Today’s cinema adventure: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the 1958 psychological mystery that recently replaced Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the #1 spot on Sight and Sound Magazine’s influential once-a-decade list of the best films ever made. Initially considered a disappointing entry to the Hitchcock canon, at the time of its release it received mixed reviews and barely broke even at the box office- an exception to the usual popularity and success enjoyed by the director’s films. Though Hitchcock himself cited it as one of his personal favorites among his films, it remained largely ignored by his admirers, even during the major reevaluation of his work by a new generation of critics that recognized the director as a true cinematic artist instead of merely a maker of popular entertainment. However, when it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s (along with four other titles for which Hitchcock had bought back the rights, intending them as an asset to be passed to his daughter upon his death), its reputation soared, and when it once again became available in 1983 it enjoyed a highly successful theatrical re-release and sweeping critical acclaim. In ensuing years, it has been cited by many as Hitchcock’s masterpiece (a view clearly held by the critics who vote in the Sight and Sound poll); but dissenting voices have argued that it is a flawed, over-rated, self-conscious exercise in pure technique, lacking the director’s usual polished storytelling and sense of humor. In view of this controversy (renewed and exacerbated by its recent promotion to the coveted #1 spot) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in with my assessment- particularly given my own fascination with and appreciation for the work of Hitchcock, surely one of the single most important and influential filmmakers in history, whose innovations and techniques helped to shape the cinematic art form and continue to do so today.
Vertigo, prominently and famously set in San Francisco, is the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, a former police detective who has opted for an early retirement after his crippling fear of heights led to the death of a fellow officer during a rooftop pursuit. As he struggles to overcome the trauma- and his resultant guilt and depression- with the help of his best friend (and one-time fiancée), “Midge” Wood, he is approached by a former acquaintance, one Gavin Elster, to undertake a private investigation; Elster fears that his wife’s erratic behavior and mysterious wanderings are signs of a growing mental instability which may jeopardize her safety, and after some persuasion, Ferguson agrees to take the case. He follows the coldly beautiful Madeleine Elster on her seemingly aimless, trancelike meanderings around the city, gradually discovering that she has become obsessed with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who descended into madness and suicide after being abandoned by her wealthy lover; the fascination becomes more ominous when he learns from Elster that Madeleine is unaware of her own relation to the late Carlotta- or of anything about her- which has led him to suspect she has become possessed by the tragic woman’s restless spirit. Refusing to believe in ghosts (and developing his own obsessions), Ferguson continues to tail Madeleine, until, on one of her endless daily excursions, she abruptly jumps into San Francisco Bay. Forced to come to her rescue, he becomes personally involved with her; determined to help her discover the real cause of her strange psychological condition, he begins to accompany the troubled beauty on her obsessive expeditions, and the two develop a powerful attraction that quickly blossoms into an affair. Now deeply enmeshed in a mystery- one which has taken on a new urgency with his feelings for Madeleine- Ferguson struggles to uncover the sinister cause of her strange compulsions, even as the diabolical secret of her connection to Carlotta threatens to bring on a tragedy that will once again shatter his own life.
The screenplay for Vertigo is based on D’Entre les morts, a novel by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose previous work, Celle qui n’était plus, had been unsuccessfully pursued by Hitchcock before being filmed by director Henri-Georges Clouzot as his masterpiece, Les Diaboliques. Though not written directly by Hitchcock, the script was prepared, as with most of the director’s films, under his strict and meticulous guidelines; an early version by playwright Maxwell Anderson was rejected outright, and a second draft by Alec Coppel was completely rewritten by Samuel Taylor- who worked exclusively from the director’s detailed synopsis to create the screenplay which was eventually used. The resulting scenario, not surprisingly, is rife with classic Hitchcockian elements; most prominent, of course, is the focus on an icy blonde woman who irresistibly lures the hero into a web of illusion and deceit. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most personal statement on film in the sense that he uses the slow unwinding of its plot to explore in depth the themes which run throughout his other works. The simultaneous adulation and mistrust of women, the cynical view of romance, the Freudian emphasis on sexuality (the sexual subtext throughout is palpable, at times shockingly overt for a film produced at the time), the psychological connection between sex and death, and- perhaps most importantly- the obsessive fascination with image and illusion and the manipulation of these things to obscure the truth; all these are present, and magnified from their usual level of underlying texture to become the main concern of the film. In “Scottie” Ferguson’s desperate attempt to fix his broken psyche by rescuing another tormented soul, he becomes fixated on Madeleine Elster as an object of desire; his sexual attraction merges with his efforts to conquer his fears and she comes to represent for him a return to wholeness- to attain her would be to repair his damaged life. However, his perception of her is flawed, partly by deliberate obfuscation, yes, but also by his own self-delusion, and his insistence on making her into his own fantasy threatens to drag him into the very madness from which he believes he is saving her- and also to blind him to the woman she really is. It’s a dark journey, even for Hitchcock, and offers a grim counterpoint to the idealized love affairs that were so popularly portrayed in many of the glossy and sentimental romantic melodramas of the same era.
This decidedly bleak depiction of love may be one of the keys to why Vertigo failed to capture Hitchcock’s loyal followers upon its first release. His most popular formula was always a blend of romance, humor, and suspense, tinged with darkness, perhaps- even the director’s most likable characters were possessed of a few unpleasant quirks, and his villains were often more sympathetic (or at least more charming) than his heroes- but ultimately reinforcing the traditional Hollywood message that love conquers all, in the end. Vertigo was a marked departure from this tradition, even going so far as to use the audience’s expectations to lure them into the psychological trap its creator had planned, The film’s first scene- after the expository opening in which we see the tragic rooftop incident that ends its protagonist’s police career and establishes the necessary premise of his paralyzing acrophobia- lulls us into the comfort of familiar Hitchcock territory with the playfully flirtatious banter between Ferguson and his erstwhile girlfriend Midge as he lounges in her apartment; our hero seems down-to-earth, well-adjusted and pleasant, and the tone is decidedly light- indeed, almost jarringly light, considering the gruesome events we have just witnessed. In true Hitchcock fashion, the scene takes a foreboding turn toward the end, revealing the truth that all is not as well as it seems; but unlike most of his previous work, the ensuing drama never brings us back to the light. Instead, the mystery into which we are pulled- part ghost story, part psychodrama- takes us deeper and deeper into uncomfortable territory, as we witness Ferguson’s spiral into desperation and obsession; as the film progresses, his banter with Midge becomes increasingly tense and forced as their unreconciled relationship falls apart, and his determination to conquer his inner demons seems more and more like denial. Though the plot is ostensibly centered on solving the mystery of Madeleine Elster, we are really watching the slow and inevitable disintegration of a man who refuses to face the truth about himself- and is therefore incapable of seeing the truth of the situation into which he has been drawn. Hitchcock’s well-known device of the “MacGuffin” (a supposedly important object or situation in the plot that is ultimately irrelevant to the film’s true purpose) is here taken to perhaps its extreme; the entire plot is in fact only a vehicle for the director to delve into the dark corners of the flawed human psyche.
That the mystery story is unimportant is made clear by the fact that Hitchcock solves it for us two-thirds of the way through- another reason for contemporaneous dissatisfaction with the movie; herein, however, lies the brilliance of the piece, for it is in the final section that the true, disturbing power of Vertigo emerges. It is difficult to discuss these scenes without giving away key story points for those yet to see the film, but suffice to say that Hitchcock uses the situation he has craftily set up in order to present an unsettling pageant of dysfunction between two people, each pursuing a fantasy (one of the past, one of the future) and deluding themselves about the true nature of their relationship, marked by psychological abuse, unhealthy fetishization, emotional isolation, and denial of the underlying issues that fuel this twisted romance. It’s brutal to watch; we know it cannot possibly end well, and that it probably shouldn’t, but because Hitchcock is a master of transferring sympathies we desperately hope- along with these emotionally crippled characters- that it will.
From a technical filmmaking standpoint, there can be no argument against the greatness of Vertigo. Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers here, with the means at his disposal to accomplish his vision to its utmost perfection. He tells his tale visually, with the eye for angles and composition that made him justly renowned, a fluid camera that pulls our eye subtly but unwaveringly to what he wants us to see, and an uncanny skill for timing and editing that manipulates our emotions irresistibly. He incorporates numerous subliminal means to underscore his true intentions; there is an omnipresent motif of spiraling patterns- not only in the story and in the visual design, but also in the magnificently lush, iconic score by favorite collaborator Bernard Herrmann- that continually reinforces his dominant theme of obsession, a state of mind in which endless repetition and revolution around a central focal point are the key characteristics; a heavy use of reflections to emphasize the interplay between illusion and reality (particularly with regard to identity, another important theme which is further supported by the fact that virtually all of the key characters are called by a different name from their given one); and, of course, the favorite technique of using point-of-view shots to help us identify with the characters onscreen- and, more to the point, to make us into voyeurs.
Always one to strive for full coordination of all elements towards a cohesive whole, Hitchcock’s vision extends through the work of his collaborators, never more clearly than in Vertigo. To begin with, the legendary graphic artist Saul Bass, who also designed the movie’s classic advertising imagery, contributes a sharp and stylish opening credits sequence, establishing the spiraling motif that permeates the film. Then there is the aforementioned score by Herrmann, a masterpiece of jangled nerves, relentless tension, melancholy longing, and spectacular release; echoing the strains of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde– another tale of doomed romance- but possessed of the composer’s own unmistakable aural style and distinctively struck in the modernist sound of the mid-20th Century, it is one of the most recognizable pieces of film music ever written- and one of the most effective. The cinematography of Robert Burks is a masterpiece of late ’50s gloss, capturing not just the mood and atmosphere of the era but of San Francisco- indeed, the extensive location footage provides a dazzling view of the famous local scenery, such that Vertigo could serve as a travelogue for the city; in addition, his exploitation of various qualities of light, from the shimmering haze of a sunny churchyard to the murky gloom of a redwood forest, creates an almost dreamlike immediacy to the images on the screen. Perhaps most noticeably, there is the stunning use of color throughout the film, painstakingly created by Burks, art directors Henry Bumstead and Hal Pereira, set decorators Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy, and costume designer Edith Head; thanks to their work (and Hitchcock’s meticulous guidance), Vertigo is possibly the most striking example of symbolic color coordination on film- from the dramatic contrast between Madeleine’s blue wrap and the red wallpaper in Ernie’s restaurant, to the jarring dissonance of her blond hair and her classic gray suit, to the surreal neon blue that bathes her apartment at night, the film delivers a magnificently lush palette of bold and subtle hues that elicit primal responses from beginning to end. This effect is all the more powerful since a 1996 digital restoration (one of the first to be undertaken) returned the movie to its original, pristine condition after years of neglect had left it faded and almost monochromatic. Having seen both an old print and the restored version, I can tell you it’s like watching a completely different movie, and it makes the greatest imaginable difference in the film’s overall power. Of course, any discussion of Vertigo would be incomplete without a mention of its special effects work, which includes the superb matte effects used to create several important sequences (most notably the bell tower at the mission where both of the film’s climaxes take place), the much-imitated nightmare sequence designed by John Ferren, and the famous “Vertigo Zoom,” used here for the first of countless times, in which a disorienting effect is achieved by simultaneously zooming in on a focal point and pulling back the camera.
Besides all these invaluable contributions, Vertigo benefits from the work of its cast. Hitchcock, in later interviews, attempted to explain his film’s relative failure by attributing it to the disparity in age between his leading player, James Stewart, and the 26-year-younger Kim Novak, as well as unfairly- and inaccurately- claiming that Stewart had passed his prime and his popularity had waned (the actor actually enjoyed several more years of considerable box office success following his work in Vertigo); it’s true that Stewart may have been a factor in the public’s disappointing reaction to the film, but if so, it had to do with the fact that his character here is a far cry from the light, easy-going persona with which he was associated. His previous work with Hitchcock had often pushed the boundaries of his gee-whiz image, as had numerous other of his later roles, but with John “Scottie” Ferguson, Stewart’s lovable personality was turned inside out; the good-natured, lackadaisical charm serves as a mask for a morose, deeply troubled psyche, full of self-loathing and capable of great cruelty. Despite the fact that the actor’s many loyal fans had difficulty accepting him as such a flawed individual, in retrospect it is clear that Vertigo represents one of his finest onscreen achievements; he embraces Ferguson’s bitter darkness whole-heartedly, without attempting to soften it by resorting to sentimentality. Playing on his own image, he offers a disturbing portrait of a man whose decency and humanity are eroded by depression and obsession, and his haunting performance is the driving strength of the movie- it’s impossible to imagine another actor in the role. His co-star, Kim Novak, was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the complicated part of Madeleine- he had initially cast the young Vera Miles, who appeared in his previous film, The Wrong Man, but delays in the shooting schedule led to her having to drop out due to pregnancy- but, again, its now hard to picture anyone but Novak as the cool, mysterious, and ethereal focus of the hero’s- and the film’s- compulsive attention. The director also later criticized Novak’s work, saying that, in retrospect, he felt she was miscast; and others have complained that she frequently seems uncomfortable, stilted and artificial. Given the nature of her role, however (and once more I am limited by a desire not to provide any “spoilers” for those who haven’t seen the movie), these qualities seem completely apt. Madeleine, like Ferguson, is hiding her true nature; and Novak ultimately lets us see that underlying her artifice is a sadness and vulnerability that make her heartbreakingly compelling as a tragic heroine. She is particularly effective in the film’s final third, allowing her warmth- and her real desperation- to come through.
