Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
How interesting that James Stewart would be the channel through which Alfred Hitchcock’s two definitive statements on life and art were filtered. Rear Window, the director’s 1954 masterpiece, was cinema to end all cinema — the most direct statement ever made about the nature of visual craft and the temptation of voyeurism, the culmination of a brewing fixation that began with the first scene of his very first film, The Pleasure Garden. The director’s other foremost preoccupation had long been the mutual abuse and psychological minefields of romantic human relationships. This, then, is the screen’s definitive love story: desperately sad, almost crushing in its grandiose yearning — high stakes for a film that at gut level is really just about losing a woman in San Francisco, the inevitability of it and the aftermath of her fleeting affections.
That says too little, of course. The impossibility of verbally expressing the emotive power of Vertigo is a measure of its success as a film — the story it tells can only truly be told as an intensely detailed moving picture. Filters and intricacies and flights of direct fantasy, pulsating lights and colors and dialogue that falters in and out of earshot — it’s the pure cinema Hitchcock was always talking about. Its prowess and mastery are awe-inspiring — sure, because of its technical capability and the strength of its story, but mostly because its fearless exploration of the far end of romantic melancholy is definitive, not just in cinema but in art. This is a film so phenomenal that when you refer to it as very possibly the finest motion picture ever made, no one will bat an eye — especially if they’ve recently seen it again.
It can be prohibitively difficult to approach something like Vertigo without resorting to simple hyperbole; speaking as someone who first saw it when he was ten years old and still finds himself played like a stringed instrument by it each of the ten or so times he’s screened it since, it seems daunting to speak to its value to me without sounding faintly fanatic, but suffice it to say that its perhaps cynical, perhaps harsh but mostly lovesick perspective upon the world and its occupants continues to move and fascinate me, its stunning and artful filling of the senses has not diminished with time, and I believe it to be the all-encompassing masterwork of the best of all filmmakers.
He seems to have felt much the same about it, in fact; Vertigo is an achingly personal film, something you sense the older you get and the more its initially alien but brilliantly expressed emotions become recognizable. It’s also a genuinely adult film as was its predecessor in Hitchcock’s filmography, the fact-based The Wrong Man, an intelligent dissertation on faith, guilt, and family life. The domesticated basis from which the central characters operated in that story, though, couldn’t be farther away when in the first moments of Vertigo we find ourselves following the cops on a chase over the sky-brushing rooftops of San Francisco at night. Indeed, the serious precedent for this movie in his catalog is that most progressive of Hollywood romances, that most cynical about the patriarchal vision of marriage, Rebecca. Beyond the thematic commonalities, there’s the ghostly tone of the piece, the sense of a hazily conveyed layer of mystery and death — and portraits, dresses, all of these classic conventions turned into a mark of something like horror, something that speaks to the darkness in what its characters are capable of thinking and performing. Hardly a nihilist, Hitchcock sides with the man whose world is torn to shreds — yet, crucially, sides against no one.
The Pygmalion legend, so tactlessly explored in other celebrated twentieth century artworks, offers a basis for Vertigo‘s male characters from which to operate their sinister campaigns, but Hitchcock has little interest in providing them with any shield from the seductions that might derail them — as ever, his women are independent and openly sexual, and all of the people occupying this San Francisco operate within a haze of strange, sometimes dangerous euphoria, as though the fog visible as gauze onscreen never is to lift. We’re seeing psychology, trauma and emotional need projected, and it’s finally little wonder that the relative box office and critical failure of Vertigo at the time desperately disappointed Hitchcock and altered his career path permanently. The level of care and intense personal passion tied up in the movie is apparent on screen — his hesitancy in later years to even talk about Vertigo speaks to the overpowering disappointment of an artist who loses his audience’s identification with nothing less than his greatest effort.
No matter. A viewing of Vertigo is a journey that feels as if it belongs to each of us individually. As in Psycho, the first third of the film is an act of deception. We’re swept into a slightly supernatural detective story as acrophobic Scottie (James Stewart), who partially caused the death of a fellow officer because of his fear of heights, shirks quiet retirement life and hanging out with cute ex-fiancee and artist pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) in order to help out a college friend in determining the origin of his wife’s strange behavior during the day, which seems to wildly suggest she’s the reincarnation of a locally infamous figure of motherly desperation named Carlotta Valdez, immortalized on a portrait at a nearby museum that spied-upon Madeleine (Kim Novak) stares at for hours at a time. As Scottie descends into this woman’s mysterious world, we are consumed and fascinated along with him — and this gradually develops into a lustful attraction to her. When she attempts suicide by leaping into the Bay, he brings her home and — significantly — removes her clothes and allows her to rest in his apartment for the evening, the beginning of a brief magic they share that’s feverishly romantic but hampered by her continued episodes, in which Carlotta seems to return to the surface.
