Friday, March 9, 2012

VERTIGO 1958

I guess it says something about a suspense thriller when you can watch it multiple times, long after the central mystery of its plot has been revealed, with no lessening of engagement or enjoyment. In the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s mesmerizingly bizarre Vertigo, the film itself is so unusual; its subject matter so psychosexually dark; I find myself forgetting the “surprise reveal” of the mystery altogether and just getting lost in what a perversely obsessive vision of romance a major Hollywood studio was able to get away with in the repressed environment of the late-50s.

As one of five films owned by Hitchcock and removed from circulation in 1973 so his lawyers could better hammer out new deals for their television and theatrical distribution rights (the others being The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, Rear Window, and The Trouble With Harry), Vertigo wasn’t available for viewings of any kind, singular or multiple, during my high school and college years.

The deceptively simple suspense plot about a retired detective who falls in love, and later becomes obsessed with, the woman he's been hired to follow, is one of the darkest and self-revealing films in the Hitchcock canon.
Barely Hanging On
Vertigo is a film about a man's psychological spiral into the abyss
Considered neither a commercial nor critical success on its initial release, Vertigo’s reputation had grown significantly by the mid-70s, due in large part to the film’s unavailability, but perhaps most significantly as a direct result of the emerging, youth-inspired / New Hollywood reevaluation of Hitchcock and his works. Spearheaded by the French New Wave and director François Truffaut’s by-now-classic 1967 book of interviews: Hitchcock by Truffaut, a generation of young movie fans had come to regard Alfred Hitchcock (previously considered little more than an efficient workmanlike, studio-system director of suspense thrillers)  as an auteurist maverick in the manner of contemporaries John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles.

This well-taken (if functionally naïve) position was readily adopted by me and most everyone else I went to film school with—the mean age of the collective student body betraying  the fact that Vertigo was, to most of us, one of those films more discussed than actually seen.
Jimmy Stewart as John "Scottie" Ferguson
Kim Novak as Madeline Elster
Kim Novak as Judy Barton
Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge Wood
As a kid, the full extent of my knowledge of behind-the-scenes motion picture personnel were the opposite-ends-of- the-spectrum names of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock. With only the most cartoonish notion of what a director or producer actually did (I had, after all, seen all of the “Lucy goes to Hollywood” episodes of I Love Lucy), thanks to the TV anthology series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Alfred Hitchcock Presents I knew one thing: Disney meant funny and Hitchcock meant scary. Hitchcock’s The Birds and the deeply traumatizing Psycho had enough of a “Creature Features”/ William Castle vibe about them to satisfy a young person’s notion of what a scary movie should be. But Vertigo (which had its network TV premiere in 1965 and reran consistently), despite Hitchcock’s name and the similar one-word title, was just too slow and kissy-faced to hold my interest.
For Bay Area kids in the 70s, scary movies meant one thing and one thing only: Creature Features
Once it became clear that Kim Novak’s rigid hairdo wasn’t in danger of crow attack, or that Jimmy Stewart wasn’t going to be donning a dress or wielding a knife anytime soon, I gave up on trying to sit through it. By the time I reached my teens and interest in Vertigo renewed, it was too late. I ultimately didn't get to see Vertigo until after it was released on DVD, restored and pristine, in 1999.
Alfred Hitchcock's much-analyzed "pure cinema" style is greatly in evidence throughout Vertigo.
The dizzying spiral motif.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Contrasted with my youthful antipathy towards Vertigo, my adult response to the film was near-obsessive adoration. I immediately fell in love with its absorbingly intriguing plot and the descriptively cinematic methods Hitchcock uses to both tell the story and reveal character. A trait shared by most of the filmmakers I most admire is their fluency in the visual language of film. They don’t just record events with a camera; they use the medium to shape our perceptions of what is happening and what the characters are feeling. I’m not always persuaded by Hitchcock’s sometimes jarring shifts from visually striking location shots to patently fake-looking studio sets and process photography, but in a story as subjectively stylized as Vertigo, even artificiality works in the film’s favor.
(My partner, who doesn’t exactly worship at the altar of Hitchcock, thinks the director’s predilection for rear-screen projections and patently sound-studio outdoor sets recall  the look of Disney’s live-action films. A running gag is for him to poke me in the ribs at any instance of obvious rear-projection or stagy outdoor sets in a movie and exclaim (in mock sincerity), “Oh look, Ken…a Hitchcock film!”)
Hitchcock was the best at using imagery to convey emotional states
PERFORMANCES:
I’ve commented before on my theory that movie star appeal (as opposed to actor appeal) is rooted in a performer’s ability to consistently project a distinct personal quality about themselves from film to film. To, in effect, imprint each role with their personality rather than lose themselves within a character.
I don’t know very much about Kim Novak’s personal life, but of all the 50s sex symbols, she has always struck me as one of the most sad-eyed and reluctant. She never appeared to enjoy the objectification that is the sex symbol’s stock in trade; rather, like the character she played in the film Picnic, Novak always seemed to be of a somewhat shy personality, sensitive and desirous of someone to take notice of something about her beyond her beauty.
Vera Miles was originally cast in the Kim Novak role but had to drop out of Vertigo due to pregnancy.
Hitch was not happy
It’s this quality Kim Novak brings to the dual characters of Madeline/Judy in Vertigo. A quality one might go so far as to say is exploited by Hitchcock, given how painfully tangible Novak makes Judy’s longing for Scottie to love her for herself.
As dramatically compelling as they are, I confess that I find the sequences where Scottie attempts to make Judy over in Madeline’s image to be particularly painful to sit through. There’s no pleasure to be derived from the subtle self-deprecation glimpsed behind Judy’s poignantly eager-to-please glances and nervous smiles as Scottie demands more and more of the real Judy to retreat into his fantasy. These scenes are so difficult to watch because those flashes of resigned sadness in Judy harken back to that dolefulness I’ve always perceived in Novak’s eyes in other films.
There's been much written about the tortured  character of Scottie, but equally compelling is the character  of Judy, a woman who allows herself to be made over not once, but twice, in the image of another man's ideal.
It's a lamentable, psychologically brutalizing motif standardized in the fashion industry and even romanticized and rendered "cute" in movies like Grease. I think Kim Novak is marvelously affecting and heartbreaking in Vertigo and her performance is easily the best of her career.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As a former resident of San Francisco, I have a weak spot for movies that make the city look like my idealized memories of it. The San Francisco of Vertigo is long before I ever moved there, but it’s every bit as picturesque.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
“All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
Frederico Fellini

