Wednesday, 18 July 2007
Vertigo (1958) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is a legendary film, a film that most dramatically put Hitchcock’s own obsessions on the screen to analyze and dissect. And a tad too much I think. To me “Vertigo” is a simple film about a desperate man who is manipulated by his fears and lustful obsessiveness of the ultimate woman into committing murder.
Scottie (James Stewart) is a police detective forced to leave his job due to his fear of heights. He receives solace from his good friend Midge, a former girlfriend who strangely seems to hang around and not take no for an answer. One day a former college friend Gavin shows up and offers Scottie a private investigation job of following his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around. Scottie, desperate to regain his pride, takes the job and follows her through various locales around San Francisco. Scottie saves Madeleine from a suicide attempt and then falls in love with her. On her second suicide attempt atop a church bell tower she succeeds to taking her own life. Scottie's life returns to despair in the aftermath, until one day when he miraculously finds her doppelganger working as a department store clerk. Her name is Judy, and apart from the brown hair, she’s a spitting image of Madeleine.
Scottie tries desperately to woo Judy as an obsessive attempt to rekindle his love for Madeleine. Scottie succeeds in catching Judy and makes the ultimate request to change her hair colour and clothing to exactly resemble Madeleine. Just as Scottie has recreated her back from the dead, his world comes crashing down again when he discovers the truth about Gavin, Madeleine and Judy.
Hitchcock and Stewart enter a different realm of mind games in the second half of the film. Stewart’s character moves from the typical everyman character he portrayed in “Rope”, or “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to an obsessively dangerous stalker. Hitchcock wounds Scottie more badly than any of his protagonists and builds him back up with mixed up pieces of himself. The Scottie at the beginning of the film is not the Scottie at the end. It’s a disturbing transformation and one in which only the audience and not the characters in the film fully acknowledge.
Watching the film from today’s eyes plot holes emerge with Judy’s motivation to comply with Scottie’s requests of her. Did Judy actually fall in love with Scottie and so freely transforms back into Madeleine so she can be with Scottie forever? Another curiously forgotten-about plot hole is the character of Midge who pines after Scottie over and over again. She is virtually dropped from the plot without resolution. This always bugged me. Perhaps it’s all part of Hitchcock’s fear of women. His shapeless and drab grey costume design of Madeleine’s is also part of his misogynist obsession and frequent humiliation of his leading ladies.
Technically Vertigo wrote the book on the building intriguing and suspense. It is the typical “Hitchcockian” film where the elements of psychoanalysis, manipulative femme fatales, obsessive haunting fears, mental and physical manipulation all come into play. Hitchcock’s use of colour, location, camera movement and light are all hallmarks of his style. Hitchcock uses the point of view of the camera effectively especially in the following sequences of Scottie and Madeleine. The film is most famous for its ‘dolly-zooms” which creates the effect of Scottie’s vertigo, but for me the piece-de-résistance is the circular shot around Judy and Scottie when they embrace and kiss. Brian De Palma stole that shot a number of times, but it’s “Vertigo” where it was first used. The shot is still effective today.
I know what you’re thinking… why not four stars? What happened to the other half star? Am I crazy? It’s one of the greatest films of all time. I do think “Vertigo” is a great film, but is it Hitchcock’s best? In my opinion, no. I can think of half a dozen films I enjoy more. The film’s locales, set pieces, music and obsessions are legendary, but for my tastes I’ll take “Psycho”, “Rear Window”, “Rebecca”, or “Shadow of a Doubt” any day. Did Hitchcock intend “Vertigo” to be the deep psychoanalytical complex story critics write about it as? Or did he intend it to be another piece of thrilling melodramatic entertainment? I think it succeeds supremely as the latter. But some people see it as the former. Either way it’s a great film. Ok fire away.
Buy it here: Vertigo (Collector's Edition)
One of the best title sequences ever: