Friday, May 9, 2008

Vertigo (1958)

For a long time "purists" of film noir argued that the genre effectively died with the release of the great, long-underrated Orson Welles 1958 effort, Touch of Evil. Cultural, socioeconomic and political reasons--as well as budgetary ones (most studios began to find more expensive films in the late 1950s more affordable than beforehand, gradually resulting in the hubris of Cleopatra in 1963, given the imprecating reputation of singlehandedly representing Tinsel Town wastefulness, helping to compel Hollywood to change its ways later in the decade)--all arguably colluded to stifle the genre. The average film historian refers to Touch of Evil as the last great gasp of American noir.

Nathaniel Rich, writer for The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Republic and Slate, presents an alternative reading, though: "Touch of Evil (April 23, 1958) is widely considered to be the last classic film noir by critics who cite Orson Welles' hyperbolic manipulation of standard noir conventions; it was the brawniest, most self-conscious noir yet. After this film, noir entered a period of hibernation or ended altogether. I would argue that it entered a fallow period that lasted nearly three whole weeks, until May 9, 1958, when Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released, marking the beginning of the neo-noir era."

Fifty years ago today, Hitchcock's Vertigo arrived, receiving mainly mixed notices. A significant number of reviews were outright pans. Time infamously referred to the film as "another Hitchcock and bull story." Today it is correctly seen as Hitchcock's most thematically personal and probing film. At a certain point with the prolific masters of cinema, deciding on which film represents their greatest work almost becomes a fool's errand. The term "masterpiece" by its definition describes the peak of an artist's work, but some artists have proven that you can possess more than one masterpiece. Hitchcock may have the most masterworks of any director, and Vertigo is indeed one of them.

Vertigo was unavailable to the public for decades because along with four other films, Hitchcock left it as a legacy to his daughter. While many American critics grappled with the nearly traumatizing subject matter of Vertigo, the film received a more intellectually enthused reaction in France. Vertigo may have been kept out of the hands of the public for a long time but for Hitchcock's peers and later aspiring filmmakers it was a directorial clinic, a kind of cinematic textbook from which one could grasp many tools. The famous forward-zoom/dolly-out shot Hitchcock utilized to create the "Vertigo" effect has found itself blissfully reused by New Wave filmmakers, Steven Spielberg with Jaws, Martin Scorsese with Goodfellas and others. Meanwhile, vehement Hitchcock mimic, Brian DePalma, virtually remade Vertigo in 1976 with Obsession, co-written by perennial Vertigo booster Paul Schrader. In 1984, the film was re-released to much critical acclaim. Today it is considered by Sight and Sound to be the second greatest film ever made, behind the sacrosanct Citizen Kane.

Vertigo has arguably been, since its release, as Rich has written, the very template by which all neo-noirs base their respective worlds: a psychologically unsound, socially disregarded outcast, beset by vast, incomprehensible conspiratorial powers beyond his meager abilities to fight them off, cynically lured into the world of cloaked but indigenous criminality by the great desired object, a beautiful and two-faced woman. Within the film's first protracted shot is James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson reaching out, grasping the railing of a fire escape ladder. A moment later Ferguson finds himself hanging from the side of a building, horrified, as a policeman attempting to save him falls to his own death.

This scene focuses firstly on Hitchcock's obsession with the image of a man falling (almost always to their death), a show-stopping Hitchcock specialty to be found in Blackmail, Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and Psycho, among others. Where Hitchcock takes the scene, however, is important both for the visual conceptualization of Ferguson's affliction of, as he later calls it, acrophobia, and for the gloomy subtext of the entire film. As Ferguson desperately holds on for dear life and looks down, the forward-zoom/dolly-out depicts his vertigo. Yet on a deeper, more metaphysical plane, Ferguson becomes, in essence, what Saul Bellow would call "The Dangling Man." One can look at Vertigo and one can legitimately sense that in at least a metaphorical way, Ferguson never leaves that ledge: throughout the whole film he is dangling about, trying to save himself from oblivion. At the very least, Hitchcock is instructing the viewer with spectacular precision that an essential piece of Ferguson's psychological make-up, identity and sanity have been lost alongside the doomed cop.