The supporting cast is led by Barbara Bel Geddes, as Midge, Ferguson’s gal-pal, who- though seemingly more solid and straightforward than the two leads- hides her own not-so-secret feelings for her former flame with an act of sly sophistication and smartly casual cynicism; she provides much-needed comic relief, but her own obsession- which leads to serious errors in judgment- is unveiled throughout, tempering the humor with an increasingly uncomfortable sense of emotional panic. In addition, she represents Ferguson’s last link to the larger world outside of his fixations, and when she exits the film, with the literal slamming of a door and a slow, sad walk down a bleak and empty corridor, her absence is significantly felt; thanks to Bel Geddes’ understated, textured performance, Midge becomes one of the most memorable personifications of the glasses-wearing, “unwanted” woman so frequently found in Hitchcock’s work. Tom Helmore, as Elster, seems the sad, impotent milquetoast in his few scenes (a characterization which ultimately adds yet another layer to the mysterious plot), and the rest of the cast- which includes some familiar character actors (Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Lee Patrick, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne) along with several unknowns- essay their deceptively small roles with just the right amount of appropriate attitude to further Hitchcock’s subtle psychological manipulation.
It should be obvious by now that I have a lot to say about Vertigo; this is no surprise, because almost everyone who sees it- critic, scholar, or movie fan- has a lot to say about this strange and beautiful film. It has been suggested that one of the reasons it enjoys such adulation from cinema literati is, in fact, that there is so much to say about it- it is unquestionably a work of art, visually stunning and laden with layers upon layers of symbolism, subtext, and psychology. Watching Vertigo is strongly reminiscent of viewing a painting in motion, not only because of the richness of its visuals but because of the seemingly endless amount of detail on the screen, each piece of which bears some significance to the film’s overall meaning- or rather, meanings, because like all great art, it opens itself to a multitude of interpretations. From this standpoint, it certainly qualifies, as much as any of the other contenders, for the honor of being named as the best film of all time. However, many less-admiring critics have pointed out that, on the more immediate level of pure entertainment, Vertigo fails to accomplish its purpose; the intricate plot is confusing, hampered by a lack of real action, bogged down by clumsy exposition, and hampered by long, uneventful sequences (such as the interminable scenes of Ferguson following Madeleine through the city in his car) that slow the pace to a crawl. In addition, the story contains details that not only prove to be ultimately irrelevant but, indeed, make no sense; and once the mystery is solved, the central conceit on which the film’s final developments depend is so far-fetched as to pre-empt the willing suspension of disbelief required to make it work. From my own memory of seeing Vertigo for the first time, I can freely say that all these points affected my reaction to it; die-hard Hitchcock fan as I was (and am), I could not help but be disappointed. Yet there was a fascination for me here which I could not explain- a nagging feeling that there was something I had missed. It was years later before I came back to it, but when I did- free from the need to follow a story I already knew- I discovered that to see Vertigo once is not to see it at all. Dozens of viewings later, I am still discovering it.
Consider this fair warning, then- for the casual viewer, the charms of this much-hyped classic may prove to be invisible. For those who choose to venture a second look, however, Vertigo begins to unfold itself and display its hidden majesty. Like the beautiful woman at its center, it is not what it seems- beneath its cold and problematic exterior lies a rich and complex trove of treasures that yields new wonders upon each return visit. You may not agree with the assessment of Sight and Sound that it is the greatest movie ever made- I can’t say that I do, either- but you would be hard-pressed to find another film which packs so much into such a deceptively simple package. It is doubtful that Hitchcock- master though he was- consciously intended to create the myriad resonant details which arise throughout his arguable masterpiece; he second-guessed himself frequently during its making, and, indeed, wanted to make changes that were prevented by studio demands- perhaps a rare instance in which such interference resulted in a better movie. The endless analysis to which this, like all Hitchcock films, has been subjected, would no doubt baffle and amuse a director who, after all, was just trying to make a good movie; nevertheless, as with all great art, the content of the canvas may yield more than even its creator can suspect. Vertigo reveals much about the depths from which it came, perhaps more than its director could even recognize; it is, in this way, the quintessential Hitchcock film, in which virtually all of the filmmaker’s perennial obsessions were given full expression. Other of his works may be more entertaining, more frightening, more believable, and more polished- but this one is undoubtedly the most personal, and as such, it is the key to Hitchcock’s universe, in all its darkly beautiful glory.