USA (128 mi) 1958 restored version in 1996 (129 mi)
Man does not yield himself to the angels, nor to death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
—“Ligeia,” epigraph, by Edgar Allen Poe, 1838
Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can take possession of a living being? —Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore)
VERTIGO is the midway point of the Hitchcock voyeur trilogy, beginning with REAR WINDOW (1954) and concluding with Psycho (1960), all films that deal with heightened personal obsessions that lead from being a curious snoop and a neighborhood nuisance to sheer madness. As films that reveal the most insight into the director himself, these movies are invaluable, becoming case studies of the man behind the camera. What makes the film so unique is how deeply personal it is, yet simplistic, mainly consisting of only three characters, where for the first time in a man’s life he’s fallen deeply in love, but it turns into a Surrealist, nightmarish obsession. Despite its elevated status, voted by critics in the latest 2012 BFI Sight & Sound once-a-decade poll Sight & Sound 2012 Polls | BFI | British Film Institute as the #1 film of all time, finally overtaking CITIZEN CANE (1941), the first time since 1962, VERTIGO is not nearly as entertaining as the other two films in the trilogy and is one of the more downbeat and slowly developing of all Hitchcock films. Coming directly after The Wrong Man (1956), it would be hard to find two back-to-back commercial films from any major American director that end on such a grim note, and it was not a box office or critical success upon release, but its reputation has only grown. VERTIGO is a sophisticated suspense thriller, a thinking man’s movie, the kind Hitchcock built his reputation upon and the kind critic’s admire. At heart a ghost story, the story concerns a woman who is inhabited by the ghost of an ancestor, who wanders the streets and can’t remember where she’s been, who may be a danger to herself as the ghost committed suicide at the same age. It doesn’t hurt that the lady is easy on the eyes, Madeleine (an icy blond Kim Novak), the wife of an old college friend of Scottie (James Stewart), an ex policeman recently retired from the force, where we learn why just after the exquisite Saul Bass opening credit sequence. Chasing an escaping criminal across the barely lit rooftops of San Francisco, Scottie clings to a gutter, otherwise dangling from a high rise building, while his partner falls to his death trying to help him. Like a cliffhanger sequence shown in weekly serials, Hitchcock never explains how he managed to get down safely, but the scene moves effortlessly back to normality in the next scene. Scottie feels the man’s death is his fault and suffers vertigo symptoms ever since. His recovery under the tutelage of friend and confidante Midge (screenwriter Samuel Taylor’s invention, as she was not in the novel), a comforting and bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes, an artist who still carries the torch for him but is too shy to show it, couldn’t be more banal, as Scottie is obviously bored stiff, too caught up in his own self-pity, where he can barely keep his mind on the conversation. His friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks Scottie to tail his wife, believing some harm could come to her, as she doesn’t seem herself these days. Scottie initially has little interest, but once he sees Madeleine, showcased by Hitchcock in a stunning entrance, he’s hooked.
Hitchcock uses his experience from Silent era films, as a good opening portion of the movie is almost entirely wordless, where Scottie passively tails Madeline, always seen as remote and distant, cast in an air of mystery, yet alluringly beautiful, using fog filters for a dreamlike effect, seen as a walking ghost as she visits various sights around San Francisco, Ernie’s restaurant, Podesta’s flowershop, Mission Dolores, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, and Fort Point with dazzling views of the Golden Gate Bridge, becoming a veritable travelogue of one of America’s most photogenic cities, shown in glorious Technicolor on perfectly sunny days where there’s not a cloud in the sky. Shot by Robert Burks, the clarity of colors is unusually clean, especially with recently restored prints, including 70 mm screenings. For decades, VERTIGO was impossible to see, one of The Five Lost Hitchcocks where their rights were bought back by the director and willed to his daughter, kept out of circulation for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, as they were stored privately in less than ideal storage facilities, these films required extensive restoration work by film historians Robert Harris and James Katz, but except for a few smudged moments, the prints are pristine. This is also one of Bernard Hermann’s most gorgeous musical works, a hypnotic, intensely romantic score using classical Wagnerian themes reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde, a bold, widely expansive, dreamlike love that is induced by a love potion in the opera, creating the magical illusion of love, especially the Liebestod, which has ominous love-death implications, where Madeleine similarly appears to be sleepwalking her way through her various wanderings, as if in a dream, especially since she can’t recall where she’s been. When she throws herself into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay, she becomes George Bailey, the James Stewart role in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), while Stewart himself takes on the role of Clarence, her guardian angel, gallantly rescuing her and warming her up afterwards by the fire in his nearby apartment. This casual acquaintance suddenly turns into something more, becoming lovers despite knowing she’s married to one of his best friends, but Scottie can’t resist, wanting to be with her all the time, obsessed by the illusion of love where women are an unattainable ideal, existing only in the form of wish fulfillment, where they take trips together into the nearby old growth forests of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz, or the panoramic vista of Cypress Point at Pebble Beach, where their first kiss is accentuated by thunderous crashing of waves, or head south down the coast to the Mission of San Juan Batista (where there is no tower, it was painted into the scene), which plays such a prominent role in the film, as it’s a place she describes to him in her dreams. But when he brings her there, thinking everything will magically blossom into love, hoping to make the illusion come real, she fatalistically throws herself off the bell tower to her death, where Scottie is mortified, helpless to save her from his vertigo which prevents him from reaching the top of the tower. This comes as a shock to the audience, as she’s been the focus of nearly the entire opening half of the movie, where there’s likely been a growing connection established, and suddenly she’s gone.
