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.