Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vertigo (1958)

Many people regard this film as Hitchcock's magnum opus. It was made at the height of his artistic powers in the mid-to-late 1950s, and starts one of his favorite actors James Stewart in one of the darker, edgier roles that became a staple of that great actor's late career. It's also probably the most emotionally complex and morally ambiguous of Hitchcock's films, which is probably why it's always been a favorite with critics.

For me, however, Vertigo has always been one of those movies that I can admire only from an artistic perspective. As innovative and influential as the film is, I cannot love it  with the same affection that I have for other great Hitchcock works such as Rear Window, Rebecca, Notorious, and The 39 Steps (my four favorites). Both the dark ending and James Stewart's actions in the final reel combine to alienate me from the plot and characters emotionally, leaving me strangely repelled as the curtain closes.

Set in San Francisco, Vertigo tells the story of John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stuart), a detective who is forced to retire after he nearly falls off a roof and watches one of his fellow officers plummet to his death, a trauma which has afflicted him with a severe case of acrophobia. When an old college friend asks Ferguson to trail his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), whom he fears is going insane, Scottie agrees reluctantly but soon comes to agree that the woman is dangerously unbalanced. She appears to be suffering from psychotic episodes where she believes herself to be her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, a kept woman in 1850 San Francisco who went insane and killed herself after her lover deserted her and took their child with him. This theory seems to be confirmed when Scottie watches Madeline throw herself into San Francisco Bay, at the dangerous currents at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. After the rescues her from drowning, the two fall in love, and she confides in him  the strange visions she's been having. Scottie discovers from these clues that she's been dreaming about the Spanish mission at San Juan Bautista, so he takes her there hoping to cure her of mania. Unfortunately her presence there triggers an episode, and she runs up the steeple of the mission and flings herself off. Scottie, of course, tries to stop her, but his vertigo prevents him from getting up the steeple in time. Madeline's death sends Scottie into a complete mental breakdown from which he relapses when he meets a girl named Judy who looks amazingly similar to Madeline. He quickly becomes obsessed with this girl and drawn at the same time by an almost supernatural force towards the shocking truth about Madeline's death.

I'll start by saying that Hitchcock did a great job using real San Francisco and Bay Area locations for the filming. Hitchcock was a great lover of Northern California, as evidenced by the way he uses various locations it in this movie, as well as the towns of Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt and Mendocino famously in The Birds. The City by the Bay lives and breathes in this film, feeling much the same in many scenes as it does today, especially the ones shot at Fort Point (underneath the Golden Gate Bridge), Mission Dolores (also known as Mission San Francisco de Assisi, after which the city of San Francisco was named), the Legion of Honor Museum, and the Palace of Fine Arts. San Juan Bautista also looks the same today, but that's because it's a historical museum so it's purposely preserved like that. In addition I tip my hats to them for using the rings on the section of the redwood tree in Muir Woods for Madeline to contemplate her own mortality as a great way to tie the movie's theme into local landmarks.The only two gaffes the movie's editors made were saying the Valdes house was located in the Western Addition when reality it appears to be across the street from Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill and driving the wrong way through Lincoln Park in one shot in order to get to the Legion of Honor.

You can tell Hitchcock really went all-out on this production in terms of cinematography not only because of the expense he went to by shooting on-location but also because the images and techniques he incorporates to convey the growing insanity of Jimmy Stewart's character and the sensation of vertigo he feels. Of course in the post-CGI revolution world, they appear childish and corny at times, but to audiences of the 1950s they were an extremely innovative way to convey emotion. Despite this, I cannot help feeling that it represents a step backwards for the integrity of film-acting because it marks the beginning of the ascendancy of visual effects over acting prowess as a way of establishing verisimilitude and connection with the audience.

For me, however, this film really stops working when Scottie starts manipulating Judy in order to turn her into a Madeline substitute. It's not that I don't believe that Scottie would want to turn Judy into Madeline, but the way in which he goes about affecting the transformation is so disturbing . Any woman who's ever been trapped in an abusive relationship will be horrified at how Scottie traps Judy into changing her wardrobe and hairstyle, telling her things like "It can matter to you." This is so callous, so selfishly manipulating - to say nothing of being a strange fetish - that I lose all sympathy for Scottie and instead can only feel extreme pity for Judy, who, like most women in abusive relationships, cannot extricate herself from the bad situation because of her feelings for her abuser. I will say, however, that until that point I believe every stage of Scottie's grieving process including his following Judy around and wanting to date her. I find it especially heartbreaking when he goes to Madeline's house and stares at her car - it's one of those things that people who've experienced the tragic death of a loved one understand all too well.

I have two final complaints to lodge about this film, the first about the plot and the second about the acting. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that I don't buy Judy wearing the fateful necklace around Scottie because she'd have to be really stupid to think he wouldn't recognize it. I'd understand him discovering it inside her jewelry box because it fits with his obsessive behavior, but it doesn't make sense for her to put on the necklace around him as if she didn't know its significance. As to the acting, I also have to say that Kim Novak's performance as Madeline seems lacking to me when she's having her sane moments. When she's acting insane I believe her, but when she's supposed to be acting normal, she comes off as so wooden that I lose all suspension of disbelief on her performance.

Despite these flaws and despite my persona distaste for it, Vertigo remains an extremely significant film in the history of the cinematic arts. With all the masterful suspense of a Hitchcock classic, the dark fascination with the macabre and honest portrayal of human frailty, this film has been holding audiences spellbound for over fifty years for a very good reason. Unlike my favorite Hitchcock films, however, this movie plunges us so deep into the darkest parts of reality without enough relief from the light so to make it emotionally stable. I have no doubt that this is exactly the effect Hitchcock intended, but for me that makes it too intense to enjoy it as much as I'd like to. I can, however, still watch it with a kind of detached admiration.

I give this film a 7.5 out of 10, well-executed with a decided vision and great cultural significance, but not to my taste.

buy from Amazon:
Vertigo (Collector's Edition)Rear Window (Collector's Edition)The 39 Steps: The Criterion CollectionRebeccaNotorious

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