Vertigo (1958)


Alfred Hitchcock is considered by many voices in the industry to be the greatest director of all time.  It suffices to say that I agree with these voices.  For so many of us, Hitchcock represents the stunning collaborative effect of art, technique, and personality—a personality that was as complex as it was singularly driven; his self-awareness only heightening the depths to which he allowed himself to operate.  He has several stand-out films that define these many different facets of his personality.  Rear Window tackles the horrors of obsession and handicap.  Rebecca deals with the concept of haunting ghosts and tainted love.  Notorious challenges the cliches of a love affair and asks how far is one really willing to go to prove their devotion.  Psycho provides sheer terror and mental complexes, while Frenzy takes those to a new level before the backdrop of overt sexuality and social tension.  Dial “M” for Murder and Rope conquer the issues of a “perfect murder” and the moral relationship–and supposed ambiguity–of death and killing.  North by Northwest and The 39 Steps make evident to the greatest degree the patented Hitchcock-ian humor and wit. The Birds, like so many others, gives the viewer an iconic motif that will never be forgotten.  Sabotage and the Man Who Knew Too Much films deal with the horror of a murdered of endangered loved one.  Spellbound demonstrates the brilliance of artistic expression to terrify in its surrealist embrace of the subconscious.  Shadow of a Doubt and The Lady Vanishes permeate us with the actuality of what life is like when we are alone and are in very real danger–even when the threat is only perceived.  At the end of the day, watching a Hitchcock film is more an exploration of self than one would realize at first blush: he was as much an auteur as he was an exhibitionist, as much a psychoanalyst as he was a showman.

Vertigo gives it all.  It is a psychopathic lover, a deceptive criminal, a ghost and an injured friend; it is a piece of full-color art and light that mixes brilliant notes of fulfillment–like that triumphant green specter in a lonely hotel room–with knots in the stomach.

For 70 years, Sight and Sound magazine in Great Britain has provided the most acclaimed list in the film industry by decennially gathering hundreds of directors and film critics to state (in no particular order, as I understand it) their top ten movies.  The list is then compiled by the amount of mentions in these respective lists.  Every decade since 1952 Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles masterpiece, has harnessed the top spot.  However, the world of the competent movie-connoisseur was shaken when the 2012 poll put Vertigo on the top of the list.  This recent development has placed added scrutiny on the classic, and the next poll will determine whether this extra time spent under the microscope of subjectivism will help or hinder its future respect.

Regardless of whether I agree with the conclusions reached by Sight and Sound (I don’t), it is important to note with total emphasis that this film is not unworthy of mention alongside such classics as Kane, Tokyo Story, and all those other masterworks of world cinema.  It is the best-ever director’s best-ever film.

One of the downsides to addressing this film so early on in my blog is that I don’t have a lot of groundwork upon which I can build.  I plan on introducing films contextually on this path from casual film-watching to connoisseur-like competency.  There is very little context yet in this blog.  But, posts on suspense, auteurism, action, montage, music, and screenplays (among so many other topics) are forthcoming, and I hope that, despite the relative brevity of this review, you will find yourself even more appreciative of the film as we move along.

The upside to including this movie first in my foray into film criticism is that this film works so well as a “springboard” or “gateway film” into the wide world of classic cinema.  To start this blog off, and get us moving down the path toward film competency, I plan on reviewing a few Hitchcock films, as well as a few films from Francis Ford Coppola and a few silent films.  I think that this formula will work well to introduce my readers to the various aspects of the world of film, and work as a springboard to more films down the road.  And, there are few better candidates to start off a trip down the path of film competency than the ever-complex, artful, and at times terrifying Vertigo.

Previous to the release of the Sight and Sound poll last summer, Vertigo was a favorite film of mine, and I wrote a paragraph-long review about it for a school assignment.  Since the intent of this blog is to show the development from casual to competent, I think showing my views on it then compared to my views on it now that I, too, have re-watched it under my own microscope is most appropriate.   Here is what I wrote:

Vertigo is a movie that gets better and better the more one thinks about what he has just seen. Its seemingly two-part plot development and the strange behavior of James Stewart’s character to contribute to both parts (for one, the consistent attacks of vertigo; for the other, the strange obsessions to a look-alike) create an absurd aura to surround every viewing, but when one looks at the film as a whole, it is so completely thought-provoking, the idea so completely awe-striking, no one can ever forget it. It combines all the great aspects of every fantastic Hitchcock picture: an all-star cast, a brilliant Herrmann score, intense angles to contribute to fright, obsessive love stories, and plot twists—including the hint forward at the plot twist that is subliminally hidden in the screenshots that precede it. The plot, when considered in its completion, is mind-blowing.  A man suffering from a mental/physical disorder accepts his final investigation job—at first dealing with the “supernatural”—and then moves to his own absurd obsession with the object of his investigation. The entire movie is a masterwork of terror, mixed with mystery, mixed with romance, mixed with excitement. The levels of variety quill-work are so interlaced so as to cancel out any leniency toward any specific expectation or niche of comfort within a particular genre. This movie was brilliantly directed and brilliantly acted, and the score was brilliantly conceived. Bernard Herrmann’s famous love theme for the film is as translucent as it is polyphonic, its cliché crescendos beautiful when standing alone, but strikingly symbolic when accompanied by the feigned love Stewart’s character has created for the idea of a perfect woman. The strange irony of the film is that this love is forced upon him by a real, actual woman, yet, one that cannot escape the boundaries of her own desired conformity, because she is not real. Further irony lies in her reciprocation of the love, but in the end, neither the fake nor the real woman can have the man, and he remains a victim of his own delusions. The movie is magnificent, on all levels.

Now that I have seen the movie again, I feel I can take the subject matter I presented then and go even a little deeper.  One line stands out to me, towards the end of the review, that says that Kim Novak’s character “cannot escape the boundaries of her own desired conformity”.  This, upon further review, is inaccurate.  It is not a desire that creates this conformity, it is a requirement.  But who requires it?  The answer lies in two characters, often forgotten amid the triangle of James Stewart’s Scottie and the two manifestations of Kim Novak.

The first is the Tom Helmore’s Gavin, an old friend of the now-retired Scottie, who requests that Scottie tail his wife, Madeleine, whom he suspects has been possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor and is being pressed to commit suicide.   The film progresses to show that all this is just a ploy in order to, and to avoid spoiling it too explicitly, commit the ever-archetypal “perfect murder.”   Here, we see Gavin as what he truly is: the quiet and omnipotent observer, the man in the background, the puppeteer.  He has forced Judy to become Madeleine as he desires her to be; she is molded by his intricacies to bait and tempt.  Any deviation would be a crushing blow to the plan.  But, as the plot trudges forward, the plan becomes less and less a supposition, and more and more a reality in the eyes of the Gavin’s chess pieces.  She is merely a creation, no longer of God, but of Gavin himself.

The second character is Carlotta Valdes, none other than the very ancestor to whom Madeleine–or Judy–must conform.  She, even more so than Gavin, lingers in the background, setting requirements that must be stuck to, otherwise the detective will unravel the inconsistencies and foil the plan.  This facet of the plot stands as a testament to Novak, as we realize the role-within-a-role-within-a-role that she was forced to play.  At what moments would Madeleine leak her true Judy; at what point would Carlotta speak, but Madeleine move?  Would it be Carlotta’s emptiness, Madeleine’s fright, or Judy’s desperation that shows in her eyes?  One observation made by Roger Ebert was a particular scene after Scottie saves Madeleine from the Bay.   Already, the obsession is beginning to show as Scottie, his facial expressions hinting of suppressed erotomania, undresses her in his bedroom.  But the real object of evaluation in this tender, yet disconcerting, scene is Madeleine.  Is she really unconscious at all?  Or is she just pretending?  If so, it is not Madeleine he is undressing…it is Judy, hiding, like so many young and innocent girls do, her “crush” under the veil of feigned sleep.

But what of Scottie?  He is, after all, the main character.  While he doesn’t have to quite so explicitly play so many facets as does Novak, he nonetheless gives a faceted performance.  After all, the question lies throughout the entire film: who does he really love?  Is it Madeleine?  If so, he loves the creation of another man: in other words, his dream girl is the product of someone else’s dream and he must deal with the sad reality of his own imaginative ineptitude and the deception that it resulted in.  Or could it actually be Judy?  If so, he loves a woman whose entire experience with him was a lie, and he must tear her away from her own self to become that lie again.  Or could, in some twisted yet very real bout of necrophilia, it be Carlotta?  Let’s go back to a line from the previous paragraph: she, even more so than Gavin, lingers in the background, setting requirements that must be stuck to, otherwise the detective will unravel the inconsistencies and foil the plan.  Now, the question is, does the detective even want to unravel those inconsistencies?  It seems, from the degree to which his obsession goes by the end of the film, that he doesn’t.  He’d rather deny his own emotional impotence and fall in love with the portrait, the statue, the unreal human.

All of this makes the viewer rather dizzy.  What better way, then, to portray all of this than to have the main character suffer from vertigo?

This movie is deeper than anyone would ever imagine at first viewing: the unique nature of the camera shots, the picturesque imagery, the fantastic music.  It combines the direction of the master of suspense with the superb talent of James Stewart–one of the greatest monologue reciters in film.   But it opens up to greater than the sum of those respective parts and on to be one of the greatest movies ever made.

(Note: there is much more to this film than I tackle here.  Make sure to keep on reading in this blog, especially my reviews of Notorious and Psycho to get a better idea of the added depths to which this film takes us.)

23 thoughts on “Vertigo (1958)

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