Though it received indifferent or sneering reviews in 1958, Vertigo saw a huge, almost alarming turnaround in critical reception over subsequent decades, so much so that it now competes with the once-untouchable Citizen Kane on many “best film” polls. (Note: I find it strange and vaguely disturbing that any one film – be it Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill for that matter – could inspire such consensus among motley groups of movie-lovers; it almost feels like there’s some secret society deciding these things. I would be much more interested in a collection of top-10 lists prepared by 20 different people, which mentions 200 separate films with no repetition. Like some of these.)
Vertigo isn't my personal favourite among Hitchcock’s films (at this point in time, it isn’t even in my ever-shifting top 5: those would currently be Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, Rope and The Trouble with Harry). It’s always fallen in the “admire more than love” category for me, so it might seem paradoxical that I’ve been compelled to revisit it many times – on one occasion, greatly inconveniencing myself to catch a film-festival screening – and my admiration has increased with each viewing. For starters, I’m always struck anew by the sheer beauty of the film (thank FSM for the print-restoration that took place in the mid-1990s, when the negative was in dire shape). It’s truly lovely to look at, full of lengthy wordless sequences and some very evocative use of San Francisco locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the sloping streets.
I’m almost certain that no other Hitchcock film has as many dissolves as this one does, and while that in itself doesn’t have to mean anything, in Vertigo these dissolves have the effect of heightening the relationship of each shot to the next, and of making each seem like a vital part of a living, breathing organism. Scene by scene, this film is more rigorous and compact than anything else Hitchcock did, with the possible exception of The Birds and Notorious – you can almost sense the director agonising over every frame, making sure that it fits in perfectly with the overall look and mood. Adding greatly to its effect, of course, are Bernard Herrmann’s lush music score and Stewart’s daring performance as a man who starts off by being eminently likable (in the classic Jimmy Stewart tradition) but who gradually reveals a very dark side - one that's all the more disturbing if you can relate to it.
The film begins with a haunting prologue – a scene that can, in retrospect, be viewed almost independently from the main narrative – that shows detective Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) discovering (in the worst imaginable situation) that he suffers from a paralysing fear of heights. Though advised to recuperate for a few weeks, Scottie is intrigued when an old college friend asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who may be possessed by the spirit of an ancestor. Unaware that he is being used as the set-up in an elaborate murder scheme, the detective finds himself falling in love with Madeleine and becoming her protector. When she dies, in an incident that might have been prevented if it weren’t for his vertigo, the guilt-stricken Scottie withdraws into himself – until, one day, he meets a woman, Judy, who bears a strong physical resemblance to his deceased love. He pursues her, they become close and then, unmindful of her feelings, he sets about trying to refashion her in the image of Madeleine.
It’s difficult to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers, so here’s the obligatory alert. With around half an hour left to go, the narrative makes one of the most startling right turns I’ve seen in any film – it abandons Scottie’s viewpoint (he has been our point of identification throughout so far, and the central figure in every scene) and shifts to Judy’s, in the process casually making a revelation that most suspense films would have saved for the end. But this helps achieve a larger purpose: as the movie heads towards its climax, we have been made privy to both Scottie and Judy’s internal demons, and the effect is very ambivalent and unsettling.
Anyone who engages closely with Vertigo will see that its thriller aspects – built around a convoluted, implausible, easily dismissed plot – are a pretext to explore more universal themes. In Scottie’s idealisation of Madeleine, his callous treatment of the more earthy Judy and the latter’s hesitant succumbing to his demands, we see the emotional arm-twisting that accompanies the deepest relationships: how our feelings towards other people are very often based on the image we have created in our heads rather than what they are really like; and how easy it is to make compromises or try to reshape yourself – often to the detriment of all concerned – to win the acceptance of someone you care about. In fact, I’m not at all sure that Vertigo is exclusively about romantic love. It seems to me that the most cutting observations made here – about emotional dependence and the subtle, often perverse manipulations that accompany many of our closest bonds – can apply just as well to any relationship.
Hitch's most problematic film?