The iconic representation of women in Hitchcock's films has never found greater depth and distilled taintlessness than in Vertigo. The master's depiction of sexual power and desire, as thoroughly symbolized by his iconographic treatment of Kim Novak's non-dual dual performance as Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton, is at its boldest and most fetishistically twisted. Vertigo has often been assailed for the way it depicts Ferguson's sickly developed obsession with the woman he believes to be dead (Madeleine), trying with limitless arrogance and chauvinism to remake the second woman (who is, in actuality, the same as the lady he believes has died) into the first because of his completely plausible belief that Judy looks just a little bit like Madeleine. It's a case where the brightness of a vision, of the perfect, idealized woman insidiously blinds the man both practically, in terms of not seeing what perhaps should be an obvious truth, disguised solely by a change in hair color, and spiritually as well, poisoning him on multiple levels of existence. The epistemological foray into the psychosis of Ferguson reverberates as a kind of universal warning to all men not to recreate a woman into an object, even of adoration. This important lesson has probably been most successfully retold in the 2001 Japanese horror film Audition.

To depict is not to endorse or praise. While Hitchcock's attitude towards women may have frightened more compassionately understanding artists like Ingmar Bergman (whose films, while frank and clear-eyed in their appraisal, generally celebrate femininity as much as Hitchcock's continually bump up against and wrestle with it), who believed Hitchcock must have truly despised women, they are more nuanced than that. Just as Hitchcock belittled the bloodthirstiness of many a viewer in Saboteur by scathingly depicting a murder in a movie theatre just as an audience is laughing hysterically at the carnage of a movie-bound death, and slyly admonished eager beavers like Stewart's Rear Window character from becoming too certain that evil lurked behind every drawn curtain, it would be an error to reduce Hitchcock's apprehension and possible mistrust of women to simplistic loathing. As Ferguson's endeavor becomes personal and morbidly sexualized (just because Madeleine isn't in actuality dead does not negate the fact that he is dementedly obsessed with a woman he truly thinks is deceased), Hitchcock subtly reinforces sympathy for the woman the audience should probably detest, not pity, as the camera distances itself from the menacing Ferguson, identifying itself more freely with Judy. As Ferguson's fixation only worsens, more medium two-shots are taken from over Judy's shoulder, allowing the viewer to more gracefully see Ferguson through her eyes. The greatest formal break in a film where Ferguson is almost omnipotent, to be found in practically every single scene, is a short but crucial bit in which Judy writes her deepest, most truthful thoughts out, accompanied by a forlorn, almost endearing voice-over by Novak. For a film not in the least bit discursive, this is an important scene to recognize Hitchcock's ambivalence and even guilt (influenced by his Catholicism, perhaps).

How else can one read Vertigo when placed, as it ought to be, in the overall context of Hitchcock's art? Notorious depicts a cold-hearted American government agent using the feminine counterpart, a woman he simultaneously loves and resents. What begins as a calculated relationship becomes a love affair in which, as the woman notes, the man does not love her. His failure to respond, and his willingness to both idealize and bitingly pity a woman he believes to be untrustworthy in the shadow of her notorious repute; his desirous impulses placed against the mendacity he is called upon by his superiors to employ, and self-hatred based around forcing the woman to become the very thing he detests, a whorish and unchaste woman. After Guy Haines blows his top and screeches that he wants a troubling woman killed, Strangers on a Train places both Bruno Anthony and Haines against the backdrop of steel bars, implicating and briefly imprisoning them both for the crime Anthony deliriously commits.

No, Hitchcock's world did not permit his "heroes" to be left off the hook. After one reads about the man behind the camera, in all of his fascinating dualities, one senses that his was a confessional, tinged-with-guilt cinema, allowing himself to fully embrace and use the medium to search his own soul and find his own answers. In The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda's Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero prays for guidance and solace at an especially dark time, and his prayers are answered with poignant swiftness. One can only hope that Hitchcock's art, serving its creator, helped to answer his.


Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up, Alexander.

The first time I saw this film I was truly disturbed by it. It was only after seeing it a second time, a third time, etc. that I was really able to start analyzing it.

It's really one of his very best.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kudos, Alison.

Vertigo is a film I grew up on, so to speak, and as a kid I didn't really "get" what on earth was happening but I enjoyed it and sympathized with the James Stewart character through thick and thin. It was only when I revisited around the time I began shaving that I started to pick up on just how "sick" (as I tauntingly called it to a girl in my film class who wanted to know what it was like just before it began to play) it truly was, and gloriously so at that. I was always disturbed by it, like you, but the more I understood it, the more overwhelming it became in its genius.

cjKennedy said...

