d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 128 mins.
"We could all tell that this was a very important project for Hitch, and that he was feeling this story very deeply, very personally." - Vertigo screenwriter Sam Taylor.
The Alfred Hitchcock film I have screened more often than any other is Vertigo, his 1958 masterpiece that may be the purest cinematic expression of obsession ever made. It is the film often considered to be not only his greatest, but one of the greatest in all of cinema. Although my personal preferences lie with a thriller released four years prior, I won't argue with either of these accolades. Great films, like all great art, are treasures that affect someone differently with each viewing, films that require and reward your frequent participation but are never a burden to experience; they are great and live on because they have reached some truth-filled corner of our psyche, and never grow old. Vertigo lends itself to multiple viewings, each occasion more rewarding than the previous. From the worn VHS copy loaned to me by my high school art teacher, to the film poster that adorned the walls of my dormitory rooms and apartments through college – that tableau of construction-cone orange, the silhouetted cutouts falling into a white spiral vortex – through film classes and repeated viewings on television, it's been a storm cloud surrounding my brain, always thought-provoking, always complicated, always beautiful in its accomplishment. From periphery to upfront analysis, I'll consider myself lucky if I have Vertigo swirling around in my mind for the rest of my life.
Of Hitchcock's Rear Window, Roger Ebert wrote: "I sometimes fancy that various archetypal situations circled tirelessly in Hitchcock's mind, like whales in a tank at the zoo. " Although the comparison was not done for the purposes of discussing Vertigo, perhaps it should have been. Cinema's most obsessive director regarded the film as one of his most personal, yet what we know about him allows us to know that even without this confession. He was a man of phobias, made impotent by his fears and forces he could not control. What he could control were his movies, all meticulously constructed in his head before cameras even rolled. Hitchcock was most controlling with his actresses, his "blondes" as they became known: Joan Fontaine, whom he tore apart emotionally just so she would give the wrought performance he desired; Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, objects of impossible love; Vera Miles and Tippi Hendrin, whose careers he longed to sculpt.
In Vertigo, the Hitchcock proxy is a retired detective crippled by acrophobia named Scottie, played by James Stewart, recruited by college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to track the friend's wife, now feared to be suffering from mental illness. Everything after this point is a feat of supreme narrative dexterity: that the woman (Kim Novak) is not who she says she is, that the plot is an elaborate ruse where Scottie functions solely as a cog and a witness, that love and obsession become stronger than anyone can anticipate, that the hired stand-in impersonating Madeleine could be seen later by Scottie and become subservient in love to his molding of her back into Madeleine. If Rear Window is the director's clearest exploration of voyeurism and the cinema, and The Wrong Man his clearest exploration of the nihilism and the unjustly accused, then Vertigo is the director's closest interpretation of what it means to be, of all things, a director – to arrange the pieces in a complex and satisfying way, to make individuals into who you desire them to be at a seemingly unlimited cost, to project your desires and fears onto a blank canvas.
The atmosphere was different in the making of Vertigo, and it's important to consider how this film many say is Hitchcock's best took a course of development unlike any other Hitchcock picture. Between his first Hollywood release in 1940 and his last release before Vertigo in 1956, Hitchcock produced 21 feature films, at a rate of roughly one film every nine months (like children, one might say). He was a director of great efficiency, which rarely translated to a decrease in quality – not all of his films from that period are great, of course, but the great ones were produced with the same rigorousness that many of the lesser ones were. The time devoted to Vertigo, however, would be different. There is no way to know from sure if the extra time spent on Vertigo equates to a superior motion picture, but we do know it allowed numerous revisions of the script and copious notes from the director to himself that included specific camera movements and plans for what emotions the music should evoke. The extra time came from necessary recuperation after Hitchcock suffered a hernia, and by the time Vertigo began production at the end of September in 1957, more than one year had passed from its intended start date. (Once in better health and awaiting the beginning of filming, the director worked on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)
Delays in pre-production came from the process of screenwriting. Early drafts of the Vertigo script are reportedly quite messy – a far cry from the remarkably complex story that unwinds for the audience. (I have lost track of how many times I have seen Vertigo, but still I don't think I understand everything that is going on. Ninety-five to ninety-eight percent, sure, but not everything, and that's exactly the way I like it.) Maxwell Anderson, the playwright who helped pen Hitchcock's most underrated film, The Wrong Man, wrote the first treatment of Vertigo, and that treatment, according to scholar Dan Auiler, was reportedly awful. Long-time Hitchcock friend Angus MacPhail helped after Anderson, but quit the project citing an inability to be particularly imaginative. (MacPhail's is one major contribution, according to scholar Bill Krohn, may be in developing the film's introductory rooftop chase). The two men who ultimately shared screenwriting credit are Alec Coppel and Sam Taylor. Coppel came recommended from his regular work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the version of the script he inherited shows Hitchcock had his most meticulous in terms of planning: "four typed notes about key matters such as the opening rooftop chase, and dictated a list of twenty-three sequences he already had in his head" (per Krohn). Coppel left amicably and Taylor, a playwright, came in to add depth and dimension.
