccompanied string section was chosen by Herrmann – “to compliment the back-and-white photography with a black-and-white score” (Smith 1991, 237)), but the entire score is largely based around a single musical thread which finds its basis almost exclusively in Psycho’s opening credits. Most notably, the ‘driving’ music (“Prelude”, “Flight”, “The Rainstorm”[10]) has its basis in only four notes, which leads Goodall to claim that Psycho used minimalist techniques ten years before composer Michael Nyman coined the term (Goodall 2004). Graham Bruce elaborates:

The majority of the musical cues in Psycho, as well as providing apt contributions to the specific scene, also set up, via a fabric of developments and variants of a number of motifs, structural relations within the film text as a whole (Bruce 1985, 184).

Perhaps Psycho then provides the best illustration of Herrmann’s repetitious musical ‘landscapes’ for Hitchcock. Though the “Prelude” of the film introduces (though often in oblique technical ways (Brown 1994, 162)) a large amount of the entire score, it also serves a more important role: to drive the narrative of the film from the first frame. Herrmann:

After the main title, nothing much happens in the picture, apparently, for 20 minutes or so. Appearances, of course, are deceiving, for in fact the drama starts immediately with the titles … I am firmly convinced, and so is Hitchcock, that after the main titles you know that something terrible must happen. The main title sequence tells you so, and that is its function: to set the drama. You don’t need cymbal crashes or records that don’t sell (Cameron 1980, 132).

This is perhaps the most important contribution made by Psycho’s score. That the film’s musical language is clearly placed from the very beginning is key: even though Marion is not murdered until one third of the way through the film, there is nevertheless an unease present that cannot be simply attributed to the visuals alone. Instead, we must attribute this feeling to Herrmann, the organic and in many ways limited structure of his score, and the overall cohesiveness of repetitious echoes to create his Psycho ‘landscape’.

Repetition Three: within Herrmann’s Hitchcock oeuvre

The third, and perhaps most unusual level of repetition utilised by Herrmann is intertextual. We have already seen this on a basic level in the similarity between the ostinato in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. However, we can also see this ostinato figure more broadly reflected throughout Herrmann’s Hitchcock work. This rhythm, initially representing the parent’s search for their child in The Man Who Knew Too Much, undergoes a minor metamorphosis for Vertigo and becomes a Spanish Habeñara rhythm (“Carlotta’s Portrait”), as we have noted. At its most aggressive, the Vertigo ostinato is joined by castanets (“Nightmare and Dawn”) to reinforce the imposing and decidedly Spanish figure of Carlotta (and perhaps her insanity) in Scotty’s search for Madeline (Kalinak n.d., 20). Yet further still, this figure also appears in Psycho, slightly changed again, as Norman watches Marion as she undresses (“The Peephole” – this time played on pizzicato strings) (Bruce 1985, 134). Even more interestingly, this figure reappears for the last time in a Hitchcock film four years later in Herrmann’s score for Marnie. This time, it appears in order to narrate the dialogue-less sequence where Marnie plots the Rutland’s theft as she types (“The Safe”) (Bruce 1985, 134).

There are several possible links we can draw from these instances of Herrmann’s ostinato. Most apparent are the themes of searching, and of looking or watching. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben and Jo McKenna search for their child; in Vertigo, Scotty searches and watches Madeline; in Psycho Norman watches Marion; and in Marnie we observe the process required to steal. These sequences are also largely silent outside of the non-diegetic music; indeed, the Vertigo sequence is one of the longest stretches of film without dialogue in all of Hitchcock’s work. These are sequences of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – that is, storytelling in purely visual terms (Truffaut 1984, 214-222). It is possible to suggest that Herrmann associated the subdued nature of his ostinato with the emphasis away from sound in these sequences. However, other commonalities between the instances suggest there was a distinct motive behind Herrmann’s implementations.[11]

Aside from the themes of searching and looking, we may also see the ostinato as an indication of insanity. Just as the McKennas are treated as mad by their friends and police in their desperation to retrieve Hank (“It was a crazy thing to do,” says Jo to Ben about traveling to the Ambrose Chappell), we can see a direct link to insanity in all other instances. The direct pairing of the ostinato with Carlotta in Vertigo is the clearest indication: not only did Carlotta commit suicide, but we are led to believe that Madeleine is suffering from a mental illness that makes her periodically believe she is Carlotta. The psychotic aspects of Psycho are obvious, yet musically it is the ostinato that lies at its heart. It is also Norman’s desire for Marion that sets the murder in motion, a desire made clear by the peephole sequence. As Toles argues, “Anything that his mother judges depraved must be dropped from the perceptual frame” (Toles 1999, 641). This is a neat intricacy of Herrmann’s Psycho landscape: for all the violent music in the film, it is one of the most subdued musical cues – the simple and quiet ostinato – that triggers Norman’s madness and renders murder unavoidable. Lastly, we can again clearly see madness at the heart of Marnie’s ostinato. Indeed, as Marnie’s thieving is the result of her neurotic compulsions, the plotting of her theft at Rutlands is perhaps one of the most overt symptoms of her illness in the film.

The ostinato is one element in a larger musical landscape for Hitchcock that defines Herrmann’s work with the director. The echoes found here are not just audible to the viewer via the context of the film: they are also within the metanarrative, viewer preconceptions and awareness of the film as a Hitchcock film. This is however a minor instance of self-appropriation: though we can see overt links between Herrmann’s various uses of the ostinato for Hitchcock, they are only general associations; thematic echoes that do not prompt an intellectual comparison so much as an emotional one. Nonetheless, Herrmann’s other instances of self-appropriation prove, as I shall show, to be much bolder. Perhaps the most audacious and meaningful example comes from Vertigo and North By Northwest.

Similarities between Vertigo and North By Northwest are rarely noted. Both films probably represent the apotheosis of major strains of Hitchcock’s work: on the one hand, the humorous adventure of North By Northwest and on the other, the somber psychological exploration of Vertigo. Yet, as Brown notes, “one of the most striking appearances of ‘Madeline’s Theme’ … does not occur in Vertigo but in North By Northwest” (Brown 1994, 166). It is interesting to note tonal and intervallic similarities between “Madeline’s Theme” and the love theme from North By Northwest, which already indicate some form of musical echo. However, Vertigo and North By Northwest are successive in the Herrmann/Hitchcock corpus (1958 and 1959 respectively), so it may be tempting to disregard the similarities as a symptom of an overworked composer returning to familiar material. Yet it is not until North By Northwest’s confrontation between Thornhill and Eve in her hotel room (“Reunion”) that Herrmann’s strategy becomes clear: he abandons the differences and features “Madeline’s Theme” in full. It is little wonder that Herrmann opted to sonically remember Vertigo to audiences at this point, as thematically this scene shares much in common with Hitchcock’s previous film. Both Eve (in North By Northwest) and Judy (in Vertigo) are forced to conceal their surprise on the unexpected arrival, at their hotel-room door, of the men they had plotted against. By musically referencing the events of Vertigo at this point of North By Northwest, Herrmann adds a deeper layer to understanding and interpreting the sequence. To compare the sequences is to compare both film’s characters and our perception of them: might we now view Eve and Madeleine as equally deceptive, and Thornhill as trapped as Scottie? This intertextual parallel only surfaces through Herrmann’s self-appropriation. It is a musical echo, and unlike that of the ostinato, it is designed to draw an intellectual, rather than an emotional comparison.

While the instance of “Madeline’s Theme” in North By Northwest is the most commonly noted, echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” are not limited to Vertigo and North By Northwest. Indeed, just as Herrmann prefigured his Hitchcock ostinato in The Trouble With Harry, a suggestion of “Madeline’s Theme” can be heard prior to Vertigo in The Wrong Man (1956). In The Wrong Man’s sanatorium sequences, where Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) despairs over the deteriorating mental state of his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), Herrmann uses a similar harmonic cadence and short melody to “Madeline’s Theme”, although this time in a minor key.[12] Musically, this suggests experimentation by Herrmann, or an early variation on a theme for this particular element of his Hitchcock landscape, which he would perfect later with Vertigo. Though the similarity between the two musical ideas is remarkable, the minor key of the motif in The Wrong Man is perhaps not as effective as the false happiness conveyed by the major setting of “Madeline’s Theme”. Unsurprisingly, however, it is in these sequences that The Wrong Man is most Vertigo-like, with mirroring themes of mental illness and a tragically broken connection between lovers. The psychological debilitation of the sanatorium theme is no less potent than that of “Madeline’s Theme”, however, and both films finish with these themes playing, imparting their full power over the now enervated minds of Scotty and of Rose.[13]

A full echo of “Madeline’s Theme” was to resurface one final time in Herrmann’s cancelled score for Torn Curtain. While ultimately Herrmann’s score was rejected by Hitchcock and unrecorded by Herrmann save for a few cues, we can hear from subsequent recordings that “Madeline’s Theme” was to reappear in “The Hill”. Designed to underscore Michael Armstrong’s (Paul Newman) silent moment of confession and love to Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) before both characters attempt to escape East Germany, we again hear a complete rendition of the Vertigo theme. The connection, had it been allowed to remain, is just as clear. Though neither character is suffering from mental illness as in Vertigo or The Wrong Man, throughout Torn Curtain Michael has been forced to plot against Sarah, and is now confessing his true motives – just as in North By Northwest and Vertigo.