At last, on one terribly sunny day, Madeleine leaps again, this time from a bell tower in Scottie’s presence, and dies; he’s unable to climb the stairs to attempt to rescue her. The guilt overwhelms him and he’s hospitalized for a time, unable even to speak. Upon his release he wanders the streets reliving the scenes of his time with Madeline, and one day a familiar face crosses his path — it’s a girl named Judy (Kim Novak) who reminds him of his great love and great failure. Pestered to accompany him to dinner, Judy agrees reluctantly, then writes a note that will change everything. A flashback announces the realities of the prior hour and a half: the woman Scottie knew was always Judy, was never Madeleine, whose death was faked with Judy’s help by her husband. Scottie’s failure to save her and his subsequent illness were by design. She writes this letter… and then rips it up.
But now the cycle of mutual manipulation (another echo, yet, of Rebecca) must be completed: Scottie’s longing for Madeleine borders on an illness, and the obsession manifests itself in his tyrannical thirst to control her appearance — not the least bit excused by his actions only being as cruel as what was done to him, since he doesn’t yet know — to resemble Madeleine as closely as possible. Of course, the delicious irony is that he’s forcing Judy to dress as another version of herself; his fever of need finally calms down when she becomes the perfect image of the woman with whom he was once cathartically, fatally attached. And in one last twist of agonizing fate, as they’re heading out to dinner one night she dons the Carlotta Valdez necklace – and suddenly Scottie knows, knows everything. And he will drive the woman he now knows everything about to “the scene of the crime,” the bell tower again, where there’s something he “must” do, just as there was something she “must” have done so long ago.
A gripping tale, but it’s nothing without Hitchcock; there are any number of similar stories in the annals of cheap or even great fiction, but the director’s great gift and power is in infusing this strikingly rich mystery with emotion and wonder of inexpressible beauty; and of course, in telling the entire story through visuals, nearly alone. You could mute the sound — though you wouldn’t want to, for then you’d miss Bernard Herrmann’s crucial and gorgeous score — and still comprehend nearly every aspect of the story. In contrast to a film like Psycho whose script is rich with wit and wordplay, much of the dialogue in Vertigo — while perfectly serviceable and lyrical at times — is rote and expository. That’s no criticism either, though, for the final harrowing, troubling scene in which James Stewart forcefully drags Kim Novak up the stairs with a deliberately uncomfortable sense of revenge-catharsis, may be the best reading of explanatory exposition in any narrative film.
On the whole, though, the analogy to the silent films that sparked Alfred Hitchcock’s interest and career in cinema, especially the German expressionist films made at Ufa (where he was employed for a time), is clear throughout Vertigo, a film that quite powerfully sums up the entirety of his career and breadth of his influences to this point. The Ufa shadow is cast upon the movie’s memorable image set, which lingers even after a story that’s nearly impossible to free yourself from for days afterward: the point-of-view shots (reverse zoomed!) of descending staircases to simulate Scottie’s violent reaction to heights, the sumptuous profiles and silhouettes of Kim Novak, and the determination in general to craft once and for all the “filmed dream” Hitchcock always dreamed of making.
To some extent, most of Hitchcock’s upper-level works amount to dreams, but his direct approaches to the idea tended to falter — barely anyone was satisfied with Spellbound‘s dedicated deconstruction of a dream state, and as thrillingly subjective and elevated as Rebecca and Notorious are, they both take place very distinctly in a rational and familiar landscape Vertigo never even touches. Indeed, the film by the end is dancing around in a psychological netherworld that to my knowledge has remained unexplored elsewhere in cinema, at least this elegantly. This is one of a number of ways in which Vertigo might well be read as the definitive exercise in subjective filmmaking — its visual state is nearly always a mirror of Scottie’s emotional state.
There’s subtle evidence of this throughout, almost from the first moments (the significant and remarkable title sequence certainly applies), but the first manifestation of the truly surreal arrives in the restaurant Ernie’s, when the introduction of Kim Novak literally alters the colors around her. Secondly is the classic, haunting bookshop scene. After Scottie’s been trailing Madeleine for some time, which is its own kind of descent into the fantastic, he asks Midge if she knows anyone who’s an authority on local San Francisco history. She does, and we join them in broad daylight at a small bookseller. Midge’s friend there tells the story of Carlotta Valdez, all but underlining Hitchcock’s point when he emphasizes “there are many such stories.” Carlotta was a beautiful woman whose life crumbled, her child taken away, and in her last years she walked the streets vainly begging to know “Where is my child?” As the tale unfolds and reaches its sad conclusion, we scarcely notice the room growing darker, the light dimming rapidly until we’ve moved from broad daylight to a nighttime scene — a glorious visual trick more gradually expressed in Rope — a direct reflection of the palpable sadness in the room, and especially of Scottie’s reaction to what he’s hearing. As soon as he and Midge leave the shop, the lights pop back on, the spell broken. Some places are invulnerable to the depths of loss just explained. Scottie won’t be so lucky.
