Alfred Hitchcock was a master of genre. The trouble is that he had to invent the genre first.
I first saw Vertigo when I was 15, and it was the first movie that ever made me feel like shit. That’s a compliment. I’d felt fear, anger, excitement, terror, empathy and love. But until I saw Vertigo with my girlfriend and her family, I’d never felt malaise. It takes a helluva movie to hit you so deeply.
For this reason, Vertigo has always felt like a perfect film that I cherish but would rather not watch again. But after not seeing it for 13 years, the main thing I felt after this week’s screening was confusion. The things that made me love it in the first place are still there, but it felt like a completely different movie. Either I had grown up and cynical or it had grown old and passe. Let’s find out which.
For most of Hitchcock’s career, he wasn’t considered the artist he is today. He was widely respected for the tautness of his technique, the suspense of his stories and his quirky personality. It wasn’t until the 1950s, already 30 years into his career, that anyone began evaluating the artistry of his work beyond mere spectacle and storytelling. Films like Rope, Notorious and Dial M for Murder were hits and defined the thriller genre, but it wasn’t until Rear Window and Vertigo that the public began seeing Hitchcock in a more sophisticated light.
Though, truth be told, Vertigo was not particularly well received when it first hit theaters in 1958. It was taken at face value, on the merits of the story and the set pieces. This is a fair way to analyze it, as the claustrophobic plots and tense chase sequences were Hitchcock’s bread and butter. But time has been kind to Vertigo, and by the 1960s audiences were describing him as the “Master of Suspense.”
The success of Vertigo as a film depends on your expectations. The plot is serviceable, the acting is competent and the plot twists are not unpredictable. But the music, direction and underlying themes will consume you if you let them.
I hosted about 10 people at this week’s screening, and the chief complaint was that it felt like two movies in one. It’s true, the first 80 minutes of the film build up to a terrific climax, then the remaining 40 minutes pick up the pieces. This didn’t bother me as much when I was 15 as it did this time. Is it because I hadn’t seen as many movies? Was I less cynical and eager to find flaws in everything?
As I said before, expectations. When compared stylistically to modern filmmaking, the last 40 minutes feel like an overlong denouement, when Hitchcock probably saw it as even more tense and frightening than the beginning. The first climax was meant to jostle us (and it did, people actually gasped when it happened), and for the remaining 40 minutes we are shown how it led inevitably to tragedy. It may feel one-note, but Hitchcock was notoriously methodical and well-prepared, so there must be a reason for this structure, right?
Plot spoilers care of Faith No More (but mostly an awesome song and video):
I won’t say what the plot twist is because I don’t want to shape your expectations if you haven’t seen it, but I’ll try to describe them in general terms. After the first climax, Scottie (James Stewart) is committed to an asylum. When he is released a year later, he finds himself obsessed with the past and, in particular, the woman involved. He encounters another woman and can’t stop himself from using her as a way of acting out his obsession with the first woman. This second woman has a secret, which is revealed almost immediately after we meet her. Most of my audience felt that the secret would have been best kept to the end for one big reveal, and at first I agreed, but I think there may be bigger ideas at play here.
Hitchcock was notoriously impatient with actors, and even regretted casting Stewart in the lead.
He’s too old to be a believable romantic lead with Kim Novak, too friendly and affable to really seem obsessed and consumed, too idiosyncratically Jimmie Stewart to be anybody other than George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. Combine that with the fact that Hitchcock had completely written, blocked, scouted locations and storyboarded his films before he generally cast his first actor and you have one of two things: an efficiently made film or an uneven performance. Unfortunately, Stewart’s presence suffers from the latter.
But what if Stewart’s character wasn’t meant to be the focus of the second half? What if the second half of the film is about the woman he meets and the toll of his obsession on her? Revealing the twist early in the second half means we were supposed to view the subsequent events in light of the truth, rather than in retrospect after the film ended. But we’re so used to living inside Stewart’s head that we forget to understand her motivations. Her true identity isn’t meant to be a mystery, it’s meant to fill us with suspense as to whether he’ll find out.
With directors like Hitchcock, you just have to trust that you needed to see what you saw. He did it on purpose. If you don’t understand what’s going on, it’s your fault, not his. If Vertigo suffers from anything, it’s that it may be thematically ahead of its time while stylistically contemporaneous, but no matter what your reaction to the film, it’s clear that it’s the work of a genius.
“Vertigo” isn’t just the title, it’s the mood. The plot is a standard mystery, but the sense of doom, fate and our inability to tackle inner demons will stay with you for years.
Comments: It may seem dated, but take it as a whole. This is a work of art and needs to be understood in its entirety.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes. It’s inspired virtually every suspense film of the last 60 years and marked Hitchcock’s evolution into an auteur.
Next Week: #60 Raiders of the Lost Ark
Last Week: #62 Tootsie
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