****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
screenplay by Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D'Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. What Vertigo lacks that others of Alfred Hitchcock's undisputed late masterpieces do not, just in terms of sheer bulk volume, is scholarship. Weird, because the film is Hitchcock's most complex, albeit in many ways also his most opaque. It's as if it defies analysis by being at once too obvious and too obscure, enough so that critical reads of it are inevitably both naïve and pompous. It's true that attempts at unlocking the film are akin to diagnosing a particularly-disturbed patient's dysfunction: that you're fucked up is right there on the surface for everyone to see, but the reasons why are damnably difficult to beat from the grey bramble. Attempts to articulate what works about the picture invariably wind up describing the technical mechanism (the perspective distortion, the monumentalism, the voluminous and self-announcing rear projection) rather than the ineffable, perverse rapture that it provokes.
What's not difficult is identifying Vertigo as one of the most important films in the history of the medium--the film that, if you ask me, probably inaugurated the auteur theory by itself, so inextricable is its connection to its director. It's the one that makes the sixties cinema possible in all their ferocious, febrile glory, the one that immediately predates the French New Wave, coming a year before The 400 Blows and two before Breathless (though Claude Chabrol's 1958 Le Beau Serge is widely considered the first picture of the Nouvelle Vague). And despite Bazin's sticky doubts about Hitch's place in the pantheon, what especially strikes about Vertigo is the feeling that it, more than most, incites active involvement in the creative process. The picture is a collaborative effort between director and audience. It's the fruit born from the congress suggested by Rear Window, this notion that a film is a dream outlined by the director to be dreamt by the audience--that the work cannot exist in and of itself (explanation, partial, of why there's not more scholarship?) and can in that sense only really be understood as an active function of the audience. After it, Psycho and the rest of the '60s are only a bitter précis of this thesis of sexual disassociation and identity politics.
Opening with a bar bisecting the screen horizontally, Vertigo details the disturbance and convalescence of gumshoe Scottie (James Stewart), who, after witnessing one of his compatriots fall to his death in a fruitless rooftop pursuit, has come down with a bad case of acrophobia. The flat line recurs often in Hitchcock's pictures: for all the shades of grey in his work, there is the constant quantity that runs throughout of what's on the surface in stark contrast to what lies beneath. Scottie is hired by old pal Gavin (Tom Helmore) to trail Gavin's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, essentially to determine if she's been possessed by a long lost ancestor. He rescues her from a dip in the Bay (a descent beneath the median) but is unable, due to his vertigo, to rescue her from a plunge from the top of a Spanish bell tower (a rise above the median), his failure breaking him--exorcising the stability offered by girl Friday Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and the mathematical order of her Mozart-cure in the process--and inaugurating his degeneration into dream.
The film is sympathetic to this shift in perception first in the ascent of the bell tower, then in the colour filters and extreme angles Hitchcock employs in Scottie's post-Madeline dementia. In a scene taken with black irony from the flower shop-window reveal in City Lights, Scottie meets redheaded shopgirl Judy (Novak again) and proceeds to reconstruct his life pre-psychotic break by trying to reconstitute poor Judy in the image of the perished Madeline. No stranger to phantom-fatales (Rebecca, Psycho), Hitch does the double blind in Vertigo with a Madeleine who is present neither literally (she's dead before the film begins) nor figuratively (as played in the picture, Judy's Madeleine is in a trance from start to finish)--she exists only as the MacGuffin, the demon lover from Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes". Except what the film does is take the flaccid disappointment post-dream, post-orgasm in the poem's consummation sublime and project a "what next" scenario whereby the man, unable to achieve his onanistic release with the initial object of his veneration (remember, this white knight has stripped his lady love bare and, we presume, gazed upon her as she lay senseless in his apartment), tries to achieve it in a dream through a second--though not innocent--object. Note the devastation when Judy looks directly at us as she enters into her own nightmare.
Vertigo is deeply sick, but not because it describes abnormality. It's an unbelievably naked film not just for Hitchcock but also for anyone with the least personal insight into his or her own animal sexuality. What astonishes fifty years on is its flat, unapologetic attitude towards monstrous hero Scottie. If Stewart is the man Hitchcock believed himself to be (against Cary Grant, the man Hitchcock wished he was), see in the film a withering assessment of his own mental health--something borne out in his treatment of Vera Miles during this period and Tippi Hedren in the period to follow. Consider, too, that Stewart was the man most men in the United States believed they were and wonder what exactly happened to him during the war that resulted in his string, post-enlistment, of performances as broken, haunted, hollowed-out husks of men. Vertigo stands for something in the national psyche at that moment in time--commentary, if one so chooses, on the gender politics rushing towards the feminist revolution, or even on the state of masculinity when the archetype of the "self-made man" takes the shape of an ideological prison.1
Still, its value isn't in its prescient or contemporaneous insight, but rather in its understanding of how immutable are the obsessions governing the male pursuit and, embedded within that, the male gaze that deconstructs a woman into her complementary parts. Find there explication of the title sequence and the theory that pornography has as its basis the principle of fragmentation and, it goes without saying, objectification. (My favourite line in a film of indelible passages belongs to a dress shop attendant who, as Scottie meticulously outfits Judy in Madeleine's armour, marvels somewhat approvingly/somewhat (am I imagining this?) disgustedly that "the gentleman certainly knows what he likes."2) It's a trope echoed in the splintering, kaleidoscopic petals of Scottie's dream (one that I would argue he doesn't wake from until a bell tolls to signal the brutal end of his stupor), predicting, as it happens, the fate of the character and of, finally, all male pursuit, gaze, and objectification. The frustration and doom of Vertigo describes the mortal affliction of the human condition, and that makes it, more than any other film in Hitchcock's canon, awfully hard to talk about.
