Vertigo (1958)

Poster for Vertigo

I first saw Vertigo in 1984 when it was re-released after a long period in distribution limbo. The audience I saw it with at the Neptune in Seattle laughed the whole way through, no doubt to the mortification of the cinephiles in the theater who had come seeking a long lost holy grail. I think the laughter resulted from the weirdness of the film, and the fact that we didn’t know what to make of it. I, for one, had a very difficult time with Jimmy Stewart as a sweaty pervert, and that was still the case when I watched it again (was it really only the second time?) on DVD in 2008. However, by then I’d read enough about it, and seen enough movies that had been influenced by it, that I understood a bit better why it was considered a classic, and indeed why it would be ranked as the the greatest movie of all, displacing long time champion Citizen Kane, in the most recent Sight and Sound Poll. So when the chance came to see it on the big screen again in a new 4K digital restoration playing at SIFF Uptown, I took the opportunity.

Apparently this was only the third time I’ve watched it, although I would have sworn I’d seen it at least four or five times. That’s probably because I’ve read so much about it! One thing I came away feeling this time is that my problem may not be with Jimmy Stewart per se but with the fact that Scotty becomes such a creep. It’s a very creepy movie. Scotty has his reasons. He’s taken a lot of emotional and psychological damage by the final act, but be that as it may, he becomes an ugly, obsessed brute. The only thing that makes his abusive behavior even mildly sympathetic is the obvious desperation and pain behind his attempts to remake Judy into Madeline. Yet for all that Judy herself is a pathetic, weak creature who passively allows the men around her to force her to their wills, it’s very hard not to feel that she’s more deserving of our sympathy than Scotty. The two main male characters, Scotty and Gavin Elster, are both finally monsters.

It’s easy to see why cinephiles and film critics are so enamored with this movie, because it’s all about the cinema and the way we fall in love with cinematic illusion. It is, as everyone says, dreamlike in its repetition and sense of irrational compulsion. It’s about that great artistic theme of amour fou. Yet Hitchock is  a strange vehicle for some of the deeper reaches of this material. Well, in one way he’s perfect, because his love of obvious rear projection gives his films an artificiality that matches up very well with the dreamlike quality of the film. However, there’s something so conventional about some of his shtick — like the swelling waves and music when Scotty and Madeline finally clinch — that it really feels cheap at times. The transgressiveness of Scotty’s obsession is impressive in a big budget Hollywood film, but Hitchcock’s sexual transgressiveness reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s. It feels deeply creepy and abusive on some level, probably because it treats women as mere instruments of desire. There’s a grubby, panty-sniffing quality to it. Compare and contrast, say, Josef von Sternberg, who centers his stories of sexual humiliation on the women, and allows them an agency that Hitchcock seems incapable of.

All that said, I seem to be slowly warming up to Vertigo. It’s wonderfully weird, and it has an oceanic sense of transformation, even though the transformation is ultimately monstrous. It was only this time that I could hear how much Bernard Herrmann was channeling Debussy, particularly La Mer, in his famous soundtrack. It fits that sense of transformation perfectly. Also, San Francisco has never looked more beautiful and mysterious than in this film. Some of the compositions are utterly astounding, as in the downward shot of the mission church that shows tiny figures on one side of the bell tower discovering Madeline’s shattered body while on the other Scotty slinks out of a side door to disappear into the night. I was struck by how dark the movie looks — enough so that I wondered at times whether it was a problem with the restoration. There’s a scene in a bookstore where I thought the image was literally fading away as though the film elements had lost their pigment, until I realized that what we were seeing was the fading of the daylight as the sun set — a gathering gloom as the bookstore owner talks of the madness and suicide of Carlotta Valdes. Really an incredible, and incredibly poetic moment.

So I’ve once again mostly focused on my problems with Vertigo, but it’s probably in a losing cause. I’m not sure how much longer I can withhold my approval, despite the barbarous mistreatment of Judy. There’s a facile quality to Hitchcock that I find off-putting, but there’s no doubt he tapped into some deep waters. If it feels grubby at times, it could just be the naked truth of the matter.

Screencap from Vertigo


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