Thursday 14 January 2010

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: James Stewart and Kim Novak
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Vertigo seemed like a highly fitting choice to begin a project dealing with the greatest movies of all time. It's supposedly the most personal and revealing film made by Alfred Hitchcock, the legendary English director whose name is almost synonymous with 'suspense' and who is commonly regarded as having made many of the greatest thrillers of all time. The AFI ranked this one top of them all, for instance. I'd only seen four of them before I began my journey through the IMDb Top 250. I'd seen Rear Window and Psycho, both in this list, along with the experimental Rope which didn't impress me much and an atmospheric silent movie he made back in England in 1927 about Jack the Ripper called The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Hitchcock is all over the IMDb Top 250 like a rash, being represented in the list that I grabbed in 2004 by no less than nine films, more than any other director, and three further pictures have popped in at points since.

Think about that number for a moment and compare it to the career of someone like James Cameron, back on everyone's tongues again following the success of Avatar, which has in a mere few weeks raked in enough earnings to be second only to his own Titanic on the all time box office charts. Cameron's a huge name in the industry, undeniably and massively important and with plenty of talent and experience. The three Oscars he won for Titanic are far from the only major awards he's gathered over the years. Yet he's only directed eight feature films in his entire career, and that includes Piranha Part II: The Spawning, which I'm sure he'd be happy to forget about. Hitch has had twelve films, half as many again as Cameron's entire filmography, acknowledged through the IMDb Top 250 as some of the greatest ever made. He simply cannot be ignored, even though the Academy somehow managed to do so throughout his career, conspicuously never awarding him a Best Director Oscar.

In Vertigo James Stewart plays a police detective called John Ferguson, better known as Scottie, who retires from the force because his fear of heights indirectly leads to the death of a colleague and he feels responsible. It's a rooftop chase and missing a jump between buildings, he gets caught up on a gutter watching the distance between him and the ground trombone in an effect that has been used to death ever since but was created by uncredited second unit cameraman called Irmin Roberts, inspired by a fainting spell Hitch once had at a party. The colleague who dies was trying to pull Scottie up when he loses his footing and plummets to his doom. Retirement is understandable.

He quickly finds a new job, hired by an old college friend called Gavin Elster who has married into shipbuilding money. Elster wants him to follow his wife because he fears for her life, at the hands of someone who's dead. He believes she's being possessed, losing herself in trances, even walking a different way when she's apparently someone else. Stewart doesn't believe the unlikely reasons for this fear but he takes the job anyway and proceeds to fall in love with her, which is hardy surprising given that she's played by a rather dreamy Kim Novak, even if she does have a spiral hairstyle and he has vertigo. The first time he sees Madeleine Elster, at Ernie's Bar, while the Elsters eat and Scottie sits at the bar watching, is like a dream sequence, with gloriously deceptive camerawork and a sweeping but utterly appropriate soundtrack from Bernard Herrmann.

This dream continues as he takes the job and follows her. When he follows her through the back entrance to a flower shop, the door opens onto a vista that reminds of the transition to Wonderland. Even the mission graveyard that she visits next has something of a glow to it as if it isn't quite real. She's visiting the grave of Carlotta Valdez who had died in 1857, a mere 25 years young (the dialogue says 26 but just read the dates on the gravestone). It's a painting of Carlotta that she goes to see at an art museum too and it's hard to tell whether she's wishing herself into the picture or falling into it. There's much more to back up the connections between Madeleine and Carlotta, not least that she jumps into San Francisco Bay in an apparent suicide attempt at the same age that her supposed great-grandmother (yes, Carlotta) took her own life too.
All the while Scottie is falling in love with his friend's wife. He falls deeper and deeper as the story runs on, losing his objective focus as he gets gradually caught up more and more inextricably in the story of possession that he initially laughed at. This is a quintessential Jimmy Stewart role, after all, at least to begin with: rational, down to earth, no nonsense. Yet by the time he tries to help her confront her fears by taking her to a place she dreams about, he's become someone else. This is the mission of San Juan Bautista, a hundred miles south of the city and preserved as a museum, and when we get to the point where she leaps out of the belltower while he's struggling up the staircase to stop her, he's almost lost inside the maelstrom of emotions he's been caught up in. There are spirals everywhere here, even metaphorical ones.

Up until now Vertigo has been a truly powerful experience, because we get caught up along with Scottie in his downward spiral. It's hardly surprising because everything about the film is masterful, Hitchcock's direction, Herrmann's music and the cinematography of Robert Burks weaving together with the actors to create something that's magnetic. What really makes it genius though is that it doesn't end there. In fact it's only just begun. As Scottie flounders in the wake of Madeleine's death, descending into acute melancholia and a notable nightmare sequence designed by John Ferren, we're treated to extra levels that are scary in their scope. If Stewart had stepped beyond his regular persona to fall into Madeleine's story, he goes the whole hog after she dies into true obsession.