Vertigo became a passionate love of the Cahiers crowd in the 1960s, and the reason not only has to do with the brilliant auteurism of Hitchcock but the direct invocation of French cinema. Biographer Patrick McGilligan notes The Wrong Man exists almost as a cinematic conversation between Hitchcock and the Italian neo-realists, and Vertigo – based on the French novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac and set in Paris and Marseilles during World War II – has a similar conversation with the slower, methodical, character-driven work from France. (As he, Coppel, and Taylor worked on the script, Hitchcock reportedly screened Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques numerous times.) The film's reputation has grown steadily since its 1958 premiere, and today it is the film that duels with Citizen Kane for the top spot in the revered Sight & Sound poll, only five votes short in the most recent survey. Hitchcock, whose feelings on a film were always remarkable transparent even at the time, was quite serious about Vertigo, tinkering with it long into post-production to achieve the perfect effect.
Stewart starred in four Hitchcock productions, matched only by Cary Grant. While Hitchcock always seemed to want to be Grant – debonair, traditionally handsome, prissiness tolerated by nearly all – it was Stewart who was the more analogous counterpart for the director. Vertigo was his last film with Hitchcock, and it is one of his most disturbing performances. Little known is the fact that Stewart worked as a creative partner with Hitchcock. He wanted the role of Scottie in Vertigo, and the richness of his performance is due in large part to conversations he had with Taylor. Stewart's work with Hitchcock and western director Anthony Mann in the 1950s allowed him to dig deeper into the darkness of the human soul, and the actor told Taylor he was willing to go deep to create the hurt and tortured aspects of Scottie. The effect was cyclical: Stewart gave Taylor permission to let the writing become more complex, which only strengthened Stewart's performance. Scottie is dark, psychological, complex, and has such regard for the illusion of Madeleine that he has little regard for Judy's emotions. Like Jeff in Rear Window, he is the protagonist but a difficult man to root for because his goodness is undercut by his more abnormal tendencies. Still, we sympathize with him during the entire movie, even as his darker side emerges; Stewart plays it subtle, close to the chest, and steel-jawed throughout much of the film, and when he becomes prone to episodes of viciousness, we have become so attached to the character we still sympathize with him; he is not angry to mean, but angry to release the pain stored in his emotional valves.
Of course we sympathize with Novak's Judy in this ordeal, too, maybe as much as the audience has ever sympathized with a female lead since Rebecca; while Vertigo straddles the line of patriarchy and misogyny, it is never callous. It is clear Judy does her actions willfully and her love seems real; as much as Scottie seeks to mute the natural for the artifice, her emotions are never muted. The source of her pain is the zigzag course of manipulation: first by Gavin, then of Scottie, then again by Scottie. Most production accounts of the shooting of Vertigo make clear that Novak and Hitchcock never got along. She disagreed with many of his decisions (most notably, she didn't want to wear grey), and she sought counsel and advice from Stewart regularly because she didn't receive the feedback she wanted from Hitchcock. Years later, she said wasn't sure he really liked her. Those on the set with Hitchcock in other productions knew how much he could dote on the men and women he loved, and accounts indicate that attitude was not present for Novak. But her performance in Vertigo is one of the chilliest from a Hitchcock woman: she is a world-class example of restraint, broken and tormented just below the surface. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock worked her to this successful degree, and in a great coincidence of life-reflecting-art, for the role of Madeleine, Novak was dressed against her will and forced to carry herself in a certain way. If there ever proof needed that Hitchcock thrived on a sordid vicariousness of what the men in his films did, and what the camera was able to capture, it was on the set of Vertigo, where his own treatment of Novak eerily mirrors Scottie's treatment of Madeleine.