Some time later, after the horrifying drop of Madeleine from the bell tower and the inquisition to follow, Scottie’s misery and bafflement are expressed in a graphically ambitious and genuinely chilling dream sequence. This was a rarity for Hitchcock, whose films tended to take place almost entirely within his understanding of “our world,” but in this case the subconscious mind provides the direct impetus for an important story development; it’s vastly superior to the similar point in Spellbound, designed by Salvador Dali, but in either case Hitchcock displays a profound understanding of the reordering of real life within dreams shared by few other directors. The Vertigo dream contains much play with color and music and sound, a zoom in three dimensions to the details in the Carlotta portrait, finally the absolutely blood-curdling manifestation of Carlotta herself in a reenactment of a scene just prior, and the half-remembered replaying of course of Madeleine’s (or is it his own?) sickening fall to the roof below. Scottie wakes up screaming, and his terror is ours.
By the time that Scottie has reverted to the fully insular personality who’s capable of taking a woman he believes he simply met in the street and forming her obsessively into the image of a romantic and sexual fixation, he’s farther gone than we can imagine — yet we understand it, and the associative frenzy of grappling frantically for a resolution to devastated and incomplete, finally unrequited emotional desire peaks with the passionate kiss he shares with Judy when her transformation is at last complete. In one of the greatest and most sumptuous shots of Hitchcock’s long career, he circles around the pair in a 360-degree track, and after we turn past the neon green rationality of the hotel room, we are back in the stables below the bell tower, the magic and horrible place at which he last had her and held her, before there was something she “must” do. We continue to turn and return to reality, to unimaginable things Scottie has yet to even face: the truth that all of his memories are false, the truth that Madeleine performed not merely for the camera but for Scottie himself (for we are of course Scottie for this film’s purpose), all of it an affect except the falling in love, the most consequential action of all.
Scottie, then, has been in love with an illusion from the beginning, not merely now that he’s artificially recreated his loss as a living breathing human he can take to restaurants and stare at in the naked image of the woman he rescued and stripped. From this inevitably scarring contact he gains his client’s onetime need to recreate the past and mold a woman as a disease and obsession; the consequence of the cloak-and-dagger actions in the first half of the film are more than a murder — they’re the permanent crushing of a spirit. As the film explicitly states twice, “it’s too late” now — too late for love and forgiveness and “moving on.” It was too late by the time we walked through that filtered and beautiful Sequoia park and Judy-as-Madeleine so convincingly recited those lines about how she was born here and died here, and you “took no notice.” It was too late and the fates were sealed when Judy began that letter of hers: “And so you found me.” The spiderweb was complete, the nightmare inevitable. The sexual rush along the way, the compromise (“I don’t care anymore about me,” Judy sighs after her transformation is nearly complete) were all simply diversions in the path to a death that must occur.
As much as we identify with him, though, we’re no more meant to side totally with Stewart than we are with Laurence Olivier’s Maxim in Rebecca — of course his heaviness of heart is familiar to us, and many of us will shed tears at his choked up unconscious eulogy in the end: “You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.” But we also recognize his abuse as patriarchal metaphor, moreover as a monstrous and overpowering dream from which he never wakes up. Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge marks his relationship to the real world — when he believes he’s indirectly caused the death of Madeleine, she loses him forever. His trials thereafter are shared with us alone, only briefly with Judy. In the ghosts that torment him for the duration of the film’s last hour, our sense of the supernatural fabricated by the great conspiracy that set the plot rolling is never thoroughly dissipated. As in Rebecca, ghosts are shown to exist — only psychological ghosts, but cinematically that’s truly quite enough to craft a moving and unforgettable ghost story.
Again, words seem most inefficient indeed when confronted with the sheer overpowering emotional strength and throttling eroticism of Vertigo; it’s so much an element of the senses and can’t be held up to any kind of reduction — much too ingenious and stirring for all of that. One’s instinct, surely incorrect, is that there can’t have been any rational instruction to see and to craft color like we are shown in this movie — the deep greens and the haze of the lovelorn daytime, the neon rooms and the red walls of Ernie’s, the restaurant where he first sees her; the Technicolor glory of all of the places where they meet, the routine drabness of daily life, the deep primary colors of the steps toward the abyss. This all begins with Saul Bass’ title sequence, which like the rest of the film is enlivened and explicated by Bernard Herrmann’s unceasingly powerful and romantic score. The list of Herrmann’s great scores is of course extensive, including but not limited to Citizen Kane and Obsession (in which his work arguably is the primary redemptive quality of the film), but Vertigo may be eclipsed by Marnie alone as his masterpiece. Not merely perfect for the film and a constant deep counterpart and commentary to its events, it is instantly recognizable and brilliantly captures the emotions to which Hitchcock aspires. Few more complementary relationships between composer and director in film exist, perhaps none.
