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Vertigo

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958)


 


Just how great is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? Late 1997, I congregated with a capacity audience in one of Melbourne's grand old theatres to watch the re-release of this famous film. I imagined there were people like me who had seen it many times before, mainly on video; people who'd read about it, taught it, and written about it; and people who were probably seeing it for the first time in their lives.

 

Whatever the composition of the audience, I know I've rarely felt such keen collective anticipation and excitement as when the lights went down that evening. This restored version of Vertigo, with enhanced colour on 70 millimetre film and its crystal clear rendering of Bernard Herrmann's immortal music score, really does make the film almost scarily fresh and immediate. It renders the mysteries of this film more palpable and profound than ever.

 

But before I try to come to terms with the substance of Vertigo, a small, cautionary word about this digitally restored version, whose blessings are somewhat mixed.  In order to re-work the soundtrack, the restorers made the questionable decision to do away with the original Foley track, constituting all the noise effects: footsteps, doorbells, gun shots, atmospheric noises, and so on. Particularly in the opening scene, where Scottie (James Stewart) experiences the rooftop trauma that gives him his malady of vertigo, the beefed-up effects make it seem like you're watching a John Woo action movie.

 

In a later key scene, where Scottie and the object of his obsession, Madeleine (Kim Novak), are in the woods, the restorers have replaced the hushed, deathly silence of the original with a loud wall of birdsong – presumably to make the scene more realistic in 1990s movie terms. These tamperings are unforgivable, and I hope that if this same restoration team ever makes it to Rear Window, they do not destroy what is one of the most radical and effective soundtracks of 1950s cinema. (If you want to learn about the debate on this restoration question, I recommend above all The MacGuffin, originally a magazine and now a website devoted to the work of Hitchcock, produced by the freelance Australian critic-scholar Ken Mogg. Ken also wrote an indispensable introductory book, The Alfred Hitchcock Story; his ongoing essays on Vertigo have been for me the most searching and illuminating pieces in the vast body of literature on this film, and my comments here reflect his influence.)

 

Vertigo is a remarkably modern and contemporary film; in fact, it stands at a particularly privileged moment in cinema history, between the decay of one kind of cinema and the birth of another. In his twin-volume work on cinema, philosopher Gilles Deleuze talks of how, at the end of the classical Hollywood period in the 1950s, hero-figures started to behave in a particularly weird way. They become bogged down, paralysed, obsessive and compulsive. The hitherto immediate links between their thoughts and actions, and thus their ability to affect and change the world, are broken or disabled. The new anti-hero of the movies can do no more than gawk at his prey or the object of his desire. He moves as if underwater, or at the periphery of some sluggish dream, unable to alter what unfolds before his eyes. This scenario certainly describes Scottie in the first part of Vertigo, after he has been hired to follow Madeleine on her mysterious rounds.

 

For this new kind of troubled movie hero that Deleuze evokes, even the moment when he is suddenly propelled into the story tends to be some kind of trap – a manipulation, a seduction.  That's what happens in Vertigo when Scottie has to finally stop looking, and plunges forward to rescue Madeleine from her apparent suicide attempt in San Francisco Bay. But this event does not wake Scottie into daily reality – as represented in the film by his feisty ex-girlfriend, Midge (played wonderfully by Barbara Bel Geddes). Instead, it marks Scottie's descent into an even more pervasive, dreamlike realm of inward fantasy.

 

The events in Vertigo, although they have a slow, ceremonial rhythm, proceed swiftly, in deft psychological strokes: Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, he watches her die as she falls from the top of a church bell tower; and then he fixes upon Madeleine's seeming double, Judy (the next phase of Novak’s double role), a woman whom he makes over in Madeleine's image. Even today, literal-minded folk like to complain about the implausibility of this narrative – someone once described it sneeringly as “a tall story about a pushover” – but, in Vertigo, Hitchcock takes us way beyond conventional dramatic verisimilitude, and into something far more potent and haunting.