Adapted from the French novel D’Entre les morts (From Among the Dead), written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the same duo that wrote Diabolique (Les Diaboliques), where Hitchcock had expressed an interest in obtaining the rights to the book, so the writers for all practical purposes had Hitchcock in mind when they wrote the book. Storywise, VERTIGO harkens back to Fritz Lang’s 1921 film DESTINY (Der Müde Tod), an expressionist fairytale where a woman whose lover has died enters the Kingdom of Death to plead for his life, only to relive her loss in three successive reincarnations. Madeline’s death, replicating the suicide of the ghost that haunted her, is only the first half of the film, where Scottie’s name is cleared from being implicated in her murder, but the coroner (Henry Jones) lays it on pretty thick about how outrageously convenient it is that he suffers from vertigo, as had he not had this condition Madeleine would likely still be alive today. This sends Scottie into a catatonic state, suffering from his own nightmares, blaming himself for her death, reliving the experience over and over again, where nothing seems to clear his head from this horrendous nightmare. Following the experience of intently watching a mysterious woman, the film shifts its focus of attention onto Scottie himself, where its his interior world that seems to matter. At some point later, he’s back on his feet, where he sees visions of Madeleine everywhere, as if the ghosts are calling out for him, returning to all the familiar places, but he’s only frustrated, until by chance, he sees someone walking down the street who bears a strange resemblance, following her to her hotel where he attempts to meet her. Though she’s a brunette and talks differently, Kim Novak also plays Judy Barton, much more forward, more carnal, proudly wearing no brassiere, supposedly a working class girl from Kansas. But all Scottie sees is Madeleine, becoming infatuated with every detail of Judy’s life, again wanting to spend every waking minute with her. At first reluctant, finding his advances somewhat clumsy and old school, she eventually capitulates, where in flashback we realize the truth, a daring device revealed only to the audience, shown very matter of factly, but she keeps it from Scottie as their relationship progresses. Instead of the love she hoped for, Scottie grows impatiently overcontrolling, obsessively convinced she’d look better if dressed the way he insists, or wore her hair the same as Madeleine, demanding that she transform herself into the dead woman he still loves and dreams about. The fanaticism displayed by Stewart is discomfiting, a startling demeanor from a guy perceived as predictably comfortable and safe, a kind of normal everyman, now veering towards the panicked anxiety of Norman Bates in Psycho. This obsessive compulsion, however, perfectly describes the Hitchcock blonde, the inclination of the director to transform all his leading ladies into cool and sophisticated, icy blonds, such as Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, and a dozen more, perhaps going all the way back to Anny Ondra in BLACKMAIL (1929) Hitchcock's earliest blonde: Anny Ondra « Feminéma. What’s especially creepy is seeing how Scottie’s compulsion to mold a woman into what he wants is so prevalent in the movie industry and our consumer oriented society, where magazine covers, music videos, and scantily clad female performers all sell some pre-conceived idea of what men supposedly want to see, such as the most recent Super Bowl halftime show Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Style With Destiny’s Child: Total Touchdown.