Show me a filmmaker who denies his work has autobiographical subtext, and I’ll show you a filmmaker with good reason to try to convince himself of the lie. (Back in 1971, Roman Polanski “doth protest too much” when critics took note of his Manson-esque depiction of slaughter in Macbeth; likewise, Woody Allen took the same tact when the whole Mia Farrow/Soon Yi mess made the 42 year-old man/17 year-old girl romance at the center of Manhattan seem forever icky.)
On its own merits, Vertigo is a near-perfect suspense thriller with a devastating tragedy at its center. The lovers are plagued by personal flaws and compulsions that induce them to act in ways that doom their union no matter how many times it’s played out. It’s a strange, deeply romantic film whose themes feel assertively antithetical to the kind of romantic myth typical of Hollywood films in the 1950s.
Top: In Vertigo Hitchcock takes full advantage of the strange, spectral quality of the color green.
Below: The same eerie hue was used to equally chilling effect in the poster art for my favorite film of all time, Rosemary's Baby
What provides the film with its extra, voyeuristic kick is how closely Vertigo’s narrative hews to what has come to be known about Alfred Hitchcock’s personal obsessions and compulsions. Whether apocryphal or substantiated, the Hitchcock section of the library is loaded with tale after tale of his fixation on icy blondes and apparent fetish for eyeglasses. Stories of his professional relationships with actresses Vera Miles and Tippi Hedren read like a character analysis of Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson.
I've never been much of a fan of Jimmy Stewart, but if Vertigo works at all, it's because of his movingly tortured performance. Cast against type as a somewhat unpleasant and haunted character, Vertigo seems to tap into a heretofore unexplored cruelty in the actor that makes his Scottie so flawed and vulnerable. I've never seen him better.
It’s this personal overlay that gives Vertigo its eerie punch and makes it feel at times as if the film were a subtly confessional probe into the darkest corners of what we sometimes label desire.
Jimmy Stewart & Kim Novak were paired again in the 1958 comedy, Bell Book & Candle. Here they make a cameo appearance on the film's soundtrack album cover in this shameless bit of product-placement from the Shirley Booth TV show Hazel. (Both were produced by Columbia Studios.)