 

I have always been fascinated by the various ways that people summarise the plot of this film even before they have a stab at naming its central themes. In fact, formulating a plot synopsis and making some preliminary attempt at analysing the film, saying what it's about, are quite impossible to separate when approaching Vertigo. This is because it is so densely interwoven – and so mysterious, suggestive, sometimes even cryptic. It is variously described as a film about a hysterical man trying to bend a woman to fit his sick male fantasies; or about a failure, a man who is afraid of falling in love. Jean Douchet takes it as “Hitchcock's most overtly sexual film”, with its primal imagery of towers and holes in the ground; he goes on to discuss a range of erotic practices that he sees symbolised or suggested in it, from necrophilia to sodomy and premature ejaculation. (1)

 

A wide variety of mythic figures have been invoked by critics in their attempts to catch the resonance of this tragic and deeply haunting story: Lucifer, Orpheus, Oedipus. Writers of a Surrealist bent (such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante in a prescient review) have seen it as a fable about the possibility of communicating with alternate worlds opened up by dream, fantasy and the ghosts of the past – and that account captures something deeply true about Vertigo, namely its almost trance-like mood and rhythm, its oceanic alternation of long, dreamy passages and sudden moments of alarm or revelation.

 

But the description of the film that I like best comes from Ken Mogg: “As I see it, Vertigo is about an ordinary man … who clings too hard to life and suffers the consequences. That is, he loses the woman who for him represents 'eternity' … His resultant sense of weakness later turns him into an obsessed neurotic, and that is what ultimately defeats him”. (2)

 

Éric Rohmer wrote, at the time of the film's first release in 1958, that “man is not the driving element” in this story, and he was right in two senses: as an individual, and as a man, Scottie is definitely not in control of the story that seduces him, sweeps him up and drives him on. In fact, one of its tragic ironies – and what makes it so different to the kind of optimistic, heroic tales in movies today – is that the moment Scottie actually takes control and overcomes his phobia, is the very moment he destroys and loses everything.

 

Rohmer described the distinctive form and shape of Vertigo well: “What was sleeping awakens, and what was living simultaneously dies, and the hero, conquering his vertigo, but for nothing, once again finds only emptiness at his feet”. (3)

 

Many people have talked about the shape, or rather the shapes, of Vertigo. This is a film that returns constantly to the figure of the spiral – announced in the superb graphics of Saul Bass's credits, and tracked through the spiral knot in Novak's hairdo, in the imagery of a nightmare sequence, and in the famous plunging view of a staircase. It is also a film that seems to fold at the halfway mark, so that much of what happens in the second part uncannily and symmetrically echoes details and incidents from the first part. This gives the film a perfect formal serenity, at the same time as it multiplies weird and chilling effects of mood. Once again, you can bring out a dozen concepts from the philosophical tool-box to explain this feeling that the film creates in us: Nietzsche's eternal return, Freud's return of the repressed, or Schopenhauer's idea of a Will manifested in the implacable way of the world.

 

Aside: I don't think there can be any greater tribute to the memory of James Stewart (who died in 1997) than the re-release of Vertigo. He gives an extraordinarily detailed and nuanced performance, acting with his entire body. The very shape of that body in 1958 – thin, elongated, animated by a prickly but contained nervous energy – is the perfect vehicle for this tormented and rather unlovely character of Scottie. One blanches at the thought of how studio executives in Hollywood today would flinch at the prospect of a major box office star playing such a fundamentally charmless, obsessive neurotic as cottie.

 

And humourless, too: one of the key moments in the film, as it knits its system of comparisons and echoes together, comes when Midge shows Scottie her painting of Carlotta, the mysterious woman from the past with whom Madeleine is obsessed – except that it has Midge's face superimposed. She's ready to laugh, and the audience I was with laughed – but Scottie resolutely refuses to see the joke, as well as its reflection on his own obsession. And so he just leaves Midge, walking out of her apartment for good.

 

Scottie is a dark and forbidding character. He starts off traumatised, modulates into a state of more or less permanent unease, and then plummets headlong into complete madness. I have elsewhere delved into the theme of home in movies, and in Vertigo it's surely significant that you don't see Scottie in his own home-space until well into the story, making him a displaced, unsettled, wandering figure – and when you do finally see his pad, it's immediately the stage for the playing out of his fantasies with Madeleine, who has been just fished out of the river. This is a film that offers, very gradually and patiently, the spectacle of a man crossing over the line into a complex kind of insanity. We watch him go down and down, deeper into that dark place of his own making.