It’s widely accepted that this is Hitchcock’s most intimate work, and this can be a stumbling block for the casual moviegoer, conditioned to think of this director as a witty entertainer who traded mainly in suspense. But I think the emotional directness and rawness of Vertigo can be problematic even for the more knowledgeable and devoted Hitchcock fans – because while we believe that the man is a great artist and that his work deals with serious ideas, we are accustomed to seeing this done obliquely rather than head-on.
To illustrate what I mean: the parlour conversation between Marion Crane and Norman Bates in Psycho is an example of a superb scene that provides the beating heart of a very profound film, anchors it and brings many of its deeper themes into the open. But crucially it’s also a scene that uses sardonic black humour as a smokescreen or a defence mechanism (much like the rest of the film does). The dialogue between Norman and Marion occasionally reaches a high pitch of intensity (e.g. Norman reflecting on his mother being left alone in the Gothic house if he were to leave her: “the fire would go out, it would be cold and damp like a grave – if you love someone you can’t do that to them even if you hate them”) but the tension is repeatedly dispelled by a clever one-liner or a wry observation (“A son is a poor substitute for a lover”/“Mother isn’t quite herself today”/“Some people even stuff dogs and cats, but I couldn’t do that”). It’s ironic and detached.
Vertigo, on the other hand, doesn’t give the viewer these breathers: it wears its heart on its sleeve. In the later scenes, when Scottie looks longingly at Judy, searching for glimpses of Madeleine in her, or when he waits for her to emerge from the bathroom after having transformed completely into the person he idealises, it’s difficult to look at James Stewart’s face – you almost feel like you’re intruding on something that’s too private. Consequently, the film occupies a unique position in Hitchcock’s filmography: it doesn’t have the distancing black humour of Psycho and Rear Window or the elegant wit of the early British films, nor is it a full-blown entertainer like North by Northwest (a first-time viewer expecting to see a “Hitchcock thriller” will almost certainly be disappointed, even angered, by how slow-moving and abstract it is). And if you look at it as the sum of its plot twists, it’s easy to dismiss it as a good-looking but pointless melodrama.
But for viewers who are lucky enough to be drawn into its world and absorbed by the dilemmas of its central characters, this is a very mature work that grows richer each time you see it – though of course, this presupposes the sort of viewer who would elect to see it more than once! Also, you probably need to be a serious movie buff/historian to appreciate how astonishing it is that such a personal film could have been made in mainstream Hollywood in the 1950s by one of the most high-profile directors in the world, working within the many constraints of the studio system. I’m hoping a special-edition anniversary DVD makes it to Indian stores soon.
P.S. In the context of Vertigo being a film that doesn’t have mass-appeal and can make viewers uncomfortable, I recently came across this post on Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog: a discussion about films that are so personal that they work best when watched alone, rather than with an audience in a hall. Emerson also links to an interview with novelist Steve Erickson, who speculates that one reason why Vertigo’s critical appreciation deepened after its original release was that many budding movie buffs (future directors and critics) in the 1960s and 1970s saw it at home, on TV.
I’ve never seen Vertigo “work” with an audience in a theatre, and I’ve seen it with an audience at least four times...a movie that seems absurd in the collective dark, shared with other people, but watched alone on DVD has the force of a private dream.I think there’s something to this: I remember the general restlessness and the snickering in the hall when I saw Vertigo on the big screen at PVR Saket of all places – part of a very short-lived experiment by the hall to show movie classics. In fairness, it must be said that the print they showed was a terrible one (from before the restoration) and the sound even worse. Besides, and there’s no polite way to say this, it was a PVR Saket audience.
P.S. 2: Also see this old post about the accusations of misogyny in Hitchcock’s films. The accusations seem even more bizarre when you see the obvious sympathy that Vertigo has for the Judy character, and how the film launches its emotional crescendo at precisely the point when Scottie leaves the room (and us) for the first time and the camera turns to Judy to learn her story. More from Camille Paglia about Hitchcock and Vertigo here.
P.S. 3: Here's a great piece by Adam Gopnik, originally published in the New Yorker I think, which marvelously links the death of a beloved goldfish with the premature revelation in Vertigo. Wonderful piece of writing.
[A shorter version of this post appeared in the New Sunday Express a couple of weeks ago]