Hitchcock: Vertigo

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(Minor spoilers–if you’ve never seen the film before [and shame on you if you haven’t] tread lightly).

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had its fiftieth anniversary this year, and perhaps is the best example of a film that has increased in estimation with age. When it was released, it was met with mostly indifference. It only received two Oscar nominations, for minor categories. But in 2002 it was rated as the second-greatest film of all time by the every-ten-years Sight and Sound poll, and in the most recent AFI survey of greatest Americans films, ranked number nine. This may be due to a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself: Vertigo gets better every time I’ve watched it.

It was Hitchcock’s most personal film, concerned with a man’s obsession in recreating a woman in the image of a dead woman. The image, of course, is an icy Nordic blonde, the kind of woman that would appear in numerous Hitchcock films. But what’s most remarkable about it is that it delves, in 1958, in some rather kinky psychosexual behavior. As Hitchcock admitted, there was even the whiff of necrophilia outlined in the obsession.

The story concerns a San Francisco police detective, played by James Stewart, who has a fear of heights. He retires after a policeman falls to his death trying to save Stewart. An old college buddy asks for his help with his wife (Kim Novak), who is under the delusion that she is the reincarnation of a long-dead woman from the Spanish days of California. However, as we will eventually learn, the story is beside the point. In defiance of most of the rules of moviemaking, the plot plays a minor role. What Hitchcock is concerned with is mood and emotion, and creating a dream-like state where logic goes out the window.

The film has a second part. After the events of the first half are wrapped up, and Stewart thinks that the woman he was following (and fell in love with) is dead, he discovers her doppelganger. He woos her and makes her over to perfectly resemble his lost love, even to the point of dying her hair. It is at the start of the second half that Hitchcock made his most brilliant structural move, which was different from the source novel. We the audience are told right away just who the new woman, Judy Barton, is, however Stewart does not know (until he figures it out at the end). Hitchcock thus makes it so the audience knows more than the characters, which was his definition of suspense.

There are some troubling aspects of the film–even Hitchcock knew there were hiccoughs. But minor little mysteries that remain, such as how Novak manages to get in and out the hotel without the clerk seeing her, perpetuate the dream-like aspects of the film. Also, Novak was not the most gifted of actresses, and Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over her (figuratively speaking of course), which matches the attempts in the film of Stewart trying to remake her.

But these inconsistencies are overwhelmed by majesty. Robert Burks’ photography is absolutely magnificent, and makes brilliant use of color (of course Hitchcock dictated this, even choosing the color of Novak’s outfits). The music by Bernard Hermann, which uses Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is one of the great scores in film history.

For a major release in the era of the studio system, Vertigo is one of the strangest and European-seeming film in Hollywood’s history (it’s no accident its reputation was revived by the French). Consider the trippy animated dream sequence in the center of the film, or the creepy scene when Novak awakes after being rescued from San Francisco Bay by Stewart. She’s in bed, nude, and we all realize that Stewart has undressed her and put her into bed. Hitchcock was certainly a very complicated man, and Vertigo is perhaps the best window into his psyche that he ever made.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

15 responses »

  1. It was just released last month in a smashing new 2-disc DVD package, with the restored version. The extras aren’t great–a short documentary about the restoration, a snippet of an interview between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

    But anyone serious about film should see this one.

  2. I saw it years ago, loved it then. Even though I wouldn’t call it the best film ever made, it’s certainly one of the best thrillers.

    Apparently somewhat unlike Jackrabbit, I’m a big fan of the story and structure. There is a sickly dreamlike state to the film’s proceedings (without the clichéd use of tricks like soft-focus) and you feel yourself following (falling?) down the rabbit hole together with the poor, despicable detective. Probably Stewart’s best portrayal ever.

  3. Ah, gotcha. And agree with you. More of a two-act structure than the classical three act, both juxtaposed and echoing off against each other.

  4. Also, the plot (the business of him tailing Novak and her supposed reincarnation) is largely irrelevant. He’d repeat that in Psycho with the embezzling story.

  5. It just doesn’t adhere to the norms you’ll find in screenwriting books.

    How many great movies do? Casablanca strikes me as having a very traditional structure. Jaws, maybe. No doubt they’re out there but it seems like they would be the exceptions instead of the rule.

  6. Also, the plot (the business of him tailing Novak and her supposed reincarnation) is largely irrelevant.

    But is that really only the plot? Doesn’t it also (HUGE spoilers!) deal with him remaking her into the one he thought she looked like. Isn’t him finding her and getting caught up in trying to reconcile himself with Novak’s character’s first death the main plot of the second half?

  7. Yes, that’s the plot of the second part, which doesn’t start until about ninety minutes in (ALSO HUGE SPOILERS): The first ninety minutes really are a hoax–none of it was true.

  8. AGGghhhhhhh-
    Why do I never pay attention to spoiler alerts! Oh, well…now if only someone could spoil Gone With the Wind for me so I don’t have to feel bad about never having seen it.

  9. I guess I need to see it again (along with Casablanca). It was a wholly dissatisfying movie experience for me. I had heard many great things about it and it just didn’t seem special to me.

  10. now if only someone could spoil Gone With the Wind for me so I don’t have to feel bad about never having seen it.

    All right, since you asked for it.

    [HUGE SPOILERS! DON’T READ AFTER THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN GONE WITH THE WIND! I’M WARNING YOU!]Nah, just kidding.[/END SPOILERS!]

  11. now if only someone could spoil Gone With the Wind for me so I don’t have to feel bad about never having seen it.

    He doesn’t give a damn.

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