Crapsakes Alexander, you're going to be the death of all other film blogs before too long! I'm taking you off my blogroll!


Nicely observed and timely look at a great film. Did I mention that I love the French?

I have to admit, my first response to Vertigo, having been awoken to the joys of Hitchcock by Rear Window, was much the same as the general public. I didn't really get it. It wasn't the Jimmy Stewart I knew and loved.

Subsequent viewings however I finally started to catch up to it. I finally understood that the fact it wasn't good old Jimmy was part of the point and much of the power of the film.

Alexander Coleman said...

Aha, Craig, thanks for kind words.

I agree with you, regarding Jimmy Stewart. I'm sure that, though I saw Vertigo at a young age, I saw Rear Window first by a good margin because I distinctly remember my entire knowledge of Stewart and what he represented to me being shaped by Rear Window. My film professor said that Vertigo would play very differently if Robert Mitchum had the Scottie Ferguson role. One female student complained about the film because Stewart is so "asexual" to her that he seems entirely wrong for the part.

My dad has told me several times that his parents were, like most moviegoers, turned off by the film's wild and bizarre streak. They left the cinema nonplussed, not understanding it and wondering just what the heck was up with good old Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo itself was the ultimate Hitchcockian sucker punch, featuring the ultimate everyman American movie star as a tormented, pathetically ineffectual and finally a hopelessly deranged nutcase.

Anonymous said...

The first time I saw Vertigo was actually in a double feature with Rear Window. Vertigo was first and Rear Window was refreshingly light after it.

btw, these are the first two Hitchcock movies I ever saw. After that I went out of my way to see the rest. :)

Anonymous said...

I adore this film to no ends, nicely said indeed.

I really should get it on DVD - and see all the other Hitchcock films I have not seen yet.

Alexander Coleman said...

As Peter Bogdanovich has noted, Hitchcock, like so many directors past and present, liked to alternate between "dark" and "light" films. You can see how light and fluffy some of his films are, like the very entertaining To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, or how how dark and dense some of them, like Vertigo and Psycho, are.

Alison, I suspect Rear Window and Vertigo were first forays into Hitchcock as well, so, so long ago.

Thanks first for stopping by, Nick, and also for the kind words.

cjKennedy said...

'Thief' is worlds away from Vertigo and in my opinion it doesn't get nearly enough respect. What a sexy, entertaining and fun little movie. It's a perfect confection. It might lack in psychological depth, but so what?

Alexander Coleman said...

Definitely a light-as-a-feather soufflet, To Catch a Thief is a great deal of fun, with a relaxed Hitchcock contentedly playing around with two finely sketched characters in a story where not too much is at stake. The "breast or leg?" and fireworks/kissing scenes are show-stoppers.

Anonymous said...

Well, Alexander, if Craig kicks you off his blogroll, I'll offer you a spot on mine ;-)

Very, very nice write up. I love the image of Scottie "dangling" the whole movie. I like Vertigo a lot, probably because I prefer the darker Hitch. The first time I saw it I didn't even like it that much, because I already knew that it was a film in two parts, and I kept waiting for the sloooow first part to be over. The second time though, I appreciated just how subtly he sets up Scottie's obsession and makes the audience share it.

I also love how he plays with point of view. You mentioned that Scottie is often seen from Judy's perspective in the second part, but it's more than that: the first part in a way epitomizes the "male gaze" in its most literal form, and the second part turns the tables. The first time I saw it, I hated the entire expositional monologue Judy gives us, explaining everything, but now I understand how necessary it is to get us out of Scottie's head and into hers.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks for the very kind words and also for putting me on your blogroll, Hedwig.

The first half of Vertigo is indeed meticulously, methodically constructed. Having seen Vertigo in a room full of people largely in my age group (let us say, 20-30, with some older folks) it did seem as though for many the first half of the movie was rather tedious. The second half, though, worked its magic on them for the most part, however. (I was stunned at how practically everyone was seeing it for the first time--not disappointed, I love seeing people of all ages being exposed to great classics, just surprised, but then I have to occasionally remind myself that not everyone is a film obsessive.)