Herrmann also is here to cover up and render moot most of the minor criticisms one might have of the film. There are imperfections in Vertigo, certainly, mostly technical; though it’s most likely Hitchcock’s finest achievement, its fevered romantic honesty renders it bold enough to misstep ever so slightly here and there, in sharp contrast to Rear Window and Notorious, two of the very few films that can conceivably be called flawless — the most crucial problem being a slight hint of falseness to the oceanside sequence in which Scottie first affirms his love for Madeleine, a beautiful scene but one rubbing up against Portrait of Jennie levels of melodrama. Herrmann nixes its excesses and his work is so enveloping that the manifestation of Scottie’s affections as a huge crashing wave becomes an appropriate expression in this non-dream. Generally, the rhythm here (and the textbook-level brilliant three-act structure of the screenplay) is impeccable, the final act of elegance on top of this fractured art. Hitchcock’s camera movement is more invisible and poetic than ever, even at its most bravura: the 360 and 180-degree shots whirling around characters at crucial moments are scarcely noticeable as such, and he has by now wisely reined everything in technically to such an extent that the drama of the moment when he at last sees her again — twice! — is played entirely in faces, “negative acting.”
For that reason, while Herrmann is Hitchcock’s key collaborator here as in Psycho, his actors are the lightning rods of his storytelling. Kim Novak is an obvious stand-in for both Grace Kelly, argued by some as the inspiration for the story (in spirit and talent the ideal collaborator for Hitchcock, who sadly left Hollywood behind and a number of potential projects with it, this one included), and Vera Miles, a directorial favorite set for the part which could well have made her a household name until she became pregnant, to Hitchcock’s eternal chagrin. (He couldn’t forsake her entirely; she ended up with a big role in Psycho.) But it’s difficult now to imagine the film without Novak, a genuinely excellent actress who embodies Madeleine and Judy with equal and fascinating depth while infusing her character(s) with a forceful carnality that both Kelly and Miles would arguably have lacked. Of course they might have brought more mystery to the part, but was their kind of mystery needed in a tale of sexual obsession? By the time you reach Novak’s introduction, that perfect moment of her — in profile — playing for James Stewart’s (and Hitchcock’s) invisibly watchful eye (and camera), you realize what a happy accident this bit of casting truly is.
That said, the picture is James Stewart’s — and his work here is beyond words. He was always a magnificent actor; see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for one of his best early showcases, and Hitchcock, cinema’s greatest lover of stunt casting, always forced him to upend his typecast image as the all-American everyman Boy Scout: a murderous nihilistic (and probably gay, to further rouse the Hays Coders) intellectual in Rope, a chauvinistic wife-abuser in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a cynical, impotent voyeur in Rear Window, and now this, a sexually charged, dark and nearly villainous role verging on necrophilia. Stewart expressed some disappointment with Vertigo, but I presume this is the same reason for Hitchcock’s downplaying of the film in later years — its lack of success crushed him after all that he poured into it, which seems to have been a wounding, gut-splitting amount. There’s extensive use of the “negative acting” theory, whereby the performance is created in editing (in other words, Stewart’s expression can remain exactly the same and express different thoughts entirely in different contexts), but there is a level of detail to this turn that implies the project was as personal for this actor as it was for the director. It’s in his eyes throughout the film, the palpable pain, the way he dejectedly tells Midge her painting is “no good” but really means something else entirely, the way he fondles Judy’s doorknob after they meet, the tears that come at the finale, the way he bellows out like a man possessed as he confronts Judy in the final moments — he’s drawing on a level of pain for this role that most of us would never want to visit or revisit. That the Academy rewarded him not for this but for the (comparatively) utter piffle The Philadelphia Story is one of the more bewildering legacies of that institution.
The key moments when watching Vertigo are as follows: the absorption in the initial journey, the “moment of recognition” (the letter writing) Hitchcock saves almost for the two-hour mark and then relishes as an act of improbable beauty, and the sunken blissful feeling after the film has faded. In my experience, there is very simply nothing quite like the stunned flow of emotions as, after the nun’s haunting and multifaceted “I heard voices,” Stewart stares in grave shock down into the “abyss,” and without so much as a title card we fade to black and are confronted with something so sickeningly nonchalant as the Paramount logo. We’re left spinning, and we’re meant to remain that way forever; Hitchcock had scarred before and would continue to, but this is likely the deepest and most unsettling wound he left us.