Universal's Legacy DVD release of Vertigo sports the vibrantly-restored version of the picture in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It's gorgeous. Hyperbole aside, if you don't own a copy of the movie yet, you no longer have an excuse. (Editor's Note: Walter's right, but I still feel that NTSC's low resolution and insufficient colour reproduction cost Vertigo too much of the vitality it has on the big screen and would probably advise those on the fence about it to wait for the inevitable Blu-ray. Also, the consensus is that the woman's eyeline in the opening credits should be tinted deep, deep red as it is on the OOP non-anamorphic DVD, not sepia as it is here.) Two commentaries adorn the feature. The first, with associate producer Herbert Coleman and restoration-team members Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, is focused, as you might imagine, on the technical aspects of the picture--the use of process shots and so forth, the lighting, and Harris & Katz grilling Coleman on what he remembers of the principals and the Master himself. Honestly? It seems a tad aggressive and unpleasant as Coleman is asked repeatedly to rack his brain on subjects as diverse as Miles "turning up pregnant" prior to the shoot and how Hitchcock didn't, in fact, ask for a producer's credit. His "I don't remember" answers sound a little nervous. I don't know that I'd prefer a softer-approach--in fact, I'm reasonably certain I wouldn't--but listening to what begins to feel like an interrogation is certainly not preferable. Better are moments when Harris & Katz review the near-calamities and difficulties that attended their restoration effort, such as the emulsion of the negative stripping off.
Also of some interest to me was the story of how the Legion of Decency mandated that the post-suicide-attempt sequence show "no recognizable" woman's undergarments hanging to dry in Scottie's kitchen. Bravo, pinheads. The topic of doomed project The Wreck of the Mary Deare (eventually made into a decidedly non-Hitchcockian film by Michael Anderson) is raised in passing and at one point, around the 50-minute mark, co-screenwriter Samuel Taylor surfaces in separately-recorded comments to discuss his role in the project, although he ends up mainly regurgitating the plot. Talk of digitizing the dialogue tracks and, in essence, redoing the foley, should placate film buffs almost as much as the audio itself, which is wonderfully fulsome in Dolby Digital 5.1. (Purists are unfortunately out of luck, as the DD 2.0 option has been mislabelled "original mono" when in fact it's a downconversion of the 5.1 remix. (Editor's Note: Disappointing that Universal has for a third time opted to present Vertigo on DVD in Dolby Digital instead of DTS, the sound format that memorably accompanied 70mm prints of the film's restoration. Again, given the studio's allegiance to DTS where Blu-ray is concerned, I'd recommend holding out for the BD if you can.) Herrmann's score, in 5.1, is like a velvet glove. At an hour and four minutes in, author Steven Smith, an analyst of Herrmann's career, chimes in with some trenchant remarks on the music. The real prize of the yakker, though, comes at the hour-forty mark as Kim Novak speaks of her identification with the Judy character's rough makeover and with the odd sympathy the freshly-jilted Hitch afforded her. Art director Henry Bumstead, Pat Hitchcock, Peggy Robertson, and Paramount's former director of advertising and publicity Herbert Steinberg each get a few minutes at the mike, too.
A new yak-track exclusive to this Legacy package finds director William Friedkin disappointingly if not surprisingly empty of real insight. It's reminiscent of his contribution to the Val Lewton box set and makes me wonder what it is about Friedkin that's suddenly got people thinking this guy has something to offer the conversation. An extended "Foreign Censorship Ending" (2 mins.) resurrects poor Midge as she listens to an extended news report that also has the function of tying up Gavin's loose end while providing a cozy, domestic ending to one of the most repugnant, uncivilized courtship films of all time. Another exhaustive photo gallery rounds out the platter alongside the spoiler-filthy original and restoration trailers.
Disc 2 of this two-disc set features AMC's "Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece" (30 mins.), a nice reel (however populist) narrated by Roddy McDowall honouring the, you guessed it, restoration of the movie in question. The highlight, natch, is Scorsese recounting his memories of Vertigo--a film that's explicitly referenced in his Cape Fear remake's use of colour filters. His marvelling that something so personal could emerge from the studio system could just as easily refer to his own career in Tinsel Town. All the usual suspects are here with remembrances and quick analyses of numerous aspects of the production. "Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators" (58 mins.) is a new piece that assembles various other talking heads to talk about Saul Bass, Edith Head, Herrmann, and, of course, Alma Hitchcock. Bless Scorsese. Again. What more is there to say? He manages to blend the personal with the historical with the technical in a way that elucidates not only the process, but the effect as well. That's pretty amazing.
Invaluable to me were the montages of Bass' other work. Rare home movies of the Hitchcocks are also something a fanboy historian can really sink his teeth into. News to no one, Hitch's grandbaby Mary is still beautiful and starting to look a little like Veronica Cartwright. Leave it to Donald Spoto to leaven the family history with a few darker observations. An excerpt from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview (14 mins.) offers some well-known insights, punctuated by the revelation over a picture of Stewart gazing down at the corpse of his beloved from a great height (a scene of victory over his disability! Weird, right?) that Hitch has a "warm spot" in his heart for this one. A Hitchcock-directed episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", "The Case of Mr. Pelham," represents my fave of that series as mild-mannered Pelham (Tom Ewell) discovers he has an exact double who is living his life better than him. It reminds of Harlan Ellison's "Shatterday" and Clive Barker's "Human Remains" and is, to my mind, one of the most existentially displacing pictures in Hitchcock's oeuvre.
1. I can't watch AMC's "Mad Men" without holding up Scottie's fiction of the self-made man against Don Draper's. return
2. There's something to the lush romanticism of the piece as well--there are few VistaVision films that made better use of the saturated hedonism of the Technicolor process. return