60 Second Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)
April 14, 2012 3 Comments
I’m going to be teaching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in a few weeks so I decided to watch it again, but to do so first without my scholar’s cap on. Vertigo is a movie that comes along with a wealth of scholarly literature, but this is just me writing as a movie fan, typos and all. Also, it seems a bit silly to shout “Spoiler Alert!” when discussing a movie made over fifty years ago, but I suppose if you haven’t seen Vertigo yet, you should:
a) explain why. I mean, really, what are you waiting for?
b) turn back now. Come back two hours and eight minutes later, once you’ve had the chance to see the film.
Vertigo is flat-out entertaining from the get-go, as the eye of the camera looks into the eye of a woman, who looks at us, and we’re already trying to figure out our place in the world and the film.
The swirling is intense. There are swirling fractals. There are swirling sounds. The acrophobia is the fear of heights. The vertigo is the dizziness. And we’re off across the rooftops of San Francisco. Don’t look down, Jimmy!
Jimmy Stewart’s character, John “Scottie” Ferguson is derailed in his career as a police detective because he has an incident in which he can’t handle heights. He comes from money, though, so there’s a touch of ennui in his forced retirement.
John is also uninterested in the adoring Midge Wood, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, with whom he had once been engaged for three weeks. I presume it was relatively risque in 1958 to be discussing bras and their use of cantilever function.
JOHN: Midge, do you suppose many men wear corsets?
MIDGE: Mm. More than you think.
Midge is the voice of reason in the film, and she cites the doctor’s opinion that only another emotional shock will reverse John’s fear of heights. The picture is highly psychoanalytic. Funnily enough, I believe that John’s own theory that he could get progressively better by slowly acclimatizing himself to heights is closer to today’s science. But it’s far less fun, and Vertigo asks us to imagine what the mind can create.
GAVIN ELSTER (Tom Helmore): Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?
By the time that John catches sight of Madeleine Elster, played by Kim Novak, we’re already in a dreamlike state of figuring out how past and present intersect, so it’s like we’ve seen him see her before.
The cutaways have a sense of disorientation, as do the camera movements, the zooms and the tracking shots and all the rest of it. The lack of dialogue as John follows Madeleine is terrific, as it allows us to get lost in all sorts of possible angles. And the way that we don’t see all the way out of his car reflects the way that we get stuck inside John’s head.
In the Palace of the Legion of Honor, it’s about framing, with echoes of the past reverberating around the present, obscuring the future.
Seeing Madeleine from a distance makes her elusiveness central, and being in the background foregrounds how she is defined by how others see her.
When the two do meet, it’s as if the two were both operating under hypnosis.
JOHN: If I could just find the key, the beginning, and put it together.
MADELEINE: To explain it away. There is a way to explain it, you see.
JOHN: Well, don’t you think that it’s kind of a waste for the two of us –
MADELEINE: — to wander separately?
When Madeleine walks away from him in what is ostensibly Muir Woods (the scene was actually shot in Big Basin Redwoods), it’s like someone pulling away in a dream.
I love how it does not all fit together in perfection, but rather with a sense of the disorientation that I share as a viewer. Even the age discrepancy between Stewart and Novak which supposedly bothered Hitchcock makes for a disjuncture that adds to the vertigo. They’re lovers, but not in a way that ever fully fits.
The remaking of Judy into Madeleine makes a statement on the fashioning of women, for sure, but it is also about the movies and our imaginations, the way we remake the world in an attempt to get what we want but that isn’t real.
JOHN: You were the copy, you were the counterfeit, weren’t you?
And I can’t be the first one to observe that the following accusatory lines that could be applied to directors in general and to Hitchcock in particular.
JOHN: Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say?
So what could put ground under our feet in Vertigo? It’s a world in which judges and doctors purport to know all and attempt to order reality.
DOCTOR (Raymond Bailey): He’s suffering from acute melancholia, together with a guilt complex.
But really, after all of Hitchcock’s masterful presentation of fragmentation and obsession, we’re left uncured, and that feels right. That is, it feels like a proper reflection of our place in the world. Or is it just me who often feels like the following when going to sleep at night?
Sweet dreams, everyone.
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