Yes, the exposition by Judy was knocked by my film professor, too, but I defended it on the very grounds you state, Hedwig: it's an entirely necessary way of breaking off the audience's inherent link to Ferguson, in order to shift perspectives. I love the point about the swapping of the "male gaze" for the female one. Ah, I just love it when brilliant people agree with me. :-)

Daniel G. said...

"I love seeing people of all ages being exposed to great classics, just surprised, but then I have to occasionally remind myself that not everyone is a film obsessive."

Ha, strange to accept that last bit, isn't it?

As everyone has said, this is an intimidatingly impressive study of a classic film. You really have a handle on Hitchcock, his influences, and his place in history.

Alexander Coleman said...

"Ha, strange to accept that last bit, isn't it?"

Ha, it certainly is, Daniel.

I'm glad you enjoyed my take on Vertigo in particular and Hitchcock in general.

Sam Juliano said...

This VERTIGO reappraisal is truly "heavy duty" and it further validates the author's exceeding talent and grasp of world cinema. Yes, Alexander I would say that Hitch has more masterpieces than any other director, a result of him being more prolific than the ones that are arguably as great as him: Bergman, Bresson, Ozu, Chaplin, Dreyer, Welles, Ford et al.
VERTIG0 is indeed presently near the top of the list in Sight and Sound's poll, a point I was ready to bring to your attention until I saw (surprise? LOL!) that you hadn't left it out.
In a thematic sense, you delve into the heart of the matter, what with your fascinating discourse on the "iconic representation of women" and the entire context of "sexual power and desire." And kudos for that excellent reference to the 2001 Japanese film AUDITION.
Perhaps the film's haunting and mysterious tone, and it's use of settings (the Golden Gate Bridge, those famous hills near the bay in San Francisco and that unforgettable mission with the bell tower near that film's end that remains an image that will never leave your mind) eclipse anything in Hitchcock even the celebrated use of such in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

VERTIGO is one of the five or six greatest films ever. To think otherwise, methinks, is to commit cinematic blasphemy.

Marvelous, marvelous essay.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Sam. This was from the first week of my blog's life, and I'm pleased to see it looked at by you.

Yes, scenes and shots from Vertigo are indeed hauntingly omnipresent in one's mind, particularly after one has properly absorbed the masterwork after at least a few viewings.

One of the many stunning aspects of Hitchcock is that so much has been written and said about him and yet he continually invites yet more reappraisals and considerations.

Thank you again.

Frederick said...

Just read Allan Fish's review at another site, and I clicked on this from the 'comment' section. Wowee, this is quite a masterful (not easy to read either)look at this great film, and I will keep much of what you say in mind when I look at the film again.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Frederick, for stopping by, reading and commenting! I'm most pleased to hear that you'll keep this review in mind the next time you watch Vertigo. I hope you make Coleman's Corner a regular destination. :-)

darkcitydame4e said...

Hi! Alexander Coleman,
I bet you are really "shocked" that I am about comment on Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo. No! I am not about to comment on Hitch most personal film.
What more is there to say, about "Hitch's classic 1958 film "Vertigo" that I am still
examining, again and again and aga...That you haven't already covered in your excellant review. I am already printing like "mad" T.S.'s reviews on Hitchcock's entire (Ok! I will say it! his "oeuvre") and now I plan to print your review out too! Because I want to read every perspective(s) or different view(s) about Hitch's 1958 film "Vertigo" as possible.

Thanks, A.C.
dcd ;)

darkcitydame4e said...

Sam Juliano said,"VERTIGO is one of the five or six greatest films ever. To think otherwise, methinks, is to commit cinematic blasphemy."
S.J.,Your "check is in the mail!"

S.J. said, Marvelous, marvelous essay.
S.J.,I second that motion!

dcd ;)

Alexander Coleman said...

Hahaha, thank you very much, dark city dame. :-)

Sergei Smirnov said...

I love your analysis of Hitchcock's art through the prism of his Catholicism, Alexander. The outrageous content of his cinema and especially this film does still turn some off, and the using of James Stewart, the all American everyman, in this role is like you state a subversive act in its own right. A fascinating and tremendous review!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you again, Sergei. I am pleased to see you enjoyed this review. Rarely do I see people pointing to Hitchcock's Catholicism as what helps to beatify his work as utmost self-investigations and confessions. Nevertheless, it does seem pertinent, perhaps especially in discussing Vertigo.

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