The director's team of regulars each played important roles in making Vertigo the masterful film that is, and the man who deserves a large portion of the credit is Robert Burks, Hitchcock's most trusted cinematographer. It is one thing to visualize certain shots, as Hitchcock often did, sometimes sketching them and story-boarding them so tightly the final result hardly deviates from the design; it is a whole other to execute them as flawlessly as Burks does. The cinematographer only won a single Oscar for his body of work – To Catch a Thief, a dazzlingly shot but relatively unremarkable Hitchcock film – but his talents are better displayed in the noirish black-and-white of Strangers on a Train, the claustrophobic complexities of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, and the highly geometric work on North by Northwest. Of all Hitchcock's color films, however, Vertigo has the best look – luscious reds and greens painted throughout as important emotional symbols, and the hazy shots of an ethereal San Francisco capture the ghostliness and intrigue of the film's mysteries. Thanks to a 1996 restoration project, today we have much of the intended color still popping and humming with electricity. But still, beyond the gorgeous color, there is the issue of the astounding technical wizardry. There is the memorable kiss sequence, where the camera spins around Stewart and Day as they embrace and the dizzying effect creates both bewilderment and ecstasy. And of course, there is the camera shot named for the film: the Vertigo effect, or dolly zoom, developed by Paramount cameraman Irmin Roberts and which beautifully distorts the perspective in the film by zooming and dollying in opposite directions. It is a pièce de résistance in the canon of Hitchcock visuals, and he later discussed it by saying, "I always remember one night at the Chelsea Arts Ball at Albert Hall in London when I got terribly drunk, and I had the sensation that everything was going far away from me."
It is fitting that the film called Hitchcock's best also features some of the best work by his traditional crew. Edith Head worked on costumes, George Tomasini was editor, and Herbert Coleman, a second-unit director and associate producer on many Hitchcock films, was an instrumental part of many post-production discussions. Vertigo was also the first three collaborations Hitchcock with title designer Saul Bass. The opening title sequence, where images of a woman's face overlap with Lissajous spirals, is Hitchcock in one of his most surreal moments. (The orange poster I mentioned earlier was also designed by Bass.) Of all the collaborative successes on Vertigo, however, perhaps none is more important than Hitchcock's work with Bernard Herrmann, who scored the film. Herrmann's Vertigo score is perhaps the best of any of Hitchcock's films, and certainly among the greatest film scores completed. It is instantly chilling with its spiraling notes and mournful repetition, like an addict's return to bad habits. I haven't ever heard the score defined better than by Martin Scorsese, who said in 2004: "Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession." It was a stroke of genius on Hitchcock's part to allow Vertigo to slide along for long stretches without any dialogue at all, only Herrmann's score floating above the actors and locations like a light and spooky fog. The violin strings of Psycho could be Herrmann's most culturally familiar composition, but the entire score of Vertigo, from start to finish, is his magnum opus.
And so Vertigo is commonly referred to as Hitchcock's magnum opus. In a lot of ways, it's difficult to refute that title – there was a strange and heavenly intersection of material, time, desire, and teamwork that went into producing this film. My favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window, has always been to me a testament in the goal of all moviemaking, but even I must admit the aura on Vertigo is more magnetic than on Rear Window. You cannot learn everything about Hitchcock simply by watching this film (you need to consider him across all his many splendid films), but Vertigo has the feeling of closeness between a great artist and his great art, that kind of feeling that connects Vincent van Gogh with The Starry Night, Miles Davis with Kind of Blue, Frank Lloyd Wright with Fallingwater, F. Scott Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby, and so on. When we watch Vertigo, we are watching Hitchcock, and what's inside is at once breathtaking and terrifying.
26 January 2009
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 128 mins.