What Hitchcock does with shifting camera angles and expressionist color schemes in the second half of the film is near delirious, especially his use of the color green from the neon sign outside Judy’s hotel window, never more sensuous and seductive, but also deadly, even going animated, perhaps second only to HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (2009), recently reconstructed by directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea from 13 hours of unfinished footage shot by Clouzot in 1964, showing manic hysteria through kinetic energy with lights pulsating on and off continually altering the experimental 60’s look of the screen. Hitchcock’s vertigo shots are also tantalizingly risqué, where stairways in Scottie’s eyes have an additional form of constant movement, where looking down he only sees instability, with stairs advancing and receding at once, creating a shape-shifting state of imbalance. What’s also interesting is the exaggerated state of dark humor used by Hitchcock, where Scottie goes so far off the rails that an audience is amused by the razor-sharp focus of detail. After an afternoon shopping in an exclusively upscale women’s store in an attempt to replicate the exact outfits of Madeleine, Judy has grown exasperated, literally pleading with Scottie, “Couldn't you like me, just me, the way I am?” Rather than an embrace of reciprocated love, Scottie instead remains transfixed at what’s missing in this complete transformation, “The color of your hair!” Scottie then leaps at the opportunity, completely oblivious of how it makes her feel, blind to the degrading humiliation, and completes the conversion from a lowly brunette sales clerk to a sensuous ice goddess, where in a Hitchcock film sexuality exists only as an obsession, one that degrades women and deranges the minds of men. Stewart develops a mania by the end of the picture that rivals his state of frenzy in Anthony Mann westerns, like Winchester '73 (1950), the first time anyone had seen this maniacal side to the otherwise calm and gentlemanly nature of his character. In VERTIGO, the relentless obsession only grows more feverish, where it would be hard for anyone not to break under such intense scrutiny. A film of intense personal devastation and lost love, existing in what amounts to a state of illusion, where Scottie desperately tries to remake Judy in Madeleine’s image while Judy just as desperately hopes Scottie will fall in love with her for who she is, and not some dead ghost from the past. In Hitchcock films, the darker side always wins out, where the dead rise from their graves and wreak havoc on the living.
It should be pointed out that film essayist Chris Marker explores this film in greater detail in his own work SANS SOLEIL (1983), a film that questions the role of time and memory in shaping our ideas of history and the past. He includes striking footage from the film, perhaps drawn to the material because, very much like his own observant work, it’s a film about watching, where seen from Scottie’s viewpoint, the audience is also drawn into the developing fixation on unraveling the mysteries of the film. According to Marker, “the vertigo the film deals with isn’t to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent—the vertigo of time.” Madeleine’s character unleashes a flood of memories and suppressed emotion, where both Scottie and Madeleine are already haunted by ghosts of the past before they meet, becoming more combustible when they grow close, as if combining their haunted pasts provides an incendiary effect, where memory has a way of resurrecting itself. SANS SOLEIL is a film about the impossibility of memory to be truly accurate, conjuring up excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday Poetry X » Poetry Archives » T. S. Eliot » "Ash Wednesday":
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
Eliot’s poem is a struggle between the worlds of time and that of the eternal, as moments take place in a singular space, never to be repeated. Similarly, time will never be recreated, where like the dizzying effects of vertigo, the closer one seemingly gets to it, the farther it moves away in a pulley-like push-pull effect. Marker is particularly fascinated by the San Francisco travelogue aspect of VERTIGO, as he uses a similar technique in SANS SOLEIL, where the mysteries explored are contrasting cultures and images through excerpts of documentary footage, or fragments of the past. Marker draws upon history much like film characters rely upon their own memories. For example, Marker revisits many of the locations used by Hitchcock in the film, splicing in the actual VERTIGO footage with his own pilgrimage, offering his own observations of both the present and how he remembers the past, recalling his experiences of initially viewing the film in a theater, while the audience will bring their own recollections of the film to Marker’s comments, producing an echo effect, where film is used to create a unique blending of memory. A perfect example Hitchcock creates is the moment when Judy walks into the bathroom but comes out as Madeleine, as if resurrecting a ghost, yet this is the woman Scottie yearns for, where past and present, illusion and reality, finally merge. Time and again Hitchcock shows us images reflected by mirrors, suggesting only one is real, while the other is a reflected illusion, an idealized substitute, suggesting memories are interior mirrors that have a life of their own, where illusion and reality are often indistinguishable, altering and reshaping themselves as we grow, producing reverberating emotions even as we try to understand their powerful effects upon us. It should also be pointed out that the opening shot is a close up of the human face, seen as a mask that one wears, and as the eyes dart back and forth, it is suggestive that one never knows what goes on inside the mind of a person, where the title actually comes swirling out of a close-up of an eyeball, suggesting we are all uniquely different, as the subjective nature of the film then goes on to prove, where Hitchcock is concerned with our deepest impulses, with what defines us as human, providing a window into a darkly disturbing vision of the world.
Note – Hitchcock’s personal appearance comes at about the 11-minute mark walking across the foreground at the shipping yards as Scottie is about to meet with Elster.