Vertigo is not my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film (that would be Shadow of a Doubt) but for me it’s the movie where he most perfectly conjoins popular entertainment and art. It’s a beautiful film that’s very watchable, but there is something unpleasant and sad about it. Something that nevertheless feels very human and is therefore very familiar.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. No doubt that Hitchcock was a genius. But what is often overlooked is his willingness to collaborate with, even at times depend on, other artists. Much of what engages the viewer in Vertigo is the music by Bernard Herrmann. Without his score, the movie would have failed. Another collaborator was Saul Bass, who not only created the movie posters and opening credits in Hitchcock films, but often designed frames in plotting the story. I don't know if the spiral motif that runs throughout Vertigo is purely Hitchcock's concept. But I'd be willing to bet that Bass had something to do with it.

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    1. Hi Daudesign
      I agree. I think that's why the auteur theory fell out of favor. It's useful in academic or critical discussions to attribute an entire film to a single person, but I think you're right in calling attention to the fact that part of Hitchcock's genius was in his choice of collaborators. Edith Head (who had an army of collaborators of her own), Herrmann, and Saul Bass are as much a part of what I love about "Vertigo" as Hitchcock's contributions (which, apparently, were his fetishes). Thanks so much for commenting!

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  2. I loooovve this movie. I was in high school (I think!) when those 5 Hitchcock films came out of seclusion and they were run on a pay cable channel soon after. I checked them out due to curiosity (the vibrant period look of the movies, the colors, styles, etc... intrigued me) and became an instant fan. When I think of a mood-setting, progressively momentous movie like Vertigo being shown on network TV with cuts and commercials (!) I shudder. I agree with all you say about it, particularly how it can be enjoyed even though we know what's coming. And that music.... wow. Great job!

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  3. Hi Poseidon
    You know, I think you hit on why the film seemed so slow in those late 60's TV airings. All those commercials were murder on a sustained mood piece like this. The fact that Hitchcock's films are always so distinctly period-looking is one reason why the sometimes artificial look of them never bothers me. So much feels stylized anyway. Thanks for reading!

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  4. The violence that is enacted on Judy to change her back to Madeleine is frightening not because of Scottie's fiercely urgency but because of Judy's fear (especially when they get back to the mission). I've seen this several times over the years and even got to see it in the theater once when a little one screen movie house managed to get a print somewhere. It was great to see it with an audience--other peoples' reactions pointed things out to me I had never noticed before. It's for this, all the details, that it's so easy to re-watch. I could even do that just for the colors (the flowers! matching cars in the background! not to mention the green light, which is used in "Rope" too, though there it's flashing red and green).

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    1. I agree. Seeing "Vertigo" on the big screen and with an audience is almost like seeing it for the first time. I had an opportunity once, and, like you, was made aware of many things I hadn’t noticed before. Chiefly the use of color throughout.

      For me, the effectiveness of the whole Judy into Madeline transformation lies in the mid-story reveal of the “mystery” of the plot. Judy, who is relatively safe at this point, had fallen in love with Scottie but had to give him up to keep the “secret.” When they meet again, Judy (like Scottie) is granted another opportunity for love and hopes that Scottie to fall in love with HER, not HER as Madeline. When she learns that he cannot help himself from wanting to change her into the image of his lost love, Judy takes the ultimate risk of exposure by allowing herself to be re-transformed into the woman she helped murder. Scottie is obsessed with a dead woman and Judy is in love with a man who can only love her if she becomes that woman, at least superficially. Her inability to get him to love her for herself is tragic, her willingness to literally sacrifice herself and risk discovery so that she can be with him is pathos. When Judy says “I don’t care about me anymore.” She means it. Even if it means being found out, she she’ll do anything to make Scottie love her. I don’t believe her fear at the end is for herself. She’s more afraid that if Scottie learn the truth, there’s no chance he’ll ever love her.

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  5. This film triggered my near-obsession with all things Kim Novak.
    I recently watched this one again on TCM and no matter how many times I've seen it the damned thing never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

    It's just a masterpiece on every single level.

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  6. Hi PTF
    I wholeheartedly agree. The film seems to yield new things each and every time you watch it. And I just think Kim Novak is great in this. What she does with her voice and overall countenance as the two characters is terrific.