After being released from hospital, he meets by chance a young lady on the street called Judy Barton who resembles Madeleine Elster, not least because she's also played by Kim Novak, and through his obsession he refashions her into the woman he remembers, forcefully if not violently. It's emotional abuse and it's even scarier to watch because we're seeing someone as unexpected in the circumstances as Jimmy Stewart run through that mill. This remodelling is what makes the film so personal to Hitchcock as he was notorious for doing exactly the same thing to his actresses, as I later found as I worked through much of the rest of his filmography (Vertigo made five Hitchcocks for me but now I'm up to 41). Those ice cool blondes are everywhere in his films and there are factors that run consistently through all of them.

Another reason that this seems so personal to Hitch is that the story is based on a novel that some say was written specifically for him, by a couple of French writers called Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac because he'd failed to acquire the rights to film a previous novel of theirs. That novel was instead filmed by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques, possibly the greatest Hitchcock movie that Hitch had precisely nothing to do with, and the one that prompted him to change tack utterly and create Psycho, one of the most influential films of all time. Samuel Taylor adapted this novel but it's Hitch through and through, clever, devious and illusionary. Twice I thought the entire film was about to end and yet on it went with another twist that had me grinning inanely in admiration.
If this had been Hitchcock's only film it should have cemented his reputation, but amazingly it was both a commercial and critical flop on its initial release, only later becoming known as a masterpiece. Luckily for us it wasn't his only film, though it was out of circulation for decades, one of the Five Lost Hitchcocks, eventually re-released in the eighties to a very different response. One possible reason for its initial failure, at least the one that Hitch himself believed, is that Jimmy Stewart was too old for the role and he couldn't bring in the crowds any more. Certainly he was 16 years older than Barbara Bel Geddes who plays his former fiancée in this film, Midge Wood, but his career didn't fade, suggesting that Hitchcock was wrong on that front.

He'd quickly move on to another film with Kim Novak, Bell, Book and Candle, then Anatomy of a Murder and on to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and even John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, almost two decades after this. Formerly one of Hitchcock's regular stars, he's tied to him in many ways. Just as Hitch is represented in the IMDb Top 250 more than any other director, it's very possible that his seven starring roles mean that Stewart is represented more than any other leading actor. The films of both men in the list are spread over the four decades from the 1930s to the 1960s and while Stewart was honoured by the American Film Institute as the eighth recipient of their Life Achievement Award, Hitchcock had been the seventh.

Stewart turns in a bravado performance here that is much darker than his role in Rear Window. He's the hero here too but no straightforward hero. While he only has to juggle a body cast and a penchant for voyeurism in Rear Window, he has major mental problems to deal with in Vertigo. He gradually loses his objectivity following his friend's wife, ascends into love and then descends into breakdown. As the plot unfolds we see him in many different lights, which are often far from pleasant, and the way in which we identify with him alters accordingly. It's a highly complex role but he pulls it off admirably.

Kim Novak also had her work cut out for her, though she's marvellous nonetheless, actually succeeding in the difficult task of appearing subtly different from a character that her character plays, even when dressed up in the same clothes and with the same make up and hairstyle. She had a difficult time making the film, partly because of the complex double role but also because she wasn't Hitchcock's original choice and he never really took to her casting. He had tailored the part for Vera Miles, a former Miss America who he later used in Psycho as Janet Leigh's sister, but she became pregnant before filming started and Hitch had to find a new star. She also struggled with her director's unique methods of dealing with his cast, having to find her own inspiration as to how to play her parts.

As the beginning of my IMDb Top 250 project, this was a peach. It set the stage not just for the 249 films to follow, but for sideways journeys into various filmographies too, especially Hitchcock's and Stewart's, but also into others given the influence this film has had. I've seen takes on this movie in others as varied as The Matrix, Tim Burton's Batman and the French short La Jetée (and by extension Terry Gilliam's feature length Twelve Monkeys). It also thoroughly warrants its presence in the list, something that not all included films do. It isn't just a great film and one that offers a serious insight into the mind of its director, it also gets better with age. Watching again in 2010 it stunned me as much as it did in 2004.


teddy crescendo said...

This would be 3rd on my all time list, i still think "Psycho" and "The Birds" are better films.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I need to go back to The Birds. When I watched it I was mightily underwhelmed because all the tension that Hitch conjured up magically vanished the moment the terrible effects came along. Perhaps on a repeat viewing I might be able to look past that.

teddy crescendo said...

What i like about "The Birds" is its one of those films that when you watch it you tend to think "what the hell was that all about", its quite often those kinds of movies that go on to be regarded as cult classics (even if they were not originally box-office hits).