Friday, December 31, 2010

Vertigo (1958)

USA, 128 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac, Maxwell Anderson
Photography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones

It's interesting that Vertigo continues to safely occupy its position as consensus choice for Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece—Psycho has its loud (and persuasive) partisans, of course, and a clutch of other titles might be mentioned for the running as well: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, The Birds, sometimes even my own two favorites, Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt.

Vertigo was never much of a commercial success, which is neither here nor there in the scheme of things. More interesting for me, in light of its status, is that it's not much of a suspense or mystery film either; more of a melodrama, if anything, and at that doesn't always seem to bear strictly recognizable human motivations. Even as it's said to be far and away Hitchcock's most "personal" film, it occupies a landscape that exists almost entirely in a baffling moral vacuum, a bizarro world of (literally, in some cases) up-is-down norms not always easy to parse.

In Vertigo, for example, it's perfectly acceptable to steal the wife of the man who has hired you as a detective to follow her in order to help get to the bottom of her suspected mental illness. That's what lifelong bachelor Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) does, with nary a blink or twitch of self-recrimination. Hired by his old college pal Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), Ferguson is put on the track of Elster's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has lately taken to going into trances and wandering willy-nilly about not only San Francisco but all of Northern California.

At this point in the story Ferguson has already been forced to retire from the San Francisco police department because of debilitating injuries—a bad back, first, but more to the point, in a scene we are shown at the start of the movie, severe acrophobia, which resulted in part from a rooftop chase that ended in the death of another officer and the very near death of Ferguson.

Once Ferguson has his assignment, about 20 minutes in, the movie becomes a weirdly muted abstraction for much of the next hour, as he and Bernard Herrmann's orchestra track Madeleine in and around San Francisco—making visits to a clothing store, to an art museum, to a small cemetery, to a rundown old hotel where she keeps a room, and, often, to nowhere at all, with long sequences of Ferguson in his car simply following Madeleine in hers.

At times the camera is oddly insistent about having us notice certain things: a bouquet, a whorl of hair that has been put up, various reaction shots. But it's not always clear why. Like Ferguson, we are invited only to continue looking, not necessarily to see. Many of the patterns we are shown this way are variations on spirals, which is meant to suggest the vertigo of the title, of course, but also, I suspect, a kind of primal Freudian symbology of women and the terrors their engulfing emotions and requirements for commitment may engender.

At some point in all this, approximately when Ferguson must fish Madeleine out of the San Francisco Bay as the result of an ostensible suicide attempt (and incidentally finds himself with the opportunity to see her naked), Ferguson falls in love with her. This must be accepted as given, because there's little that Madeleine has to offer beyond an icy, distant Nordic beauty. It must also be accepted that Ferguson has no compunction whatsoever about either betraying an old friend or about taking advantage of a woman who is quite clearly, from her behavior, "not all there."

But never mind—you're along for the ride now, as the strangely alluring world of the movie acts quickly to hold the viewer in thrall. Once the illicit relationship is engaged things begin to move faster, until finally Madeleine inexplicably, almost as if against her will, makes another suicide attempt, this one successful, hurling herself off a church tower. Ferguson is helpless to stop her, prevented by his acrophobia from following her beyond a certain point on the steps to the top of the tower.

And so concludes the first hour and a half or so of the movie. If you thought any of that was puzzling, and it is, wait till you get to the last 30 minutes, after Ferguson runs across a department store clerk and part-time chippie from Kansas, Judy Barton (Kim Novak again), who reminds him an awful lot of Madeleine. (To the credit of Novak and the production team, I have to say that for me the resemblance is actually strained, even knowing it's the same actor.)

Once the movie begins to make its various strange reveals, it's positively hasty about explaining and rationalizing them, and thus we find out in lickety-split time the ridiculous details of what really happened on top of that church tower. Then it's on to the unnerving, creepy business of Ferguson painstakingly making Judy Barton into Madeleine Elster, which like so much else in Vertigo is treated for the most part as the ordinary business of an ordinary day. This is the point in a film full of them where one most feels one has stepped across a line into some strange "other" territory.

The obvious point is that, yes, making over a woman is indeed all in a day's work for someone like Alfred Hitchcock, hence the deeply felt personal nature of this and its generally accepted status as the master's masterpiece. And that's fair enough. It's certainly magnificently strange, just about every step of the way, and only gets more so as it goes—I haven't even mentioned the unsettling color schemes, the ingenious zoom-forward backward tracking shots that viscerally suggest vertigo, the hallucinatory and chilling titles and dream sequence, or the sad relationship Ferguson has with a girl chum from college, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), which works as a foil to the rest, putting everything in a desperately needed perspective.

Vertigo follows its own way, according to dictates that only now and then coincide with the behavior of most people we know, but I guess that's what makes it work. Something certainly does. The ending is so abrupt it almost feels as though one has pitched over the edge of a cliff, free floating in air Wile E. Coyote style. The final shot among the most searing and memorable I've ever seen.

1 comment:

  1. FINALLY saw this one when it ran in the select early-evening spot in Turner Classic Movies' salute to Hitchcock on New Year's Day. I'd avoided it before as I'm not terribly fond of Jimmy Stewart (that huge chip on the shoulder so many of his characters carry for their militant hickdom is a downer) and sometimes I'm not enthralled with Master Hitchcock himself (an obsession with blondes is a sign of a bourgeois imagination to me) (John Mendelssohn will surely excoriate me if he reads that last parenthetical clause!), but I really enjoyed watching Vertigo. Despite all the film's mumbo-jumbo about atavism and suicide and all that, I took it as a straightforward exposition of fetishism (sexual and otherwise), which explains to me why this flick is such a hit with the Brits at Sight & Sound. Ferguson working overtime to re-create his fetish for the lost Madeleine, etc.. -- it's all there. Hate to spoil your party, Fergie, but I found Kim Novak's Judy Barton version more attractive than the blonde ice queen; Judy had something almost '60s-teenybopper insouciant about her, several years ahead of time. Speaking of Kinks er kinks, this viewer got a special kick out of all of Hitchcock's location filming on the colorful streets of San Francisco, with Jimmy Stewart's 1956 DeSoto gliding by all those '40s and '50s cars parked along those hilly streets, as in those fetishistic car-spotting odysseys of me own youth. So Vertigo is kind of okay with me for now. -- R. Riegel