Friday, December 10, 2021
Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Friday #7
Vertigo is now widely accepted as the greatest motion picture ever made. I’ve never been convinced that it’s even the best movie Hitchcock ever made (although I would have put it in my Hitchcock Top Five). I have always thought The 39 Steps, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window and Psycho were probably better movies in the sense that they’re more successful in achieving precisely what the director set out to achieve. But Vertigo is the one that gets under your skin. And watching Vertigo again might well change my mind about its status in the Hitchcock canon.
I can see why Vertigo did not do well at the box office. The first 45 minutes of the film would have left audiences bewildered, bored and disgruntled. If they were expecting a tense suspense thriller they would have been bitterly disappointed. And if you can’t grab the audience in the first 45 minutes you probably won’t grab them at all. That first three-quarters of an hour is absolutely crucial but you don’t understand that until later. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Vertigo. It just is not in any way, shape or form a conventional suspense thriller. You have to let yourself be drawn gradually into the film’s strange twisted dream-like world but you have to have the patience to let that happen.
He uses the same trick he would use in Psycho a couple of years later - what seems to be the climax of the movie happens halfway through. At which point the movie changes gears slightly. Then, shortly afterwards, with an hour or so of screen time remaining. Hitchcock explains the entire mystery plot in every detail. The mystery is entirely resolved. At which point Vertigo changes gears really dramatically and becomes a dark, disturbing psycho-sexual-emotional drama.
The plot is intricate. It’s far-fetched but it has its own internal logic. The plot is however not of overriding importance. What matters is the visual style that Hitchcock brings to the movie and the way he works through such favourite themes as fear, guilt, obsession, voyeurism, betrayal, suspicion, love and sex.
John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) is a cop. A sudden attack of vertigo on his part leds to the death of another cop. Scotty retires from the force. An old college friend, Gavin Elster, persuades Scotty to undertake an investigation for him, as a personal favourite. Gavin has the idea that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) thinks she is possessed by the soul of a long-dead woman. He fears that, like the long-dead woman, she may try to kill herself. Scotty follows Madeleine and has reason to believe she really is suicidal. He makes some serious errors of judgment, blinded by his increasing obsession with Madeleine. And then something happens that changes everything, for Scotty and for the viewer. Hitchcock has some major tricks up his sleeve.
James Stewart is very good as well, but the movie belongs to Kim Novak.
While Scotty becomes a really dark character in the second half of the film right from the start we have the feeling that he’s not quite right. From the moment that his vertigo causes the death of a fellow policeman he is riddled with guilt and self-recrimination. His judgment is questionable. He is becoming emotionally involved with a married woman. The idea that this might be wrong, or at least unwise, does not occur to him. Where does he expect his obsession to lead to? He doesn’t seem to know. He’s not thinking things out. He is so much in the grip of his obsession that he’s not thinking at all. He also, throughout the movie, seem to just assume that she will go along with his obsession. If it’s what he wants then she must want it too.
There’s an enormous amount of perverse sexuality in this movie. Hitchcock was still hampered by the Production Code but he manages to get the perverse sexuality across pretty effectively.
The artificiality of Vertigo has to be addressed. Hitchcock didn’t give a damn if his movies looked like they were shot on a sound stage. He wanted them to look like they were shot on a sound stage. He had no time at all for the fetish for location shooting that infected cinema in the 50s. He rejected realism entirely. His movies take place in a created universe with its own rules. Hitchcock was right of course. Realism is a dead end. Vertigo makes no concessions to realism. The entire movie plays out like a fever dream.
The Vertigo Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary by William Friedkin. He makes the interesting point that the McKittrick Hotel set used in Vertigo appears to be the same set, re-dressed, used as the interior of the Bates house in Psycho. There are lots of other extras as well. The movie looks superb on Blu-Ray.
Having now seen the film for the third time I’m inclined to think I was wrong. Vertigo really is Hitchcock’s greatest movie. And yes, it just might be one of the greatest movies of all time, possibly in the top five.