Through his echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” in Vertigo, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest and Torn Curtain, Herrmann draws attention to some significant intertextual parallels that might otherwise remain unnoted. Yet this third mode of repetition could also be seen to draw our attention to the variations-on-a-theme style of filmmaking Hitchcock and Herrmann were engaged with at this point in their careers. It paints both Hitchcock and Herrmann as similarly fixated, clearly unable to get away from these ideas – on the one hand, psychological breakdown and a disruption between lovers; on the other, the musical threads that echo “Madeline’s Theme” – that permeate their work.

One other major instance of self-appropriation in Herrmann’s Hitchcock work remains,[14] though it resurfaces in a non-Hitchcock film.[15] The three-note “Madhouse” motif from Psycho – first used when Marion suggests that Mrs. Bates be retired to an institution, and continually used within the Psycho score to represent madness – reappears as the last notes of Herrmann’s final film: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). This, Bruce suggests, connects Norman and Travis Bickle: “a nicely ironic link between two killers – the one confined to an institution, the other elevated as a hero” (Bruce 1985, 200). Yet this motif also stems from Herrmann’s first major work as a composer: the fourth movement (“Interlude”) from his Symphonietta for Strings and Timpani from 1935. Much of Psycho’s score finds its initial threads in this piece, from the incessant driving theme heard in the film’s opening credits (“Prelude”) to the whirling dissonance of the discovery of Norman Bates (“Discovery”). The “Madhouse” motif is in the “Interlude” in its entirety, however – it is even in the same key, following the progression of F-Eb-D in the low strings. Interestingly, it remains in the same key for Taxi Driver as it is played as the final credit rolls, this time on Bass Clarinet and Bassoon. From some of the first most important notes he wrote, to the final notes he ever recorded (Herrmann died in his sleep after finishing the final recording session on Taxi Driver), this particular echo seems to have followed Bernard Herrmann throughout his entire career.


It would perhaps be easier to write these echoes off as simple self-plagiarism. Indeed, despite these clear intertextual links, Herrmann himself seems to have been fiercely resistant to claims of self-appropriation, or more strongly, self-plagiarism. A 1970 interview with Herrmann performed by The Los Angeles Free Press took a turn for the worse when the interviewer, Leslie Zador, suggested that Herrmann had re-used his own music:

LESLIE ZADOR: To give an example of what Mr. Herrmann is talking about, he wrote an opera called Wuthering Heights. Part of the music from act one, scene one, was in a film called The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

HERRMANN: No I didn’t, that’s completely false.

ZADOR: But it sounds just like it …


However disputed by Herrmann, these self-references did not go unnoticed by Hitchcock. In the same cable to Herrmann as his complaints regarding Dimitri Tiomkin and unchangeable scores, Hitchcock berated Herrmann for plagiarism:

I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning, not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. (Smith 1991, 268)

In this instance, Hitchcock may well have been justified in his complaints. The score to Joy in the Morning, a 1965 drama directed by Alex Segal about young marriage, is strongly reminiscent of Marnie and other Herrmann works. “Thematically,” argues Smith, “the score is rarely original.” (Smith 1991, 264) It was Herrmann’s only score for 1965, and was written during the period of Herrmann’s divorce from his second wife. Smith notes the impact of the divorce on Herrmann’s creative output: “as his life reached crisis point, Herrmann seemed unable at times to compose new, fresh music.” (Smith 1991, 48) It is not especially unusual for film composers to re-use material; the composition process has always been pressured and often run to tight deadlines, creating instances where the quickest (or sometimes only) solution is to self-copy (Cooke 2008, 494-495). Some of the most admired scores in film history have contained such ‘borrowed’ music: Nino Rota’s The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972) had its Academy Award nomination withdrawn after it was agreed that Rota had reused music from his Italian TV writing (Cooke 2008, 378); while John Williams’ Star Wars (George Lucas 1977) contains a note-for-note excerpt from the “Le Sacrifice” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Claims of plagiarism are commonly leveled at film composers, and not just in Adorno’s denigration. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in discussing James Horner’s Troy (Wolfgang Petersen 2004), made the following remarks:

There are two possible interpretative approaches to [James Horner’s] challenging opus. One is that Horner is presenting us with a kind of musical meta-narrative of deconstructive requotation … By reducing other people’s masterworks to cheap ditties, Horner shakes his fist at the suffocating weight of bourgeois culture … That’s one explanation. The other is that the man is a hack. (Ross 1998)

Despite scores like Joy in the Morning, it is difficult to come to the same conclusion in regards to Herrmann. As well as the release of Joy in the Morning, 1965 also saw the creation of Herrmann’s string quartet, Echoes, from which I take the title of this piece.[16] As already noted, Echoes is strongly reminiscent of the composer’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine.” (Smith 1991, 264-265) These are not the lazy shorthand of a film composer under pressure. Echoes is a concert hall piece: these are significant and conscious invocations in an art-music context. Evidently, Herrmann was able to use the echoes of his entire work as a composer to make emotional and intellectual links in this one concert hall piece. There is much to indicate that he was employing the same technique with “Madeline’s Theme” and the “Madhouse” motif, and little to suggest otherwise. Perhaps it is only fair to give Hitchcock himself the final word on the issue of plagiarism, taken from an interview to promote his final film, Family Plot. Asked about the Hitchcock “vein” of filmmaking, and reminded that “people accused Picasso of repeating himself,” Hitchcock offered a fitting rejoinder: “Self-plagiarism is style.” (Gilliatt 1976)

If, as I have argued, we accept that the instances noted in this paper are conscious “echoes,” then we must conclude that Bernard Herrmann was an innovator not just in film music, but also in the film industry itself. Indeed, just as the later “film school” generation of directors (whose enfant terrible, Martin Scorsese, received Herrmann’s final, self-referential notes) was careful to visually link their films with prior landmarks in cinema, Herrmann was clearly able (via his collaboration with Hitchcock) to link his films sonically. These allusions betray a more intelligent purpose than a simple lack of creativity; these echoes throw thematic patterns in the Herrmann-Hitchcock oeuvre into stark relief, often offering a revealing commentary that the images alone do not. As Smith suggests, these quotations “demonstrate the internal consistency and distinctive personality of Herrmann’s work, a sign of artistic maturity rather than fatigue.” (Smith 1991, 48)

Yet these echoes also reveal the depth of aesthetic repetition that lay at the heart of Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock, from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition so often bluntly levelled at film music in general and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to deepen meaning within, and beyond an individual film. We can now also clearly see the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as to the director. Though no serious argument could be made that Herrmann was the sole author of his films, we may see through the examples provided that his was an authorial power with the ability to create and change meaning beyond the control of the director – even a director as exacting as Hitchcock. Thus, as I have argued, it is precisely because of repetition, and not in spite of it, that Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. To return one final time to his string quartet, we can see just how apt a eulogy, if it was indeed intended as one, Echoes was. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than as “a series of emotional remembrances.”



Herrmann, Bernard. Sinfonietta for Strings. 1935.

—. Echoes: String Quartet. 1965.

—. North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. Turner Entertainment, 1995.

—. “Bernard Herrmann on Film Music”. Bernard Herrmann Film Scores: From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver [Audio CD]. Burbank: WEA Corporation, 2004.

Mathieson, Muir. Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD].  By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

McNeely, Joel. Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

Ravel, Maurice. Bolero. 1928.

Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring. 1913.


Cooper, Merian C., and Schoedsack, Ernest B. King Kong, 1933.

Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather, 1972.

Curtiz, Michael. The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.

De Palma, Brian. Obsession, 1976.

Dieterle, William. The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941.

Endfield, Cy. Mysterious Island, 1961.

Fleming, Victor. Gone With The Wind, 1939.

Goodall, Howard. Howard Goodalls’ Twentieth Century Greats: Bernard Herrmann. Channel Four, 2004.

Hitchcock, Alfred. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934.

—. Spellbound, 1945.

—. The Trouble With Harry, 1955.

—. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956.

—. The Wrong Man, 1956.

—. Vertigo, 1958.

—. North By Northwest, 1959.

—. Psycho, 1960.

—. Torn Curtain, 1966.

—. Marnie, 1964.

—. Family Plot, 1976.

Jackson, Peter. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001.

Lucas, George. Star Wars, 1977.

Markle, Fletcher. “Telescope: A Talk With Hitchcock”, CBC Television, 1964. Transcript available at <>, accessed 11 November 2010.

Petersen, Wolfgang. Troy, 2004.

Scorsese, Martin. Taxi Driver, 1976.

Segal, Alex. Joy In The Morning, 1965.

Welles, Orson. Citizen Kane, 1941.