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  7. long time no comment! i've been enjoying watching your blog develop and am so thankful for the education you provide through it, not to mention your insightful and unique point of view! i am not the best writer, hence my silence for a little while in the comments. but anyway...

    when i first saw vertigo i was expecting scary suspense. and that is indeed what i took away from it, contrary to many others' reactions to the film. i found it as chilling a movie as 'psycho' from its centering on mental illness in the male lead character and his distorted relationship with women. scottie's character is immediately introduced as a man whose sanity has been compromised by a tragic event. i found it interesting how so many people trusted his character and didn't find him deeply disturbing. his abrupt obsession with madeline is more than simply love at first sight. it begins, like chinatown (funny you should mention polanski in your post!), in voyeurism. the progress of the plot in this movie left me chilled to my core. none of the characters can be trusted, but i actually find scottie to be the most disturbing. i would even venture to say that the bernard hermann score was misleading. i listen to it often on my ipod and i'm convinced that the haunting, melancholic music is what brings the 'troubled love-story' element to the film. take that away and you will see a frightful account of a mentally unstable man's obsession, and then repression, of a woman he hardly knows. sometimes i read it as simply a bizarre love-dream of a deranged and paranoid lunatic. how can we actually know that madeline/judy even existed at all? the very real and impersonal interaction he shares with midge is a perfect juxtaposition between reality and fantasy. and this is why i love hitchcock.

    whew. that's a heck of a lot of writing. just my take on it. i may change my mind on it tomorrow!!

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    1. Oh, my...hearing from you is like getting a letter from home! You've been missed! Fond memories of when you and my partner were the only ones reading this blog.
      I think you make such a good point in your observation about Scottie's mental illness. People hate to think a film can lead them around by the nose, but I think the lush, romantic score, combined with the inherently likable actor Jimmy Stewart, moves people to think the film is a good deal more romantic than it is.
      You could build an entire thesis around your theory. To ask people to view Scottie's actions through the prism of anything but love would open up a broad vista of chilling scenarios.
      Kneejerk psychology points to Hitchcock being blind to portraying Scottie as a sick individual because his own alleged sexual obsessions (say, towards Tippi Hedren) so mirror those of his "hero".
      I think you write very well, but better still, I love how you think. A fresh perspective on a film as over-discussed as "Vertigo" isn't easy. Thanks for coming back and saying hi!

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  8. Ken,
    Around the time you posted this review I had the chance to see "Vertigo" in a theater for the first time. The screening happened to be at an art deco movie palace, the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA. How perfect is that? It was a packed house and 90% of the crowd obviously knew the film (cheers when Bernard Herrmann's name appeared in the credits, when Hitchcock appeared in cameo, etc.). In some respects, it was as if seeing the film for the first time for me, although I'm not sure why. I will say, though, that every time I watch "Vertigo" there seem to be new revelations of one sort or another. What I didn't expect that night was the loud gasps of those in the audience who clearly had not seen the film before and were shocked by its ending. That gave me something to think about. It had been so long since the first time I watched "Vertigo" that I didn't remember my own first-time reaction to the unexpected climax of Scottie's "second chance."

    It is said that an artist is always revealed in his art. With "Vertigo" it seems to me that Hitchcock most fully expressed himself artistically and personally. But like other great cinematic works, "Vertigo" can also function as a mirror for the viewer - allowing one a glimpse of his/her own inner landscape - as well as Hitchcock's.

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  9. How terrific is that? The Paramount Theater in Oakland is an outrageously gorgeous venue to see a movie (I'm so jealous!).
    My limited experience in seeing classic films in theaters is very similar to what you detail: demonstrative fans familiar with every frame, yet sprinkled within the crowd are neophytes who respond so spontaneously to the film that it triggers memories of one's introduction to the film at hand.
    Many's the time I've envied a newbie at a classic film screening because, like you, I often can't recall my first-time reactions.
    I agree that "Vertigo" is Hitchcock exposed, but I like the point you make about films ability to also function as a mirror for the viewer. If more people accepted that there is rarely ever a "right" way to experience a film, there's be fewer arguments between viewers with opposing opinions. Thanks for sharing you "Vertigo" recollections here, Eve!

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  10. Great work on this site, Ken. This particular page gives me the opportunity to publicly offer gratitude to the late Gordon Scott for getting Vera Miles pregnant. As lovely as she is (and as good an actress), she lacked charisma and mystery, the very things that make Kim Novak so compelling in this and many of her other films. Even Hitch could be shortsighted, but I hope he eventually came to realize that without Novak, Vertigo most likely would have missed the boat.

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    1. Ha! That is great line offering thanks to Gordon Scott! I couldn't agree with you more about the contrast between Miles and Novak. I think you hit on exactly the qualities the talented Vera Miles lacked. Two qualities so perfect for this film.
      And while the stories about to what degree Hitchcock felt frustrated or happy with Novak change with every new telling, I think it is obvious that she provides the film with the allure and mystery it pivots on. Just might be the best film of her career. Thanks so much for the comments and of course the compliments!

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