Saturday, August 4, 2012
CANON OF FILM: "VERTIGO"
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor based on the novel “…d’Entre les Morts” by Pierre Boeileau and Thomas Narcejac
The paragraph below is how I first originally began writing this Canon of Film entry on “Vertigo,” over five years ago:
"For whenever I’d eventually get around to discussing “Vertigo,” I’d always pictured beginning by talking about how in America “Psycho,” is considered Hitchcock’s greatest work, but in Europe, that honor belongs to “Vertigo.” In this case, and I think most film scholars would agree that, as much as it is a masterful use of filmmaking, “Vertigo,”’s storyline and plot just goes so outlandishly unbelievable and is such an obvious and ridiculous impossibility that the film is almost unwatchable, as great as it is."
I wrote that as I began writing about “Vertigo,” shortly after “Vertigo” jumped 52 spots, from 61 to 9, on AFI’s “100 Greatest American Films…” list, a result that absolutely dumbfounded me then, especially considering that it actually got a higher ranking than every other Hitchcock film, including his greatest film, “Psycho”. Now, it is safe to say, that I am apparently in the minority on “Vertigo” as now Sight and Sound, the most credible of all Film magazines, with it’s once-a-decade poll of critics to determine the greatest films of all-time, named “Vertigo”, the Greatest Film of All-Time, even higher than “Citizen Kane”. I’ve always understood the importance of “Vertigo”, which is why despite my trepidation, I always knew that I would add “Vertigo” to this cannon eventually, if for no other reason but because, and this is the one point I will give the Europeans, the American Film Scholars, and now apparently, the entire established film critic community, is that it is Hitchcock’s most influential film.
Saying that though, what exactly has it influenced? It’s an erotic thriller about one man’s obsession over a woman. The man, a former police detective, Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) who after nearly falling to his death during a rooftop-to-rooftop foot chase unfortunately discovers he has terrible vertigo, which in laymen’s term is simply an exceptional fear of heights, or more precisely, a fear of falling. In the meantime, he seems to be rooming up with a female friend, “Midge,” (Barbara Bel Geddes) who is of all things, a lingerie designer who looks more like a Sylvia Plathe-obsessed bookworm. I’ve always been fascinated with this strange scene in “Vertigo”. I figured early that Bel Geddes’s character was a lesbian, although I wouldn’t dare try to prove it, but I’ve always wondered just how and where these two characters would have met and known each other well enough to live together, in the first place. She seems to almost be from another movie, comes in for this scene, and is literally never heard from again. Before we even get a chance to ponder those questions about her, we meet Madeleine (Kim Novak), a girl who seems to have fallen in love at the first sight of John, but no sooner does he fall in love with her does she fall unexpectedly to her death from a church tower, or so it seems. Soon, John’s obsession for Madeleine become so extreme that he eventually begins to see a girl who looks curiously similar to her named Judy, who he than slowly but maniacally surely, begins to try to mold her into Madeleine. Similar hair, similar make-up, similar clothes until the girl begins to eerily look like Madeleine, but of course, she actually is Madeleine, which is where this story starts losing it for me as we learn in a letter she writes but never shows to John, where she explains how a man using Judy as a red herring to get away with killing his wife, but then John uses her to fulfill his own desires, to reclaim a lost person from his life, a person that ironically never existed to begin with. As I writer, I consciously understand Plato’s correct insistence that an likely impossibility to more believable than an unlikely possibility, but I’m always blown away that people hear the explanation of events, and actually stick with the film enough to join Stewart and Novak, as his character descends into madness and obsession. The fact that they do is proof that Hitchcock made this movie as watchable and entertaining as it is, is truly a tribute to his directing. Maybe that’s apart of the appeal that I’m missing, that because the story is so outlandish, that the success(es) of “Vertigo” make it a greater accomplishment than all his other films? I really wish I thought that was the answer, but as many defenders of the film will note, that all thrillers involve some level of impossibility and absurdity. I agree with that statement, but a great thriller will include all these dramatic impossibilities, and never once while you’re watching, make you, in the audience, go “I don’t believe that could ever happen.”
The effect of the vertigo point-of-view from John, comes from a model with a camera using a zoom button at the same time as the camera is than manually pulled back. A simple-sounding, yet brilliant effect that gives off this effect where walls are coming in and ceilings are being moved closer and closer to the center of the room.. One more thing that’s true, this is Hitchcock film that goes into the deepest are darkest corners of our desires more than any of them, and that’s what scares people about it. Perhaps that what people react to, that the mind can play tricks on them, perhaps that’s more scary to some than some of Hitchcock’s other heroes, who are usually, The wrong man, or the guy who just happen to have found themselves in these positions, or often both. They usually ask themselves, and others, why, they’re in such positions, but Scottie doesn’t do that. I think some people consider that a distinction in Hitchcock, that makes the movie more frightening and memorable. I’ve always found it more disturbing, that he doesn’t even really think about it. Here’s the Hitchcock film where, the villain isn’t the murderer, but the character’s own mind.