Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo’

I am so used to finding myself completely out of step with the rest of the world that it comes as a bit of a shock on those occasions when it turns out my reactions and opinions are squarely in line with those of the majority. Then again, I suppose one of the definitions of a truly great film (or an utterly worthless one) is that it can produce the same response in everyone who watches it.

I was in my late teens and just in the process of becoming a film and TV bore when I made the acquaintance of a guy who was several steps further along than me. The rooms of his house were lined with tapes (this was over twenty years ago); tapes of The New Avengers and Doctor Who (he also had virtually a complete set of matches from Italia ’90 recorded, which just shows you never can tell), but also – and more pertinently for our current line of thought – most of the Hitchcock centenary tribute season one of the major UK TV channels had broadcast a while earlier. I was getting to the point where I thought I knew my Hitchcock, and ever-mindful of gaps in my education I borrowed the 1958 movie Vertigo off him.

vertigo

By this point I had already seen Psycho, Rear Window, and The Birds, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. The film has, somewhat atypically for Hitchcock, an in media res opening, with detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) in hot pursuit of a bad guy over the rooftops of San Francisco. But Ferguson slips and is left hanging by his fingertips over a multi-storey drop, and a fellow cop is killed trying to rescue him.

This event understandably leads to Ferguson developing a crippling fear of heights and quitting the police force. Finding himself at a loose end, he is retained by old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who has an odd and slightly delicate problem. His wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been acting very strangely, visiting the former home of one of her ancestors and spending hours staring at her portrait. Elster is concerned about all this, half-fearing some kind of malevolent possession is in progress, and wants Ferguson to follow her and find out exactly what’s going on.

Initially dubious, Ferguson takes the job and almost at once finds himself struck by the beauty of his old friend’s wife, not to mention how strangely enigmatic she is. Can she really be genuinely haunted by a ghost which is driving her to take her own life? Averting an attempted suicide forces him to make her acquaintance, and now he finds himself becoming deeply emotionally involved with this troubled woman. But is there any hope for her? Or, come to that, him…?

Well, I sat down to watch Vertigo all those years ago, really expecting another smart, sharp, clever entertainment of the kind Hitchcock is renowned for, and ended up feeling… well, really rather baffled. This is not your typical Alfred Hitchcock movie. To be honest, it’s a difficult film to describe, especially if you don’t want to totally deconstruct (and thus spoil) the plot.

For one thing, the principal cast – certainly in terms of the characters who appear in more than two or three scenes – is tiny: just Stewart, Novak, Helmore, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s pal. Even then, most of the film is composed of scenes between Stewart and Novak. This isn’t to say that the plot is simple – well, maybe it is simple; it’s certainly not complex or fast-paced, but if so it is fiendishly simple, containing multiple layers of subtlety and sophistication, some of which aren’t readily apparent on first viewing. There is arguably a sense in which the story makes some pretty big asks of the audience, and there are certainly a few more loose ends than you’d expect from a Hitchcock film, but then it seems to me that this is not a plot-driven film but a character piece.

If so, then it’s a character piece masquerading as a psychological thriller pretending to be a Gothic melodrama. Hitchcock’s intention to make the audience identify with Stewart’s character works on numerous levels – there’s the simple technical sense, in which Stewart’s in nearly every scene and we frequently see events from his point of view, but also on a wider narrative level: just as Ferguson is ultimately the victim of a put-up job, so to some extent is the audience, because the film we think we’re watching isn’t the film we think it is.

Hitchcock famously messed with audience expectations in Psycho, but it’s hard not to see that same intention in the structure of Vertigo, too. There’s a major plot reversal in the middle of the film that appears to go against every tenet of conventional storytelling, and it’s completely wrong-footing: you have no idea how the story is going to proceed from this point on. Any pretence at being a conventional thriller is certainly abandoned and the film becomes a rather bleak drama about all-consuming obsession and the horrible things that love can drive people to do to their lovers.

Here is where the real sophistication of the plotting comes in: quite naturally, as the film shows it, what entails is a situation where – on a thematic level – the ‘fake’ plot of the first part of the film, with a living person consumed by a shade from the past, is replayed for real. The brilliance of the script comes from the fact that the living person and the shade are both in fact the same individual. Vertigo poses some serious questions about identity, certainly when it comes to relationships – is it even possible for someone to impersonate him or herself? To what extent do we actually fall in love with with real people, rather than just our idealised images of them? Can love survive complete truth and honesty?

Pretty heavy stuff, and not leavened by any laughs, either. One of the many remarkable feats of the third act of Vertigo is that a scene which should feel clunky and melodramatic, and rather intrusive, is actually the turning point of the entire movie. Stewart departs the movie for a few minutes, leaving the stage clear for another character to actually deliver a monologue explaining the plot and how Ferguson (and the audience) have been misled by the villain, such as he is. It really shouldn’t work, but not only does it generate the suspense and pathos leading up to the climax, it effectively shifts the audience’s sympathies: Stewart actually becomes rather creepy and unsettling in his pursuit of his lost love (or at least her image), while a character who should have no call on the audience’s affection becomes engagingly vulnerable and sympathetic. It’s consummate storytelling sleight of hand, and I’ve no idea quite how Hitchcock managed it.

That said, most of the time in Vertigo one gets a sense of stuff going on that one isn’t entirely aware of. Hitchcock and the cinematographer are clearly doing something with Novak and the colours red and green: she’s frequently dressed in one or other of them or surrounded by it in the set dressing, but if there’s some kind of code going on here I haven’t been able to¬†decipher it. All those scenes in the first half of the film of, basically, Stewart following Novak around San Francisco, too: they seem rather repetitive and slow but presumably the director is slowly and incrementally building our association with Stewart, and the idea of his obsession with Novak.

Vertigo is quite a long film, and not really a conventionally entertaining one: no-one in it ever seems particularly happy, not for more than a few seconds, at least. But it really does have that mesmerising, dreamlike quality so often ascribed to it: or perhaps, in the circumstances, not dreamlike but nightmarish. The opening titles of the film do a good job of conveying what’s to follow – Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable score plays over Saul Bass’s spinning, multicoloured vortices, which we initially access through Kim Novak’s eye. The message is that this is going to be an internal, psychological film, about loss of perspective and loss of control. And it is.

Vertigo baffled the critics in 1958 just as much as it did me thirty-something years later, but its critical reputation has recovered now to the point where it has displaced Citizen Kane as Best Movie Ever (Ever) on at least one list. I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t go that far, and I’m still not sure I would chose it over one of Hitchcock’s more conventional entertainments, but this is an extraordinary film in many ways: it confounds expectations at every turn while still being completely magnetic to watch, if never entirely comfortable.

 

Read Full Post »