Every great seduction, whether in the motion pictures or in real life, comes with a soundtrack. So what is the most seductive scene in movie history?
This scene only lasts ninety seconds. It is filmed inside an exclusive San Francisco restaurant. We see a man at the bar, an ordinary man, an ex cop, the victim of bad luck, now a reluctant private eye. He is everyman. He could be you or I or any other poor fellow about to be mesmerized by a woman of spellbinding beauty.
Everyman is sitting alone at the bar of the restaurant, nursing a drink. Beside him, through a doorway, is the glamorous, unobtainable world of San Francisco high society. The private-eye is at work. He is there to find, to see, to watch a woman who is dining at the restaurant before attending the San Francisco opera. He has never seen this woman before. Nor have we.
The movie camera captures the ordinary and the extraordinary, side-by-side. It soaks the elite San Francisco crowd in sumptuous reds, golds and greens. The man, in contrast, is filmed wearing a dark suit. In the eye of the camera, everyman and San Francisco high society appear in parallel. But they never touch. This is black and white cinema painted in glorious Technicolor.
We see the woman before he does. She is a head-turning blonde, everyman’s fantasy. She is wearing a silk green cape draped over her bare shoulders and, underneath, a tight little black evening dress. Her only jewelry is a pendant, as green as the silk cloak, hanging above her cleavage. But she is not all flesh. Covering her hands are black opera gloves, extending up her arm, beyond her elbow. These gloves give her a surgical appearance. She resembles a surgeon of the human soul.
The private eye looks through the doorway at the woman.
And then the music starts. The romance swirls around us. There would be no great seduction without this soundtrack. Love, the orchestral music announces to us, in a swirl of violins. But it is a vertiginous music, knowingly saccarine, simultaneously complex and inviting. A soundtrack for the Garden of Eden, perhaps. You can look but you better not touch, the music warns its listeners. It is Catholic music for this most uncompromisingly Catholic of movies.
The music was composed by Bernard Herrmann who, as film historian David Robinson tells us, is the “best” movie composer of all time. But Herrmann wasn’t a Catholic, unlike Alfred Hitchcock, the movie’s director. Hitchcock made it in 1958 for Universal Studios. He called his creation Vertigo and professional critics consider it, with Orson Welles’ 1939 Citizen Kane, to be the greatest movie ever made.
This scene from Vertigo took place at Hitchcock’s favorite San Francisco restaurant, Ernie’s, located at the bottom of Russian Hill, on the edge of North Beach. It was filmed by Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s long-time cinematographer. The woman’s dress was designed by Edith Head, the Hollywood costume artist who won eight Academy Awards during her illustrious career. Art direction for this scene was managed more longtime Hitchcock collaborators, Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, both nominated for an academy award for his work on Vertigo.
Hitchcock’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart, plays the private-eye, Scottie Ferguson, an ex cop suffering from a fear of heights. The woman’s name is Madeleine Elster and she is played by Kim Novak, the smouldering actress who, in Vertigo, Hitchcock bullied into the performance of her life.
In Vertigo, Novak plays two women, one real, one fake. She impersonates the blonde heiress Madeleine Elster; but, in real life, she is Judy Barton, a brunette shop assistant from Kansas. In the scene at Ernie’s, Judy is dressed up as Madeleine. The real Madeleine is about to be murdered by her husband Gavin Elster, Ferguson’s classmate from Stanford University, intent on absconding to Europe with his dead wife’s fortune.
There are a number of great seductions in this short scene from Vertigo. Gavin Elster and Judy Barton are seducing Scottie Ferguson. Gavin Elster has seduced Judy Barton, both literally and otherwise, into playing the role of his wife. Hitchcock, that old rogue, is seducing us all, of course. So is Burks’ cinematography, Head’s little black dress and Ernie’s glamorous restaurant in old San Francisco. Then there are Novak’s seductive grey-green eyes, her cleavage and her bun of blonde hair. The greatest seduction, however, is Herrmann’s soundtrack. Without the music, nobody gets seduced.