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Entries in Vertigo [1958] (1)

Saturday
Feb232013

Vertigo (1958)

The Awkward Spiral

We all know that Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece. It says so right on the poster. But the movie had me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons: its middle hour's lack of sensible forward momentum compelled me to leave. I didn't, of course, 'cause I really dig Hitchcock. But watching Vertigo for the first time in twenty years made me wonder how the hell my teenage self made it through this goofy, over-long thriller in the first place.

Actually, I know exactly how: I watched it as part of a high school film class. Under the wonderful tutelage of one Richard C. Jones, my fellow students and I dissected and discussed some of cinema's greatest and most influential movies: Citizen Kane, Ran, The 400 Blows, The Wild Bunch, and, of course, this one. I even ran across an old notebook last year while rummaging through my basement. Oddly, nowhere did I see "TOO MANY DRIVING SCENES!!!!!!!" scribbled inside--a sure sign that I was so enamored with studying important films at the feet of a man I considered a genius that analyzing color motifs and opening-title design clouded over pesky little issues like pacing.

Back to the love. We meet San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) during a rooftop criminal pursuit. He slips and clings to a gutter for dear life as the street below him becomes a nightmare of telescoping concrete. Not helping matters is the poor beat cop who falls to his death while trying to help him up.

Later, nursing some injuries and a wicked case of vertigo, Scottie retires from the force and decides to spend quality time with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the commercial illustrator to whom he was once engaged. His retirement is short-lived, though, as old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak)--of whom he suspects not infidelity but...um, possession. 

Scottie takes the job and begins shadowing Madeleine, who travels to an old mission to visit the grave of someone named Carlotta Valdes (Joanne Genthon). She also spends hours at an art gallery, staring at a portrait of Valdes, and Scottie notices that both women have similar wide curls in their hair. On one of these outings, a seemingly overcome Madeleine throws herself into San Francisco Bay; she awakens in Scottie's apartment, having been rescued by a man who now finds himself inexplicably and irresistibly attracted to her.

I've not read D'Entre Les Morts, the novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac on which Vertigo was based, but I assume (or at least hope) it contained a stronger arc than Alex Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor's bizarre screenplay. What begins as an exciting story full of rich characters and dramatic potential devolves into a hastily realized love story that I didn't buy for a second. I can understand Scottie's intrigue at Madeleine's stunning beauty and trance-like habits. But we're given no indication at the outset that he's the kind of selfish dupe who would A) claim to love a woman after several days of stalking and a single, vague conversation and B) betray a distressed friend who'd come to him out of desperation.

Those who've seen Vertigo know there's a bit more to the story, but that's exactly the problem: with some minor story tweaks, and about forty minutes of excised footage, Hitchcock would've had a tight, consistently engaging thriller on his hands. Hell, he could have kept the movie at full-length by simply pulling Scottie's head out of his ass. Perhaps it was the times' noir mandate that all troubled, leading-man detectives had to get emotionally wrapped up with femmes fatale--even at the expense of logic or relatability--but I challenge anyone watching Vertigo today not to giggle incredulously at Scotty and Madeleine's first kiss.

Oddly, the last thirty minutes are incredible. I tuned out the story half-way through the movie, focusing instead on Edith Head's perfect costumes, Sam Comer and Frank McKelvy's obsessively detailed set design (Midge's studio should be a museum installation), and Bernard Hermann's fun and uncomfortably conspicuous score. But I snapped back to attention after Scottie emerges from a year-long catatonic state resulting from a really bad dream (don't ask). He becomes less likable by the minute,* but Stewart's increasing mania sells the idea that even idiots can be really dangerous if pushed too far.

The final scene is the movie's real selling point, with Stewart and Novak revisiting the mission for an emotional knock-down, drag-out fight of messed-up secrets and karmic consequences. It's a perfect reversal for Scottie, who began the film as a decent man but ends it as a broken sucker. The climactic tragedy may have cured him of the spins, but I'll pay anything to visit the alternate celluloid universe in which John Ferguson became the most rage-filled, alcoholic prick in the history of Sin City.

Despite my sacrilegious complaining about the movie's narrative issues, I can't recommend Vertigo enough for its production and performances. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening in glorious 70mm, and if you ever get the chance, there will be no better use of your time. Few films pop like this, with countless, meticulous frames that beg to be picked apart like Geoff Darrow illustrations, and supernatural themes that change the audience's perception of the material time and time again. And Stewart and Novak really are terrific in this movie--just not when they're allegedly falling in love.

Perhaps Vertigo's greatest legacy is that it has inspired decades of filmmakers to improve upon it. I'm not surprised at its being hailed as a classic, because there's a lot here that was, I'm sure, ground-breaking in 1958. But Hollywood has become more sophisticated (and more base) over the years, with naturalism replacing showy staginess, and an obsession with narrative realism (or at least truthiness) stealing the spotlight from melodrama. I still think this is a great movie, mostly because I was told so at an early age. Like Catholicism, it's a belief that my brain has outgrown--a formative part of my moviegoing character that I would no longer righteously to defend.

*I wonder how upset the SFPD really were at losing what had to have been the worst detective in their history.