Wise, Robert. The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951.

Written Word

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. Composing for the Films. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Bruce, Graham. Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Cameron, Evan, ed. Sound and the Cinema: The coming of sound to American film. Pleasantville: Redgrave Publishing, 1980.

Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dickinson, Kay. “Introduction.” Movie Music, The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. London: Routledge, 2003. 1-13.

Gilliatt, Penelope. “Hitchcock: A Great Original.” The Observer. 8 August 1976, 17.

Kalinak, Kathryn. “The Language of Music: A Brief Analysis of Vertigo.” Movie Music: The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. n.d. 15-23.

Ross, Alex. “Oscar Scores.” The New Yorker. 9 March 1998. Accessed 11 January 2011 <>.

Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006.

Toles, George. “’If Thine Eye Offend Thee…’: Psycho and the Art of Infection”, New Literary History 3/15 (1984) 631-351.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Wrobel, William. “Self Borrowing in the Music of Bernard Herrmann.” The Journal of Film Music 1.2/3 (2003).


[1] However, Hitchcock then went on to accuse composers – “not necessarily by Mr. Herrmann, but by other musicians” – of being completely inflexible.

[2] Of note is Sullivan’s account of how Herrmann directly disobeyed Hitchcock’s desire to have “increasingly comic” music while Scotty trails Madeleine in the first half of Vertigo.

[3] All Vertigo tracks referenced are from Muir Mathieson, Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

[4] Steiner paid particularly slavish attention to the leitmotif system in his work on Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and is an excellent example, as there is a theme for almost every character, minor or major. For more recent examples, the work of John Williams (most notably in the Star Wars series 1977-2005) and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) provide excellent use of the leitmotif. Interestingly, Williams, who was a friend of Herrmann’s, scored Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976).

[5] Nat King Cole recorded a version of Herrmann’s Marnie theme set to lyrics, but it was quickly forgotten. As Sullivan notes, “a frigid, hallucinating kleptomaniac was not exactly the ideal subject for a pop love song.” (Sullivan 2006, 276)

[6] Chromaticism, in this instance means the use of notes, or chords that are directly sequential within the western twelve-note scale.

[7] In this sense used synonymously with ‘orchestration’, meaning the compositional use of one or more instruments. Herrmann was known for unique instrumentation before and outside of his Hitchcock work: he used the pioneering electronic instrument, the Theremin, in his score for The Day The Earth Stood Still; he also utilised modern technology to make previously impossible combinations, such as bass flute and kettle drums in his score for Mysterious Island (Cy Endfield, 1961).

[8] All North By Northwest tracks referenced are from Bernard Herrmann, North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, Turner Entertainment, 1995.

[9] An ostinato is a phrase that is continuously repeated in the same musical voice. It may be a complete melody, or at least a melodic phrase; however, most commonly, it is a monotonic rhythm, and it is this usage that is applied in this essay. Perhaps the most famous monotonic ostinato is from Ravel’s Bolero.

[10] All Psycho tracks referenced are from Joel McNeely, Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

[11] While the first appearance of this musical thread appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is certainly prefigured in the first Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration, The Trouble With Harry (1955). Though it appears for less than a minute (in a cue fittingly titled “Ostinato”, played during the final nighttime exhumation of Harry), and differs from the other implementations in that it features the harp ostinato between two pitches rather than one, the movement of the strings around the figure is unmistakable.

[12] For The Wrong Man, Herrmann uses the minor iv-i7 cadence in the clarinets while an oboe plays the Vertigo-like melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. For Vertigo, the cadence is the major VI-I7 in the strings with the melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. Harmonically, these are closely related patterns.

[13] Interestingly, Vera Miles, who was Hitchcock’s original choice for Madeline/Judy in Vertigo, plays Rose Balestrero.

[14] Numerous other examples can be found throughout Herrmann’s entire oeuvre, though his self-appropriation within his Hitchcock scores appears to be more limited. For an exhaustive list, see Wrobel 2003.

[15] We could also examine Herrmann’s score to Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976); however, that score (or rather, the entire film) can be viewed as a homage or even pastiche of Vertigo, and therefore in-depth analysis is less likely to be as revealing.

[16] It is worth noting that Echoes is also the name of the Bernard Herrmann Society’s Journal.


Daniel Golding is a Ph.D. candidate researching the articulation of videogame spaces in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has also lectured and tutored in Screen Studies, has edited the gaming blog RedKingsDream and entertainment online magazine Empty Pocket Media. He also writes a monthly ‘Game Theory’ column for Australia’s oldest independent videogames magazine, Hyper. Email: <>