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Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – the Friday classic review

May 4, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Don’t look down.  Hitchcock’s removed the crash-barriers, and the abyss brings only guilt, cruelty and despair.  No wonder the film buffs love it.

Vertigo 1958 Alfred Hitchcock James Stewart

Vertigo
(Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1958)

Vertigo is a test case in auteurism.  Here’s a film that left critics and audiences unimpressed on first release, the one ‘failure’ in a seemingly endless run of hits that soon picked up again with North By Northwest’s “Best Of Hitchcock” compilation and Psycho’s radical thrill-ride.  And yet, inspired by the new theories emerging from France, it wasn’t long because a new generation of cinephiles decided that a) it was the purest Hitchcock film of the lot and b) it achieved this precisely by being atypical.

The film today exists somewhere between these extremes of adulation and indifference.  Its intentionally slippery, odd atmospherics, kinked (and kinky) plotting, and bleak, raw emotional tone are undoubtedly fascinating, sparking endless analysis and thought.  Vertigo is the perfect title for a film of such dizzying formal depth.  And yet… this evasiveness also stops it being a particularly enjoyable film to watch, especially on repeat viewings.  The emphasis on narrative games (cul-de-sacs, non-sequiturs and elaborate twists) and the sustained dream-like fugue achieved during the fim’s ‘Carlotta Valdez’ section are – whisper it – a little bit boring.  The real meat is compacted into the final act; everything beforehand could do with the fat being trimmed. 

The result is, in many ways, a film designed for the after-party, not a million miles away from deliberately opaque European art-house darlings like L’Avventura or Last Year in Marienbad that are tailor-made to provoke debate.  But Vertigo is the more satisfying name for culture-vultures to drop because it achieves its weirdness and challenging nature while still being a big-budget Hollywood thriller, with a famous star, gorgeous colour visuals, virtuoso technical skill and – most importantly – a clearly defined climax.

[It’s interesting, incidentally, that Psycho crossed over into the mainstream when, on paper, it’s the more difficult prospect.  But of course Hitchcock knew that: he works to make its transgressions palatable through a narrative that’s lean to the point of terseness, and surprisingly linear bar its obvious points of schism.  Vertigo, in contrast, is a pointedly circular movie.] 

It’s crucial to the auterist praise that this looks and sounds like a Hitchcock film.  The difference here is that the anticipated thrills are deferred, circumnavigated and then sabotaged completely, a stripping away of the skeleton to reveal the soul inside.  This isn’t a film designed to push the usual buttons but to turn more ambiguous psychological screws.  En route, it becomes something else: a Hitchcock love story, and one that’s as bleak and fucked up as you’d expect from a man who gets his jollies in murder and madness.  All laughs here are strictly gallows-black, with a cruel subplot about Barbara Bel Geddes’ own unrequited love making the sickness universal.  The irony is that she’s individual, funny, talented, and is passed over by Scotty for an unattainable dream.  That’s men for you.

This isn’t a story about solving a crime but about a gender war between manipulators – who is playing who here, exactly?  The villain and the hero both thrive on turning Judy into a doll, fit only to be groomed for the position they have in mind.  Stewart’s obsession is actually an extra degree of crazy from the real villain, because he’s trying to turn Judy into an image that is already fake.  That’s why the film is such a laborious watch, of course; it’s only when Judy turns up – and Hitchcock’s interest in the material clicks into focus – that it truly gets going.  The accumulated oddness makes the ironic final act almost unbearably cruel to watch, as Judy goes along with Scotty’s violent makeover out of love, or guilt, or masochism, but he doesn’t notice because he’s too blinded by infatuation.

In Rear Window, Hitchcock recognised that a stubborn, slightly disquieting obsessive streak in James Stewart might be the only thing that could stop the perfect murder being committed.  Perhaps, though, he was already anticipating the far more profound notion that those same qualities might be harnessed in order to get away with that perfect murder.  Stewart achieves a rare intensity here.  As in Rear Window, Hitchcock initially prevents him from his gangly physicality by rooting him behind the wheel of a car, forced to stare mercilessly ahead until the eyes become grey and unblinking.  The difference here is that Hitch lets him walk again…and when he does, he’s a nightmarish figure, a brooding stalker whose looming height and awkward gait are oppressive.  Always uncomfortable with romantic clinches, the way Stewart lunges for Novak is frightening: he’s the hero as a Freudian Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from his own neurosis.

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