 

But why can't we simply hate Scottie, why don't we feel free to make some sweeping moral judgement on his sick behaviour? I believe our ambivalence has something to do with that desperate holding on, that yearning for eternity which Mogg evokes. We feel for Scottie’s melancholia, for his madness, and for his deeply hopeless romanticism – for no Hitchcock film plumbs the history and sensibility of Romanticism more profoundly than Vertigo.

 

A central part of the effect of this film is that the fantasy which ensnares Scottie – the fantasy of old San Francisco and the ripe legend of exotic Carlotta Valdes – also has the power to ensnare us; it is hard to even talk about the film without granting this fantasy some potent truth, some privileged hold on reality. Hitchcock pours all of his artistic power and craft resources into making this fantasy come alive: in the scenes of Madeleine alone, in the museum and the cemetery; in the lush habanera music of Bernard Herrmann; and especially in the truly hallucinatory scene in which a room magically turns around Scottie and Madeleine kissing, with the backdrop passing from present day San Francisco to this imaginary, mythic, romantic past – and then back.

 

Yet, for all the potency of its dream-imagery, fantasy tends to be a chimerical thing in Vertigo. Its source, its most vital part, always seems to be elsewhere, displaced, already fallen into oblivion. People in the film repeatedly evoke the glorious past, including a somewhat sinister history in which men once had wealth, power and freedom. But no more, not today, in these rather ghostly, near-empty streets of San Francisco.

 

In the main narrative line, Scottie chases a woman, tries to hold her, love her, possess her: but she is always someone other than who he thinks she is, someone other than who he wants her to be. Vertigo is a pitiless parable about desire and illusion, about misrecognising or refusing to see the truth that is in front of you. And yet what poetry and perfection in Hitchcock’s clear, cruel vision!

 

The story is also a parable about control. A filmmaker friend said to me that Vertigo could never be one of his favourite Hitchcock films, because of the way it gives away its enigma well before the end, in a revelatory flashback that belongs not to Scottie and his viewpoint, but to Judy, the second character incarnated by Kim Novak. Some find this device clumsy and contrived. And indeed, Judy's flashback does have the force of a transgression, a shock, a tear in the narrative fabric.

 

I take it as a positive sign of Hitchcock's modernity: in this bold stroke, he looks forward to the era of filmmakers like Brian De Palma, who mix and switch the lines in a story, who pit different points-of-view against each other in a jagged, disorienting way. But it isn’t just a formal, cinematic game for Hitchcock (and nor is it for De Palma in Obsession [1976]): this tear irrevocably marks Scottie's loss of control over the story, over the fantasy that is now possessing him.

 

There is so much in Vertigo that artfully escapes our grasp - that mocks our own illusion of control or mastery, our deductive power, as viewers. For instance the villain in the film, Elster (Tom Helmore), a kind of demonic artist-figure who sets the illusions up - what's his story, his story with Madeleine and then with Judy? What drives him to do the extraordinarily detailed work that he does? We'll never know. In a Sight and Sound article on the re-release of Vertigo, (4) the British critic Peter Wollen cites the rich opening lines of André Breton's surrealist novel Nadja: “Perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt’” – knowing the lives that we occupy and infect with our daily fantasies and projections, the stories and illusions we set running in the dreamy interstices of the daily, real world. In Vertigo, the difficult business of knowing yourself amounts to knowing whom you haunt – and knowing who, in turn, is haunting you.

 

But this much I do know. To my initial question – just how great is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo? – I am now prepared to give an answer. It is among the greatest.

 

MORE Hitchcock: The Birds, Lifeboat, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Strangers on a Train, Family Plot

 


NOTES

1. Jean Douchet interviewed by Joël Magny, “Alfred Hitchcock, from Christianity to Atheism”, Cinéma, no. 258 (June 1980) – my translation. back

2. Ken Mogg, The Alfred Hitchcock Story (Titan Press, 2008); see also his “The Fragments of the Mirror: Vertigo and its Sources” on the website The MacGuffin. back

3. Éric Rohmer (trans. Carol Volk), The Taste for Beauty (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 169, 171. back

4. Peter Wollen, “Compulsion”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 7 No. 4 (April 1997), p. 14. back

© Adrian Martin October 1997


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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