Monday, November 29, 2010

Vertigo (1958) -- Alfred Hitchcock

Shortly after acrophobia forces police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) to resign from the force, he gets a call out of the blue from an old friend, Gavin Elster, asking for an odd favor. Elster thinks his wife may be going insane; he wants Scottie to tail her. Though skeptical, Scottie accepts the job and soon finds himself enmeshed in a bizarre mystery. Something certainly is wrong with beautiful Madeline Elster (Kim Novak); she drives aimlessly around San Francisco, goes to an old cemetery, spends hours at the art gallery staring at the portrait of a woman, and rents a room at an old hotel where she comes to be alone. When Scottie reports back the husband divulges more informationMadeline is obsessed with a long dead ancestor named Carlotta, and may even believe she is Carlotta reincarnated. Elster says he fears his wife may mimic Carlotta and kill herself. Later, Madeline jumps into the bay in an apparent suicide attempt, but Scottie comes to her rescue.

Moved by Madeline's vulnerability and beguiled by her beauty, Scottie begins to fall in love. He tells her he is now "responsible" for her safety. As he tries to unravel her mysterious episodes and strange dreams, a trip to an old Spanish mission ends in disaster when Madeline breaks away from Scottie's grasp and apparently falls to her death. Scottie is devastated. Racked with guilt and grief, he falls into a deep depression and experiences a mental breakdown. But that's just half the story.

Part of Saul Bass' innovative Title Sequence.
Vertigo is hard to classify. There is a crime, but we pay little attention to it. It is part ghost story, part love story, part psychological thriller, and most of all an examination of obsessionScottie's, not Madeline's. Hitchcock's masterful use of symmetry and pace affects wonderment in the audience. Like Scottie, we can't quite understand what exactly is going on. It is a film told in two parts, bookended by two sequences set high up: a dramatic rooftop chase in San Francisco that introduces us to Scottie and his vertigo, and the climactic second visit to a mission tower, where the principal characters come face to face with a nun and tragedy. Scottie undergoes a complicated emotional journey along the way. Stewart captures the character's tortured soul beautifully. You see a dark man, whose obsession transforms him into a brute, leaving you wondering if he is perhaps mad himself. He is Hitchcock's most twisted character.

"One final thing I have to do... and then I'll be free of the past."  Scottie

The film legitimately begs different interpretations. Can you take everything you see at face value? Scottie may have plunged to his death in the initial scene, leaving what follows a man's strange dying thoughts. Does the second half reflect the ramblings of a unbalanced mind, as Scottie sits catatonic in a mental ward? All these scenarios are plausible. For Hitchcock then, the self-proclaimed "master of suspense," Vertigo marks his most playful; he leaves the audience guessing and tantalized.        

Scottie clings to a gutter in the exciting opening rooftop sequence.
Throughout, Hitchcock incorporates the City of San Francisco, with its fascinating architecture, and its unique topography, history  and setting, as the moody canvas for the story. Long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks served as cinematographer. Besides the city itself, Burks and Hitchcock treat us to a creepy scene in a forest of Giant Redwoods and a gorgeous stop along the majestic California coastline. The Pacific surf crashes into the rocks as the two lovers share their first kiss at a lone cypress tree. Visually, the film is exciting.

What Makes Vertigo Special:

Madeline gets ready to  jump.
Jimmy Stewart's convincing performance may be the best of his career, and that's saying something. We believe he's a broken man who has suffered a terrible loss. Two scenes stand out: Stewart's anguished face at the inquest, listening to the coroner's condemnation, and his barely controlled rage during the finale. The 1950's was a great decade for Stewart, when he produced his most nuanced and riveting characters. The Naked Spur, Rear Window, and Anatomy of a Murder, along with Vertigo showed an actor at the top of his game.

Kim Novak shines in the second half as a woman who surrenders her own identity for the man she loves. Her desperate terror in the last climb is the best acting of her career. She manages to elicit sympathy for a character we shouldn't care for.     

Composer Bernard Herrmann's haunting score is magnificent, and  as perfectly effective as any heard in film. He shows how important music can be to a film, especially the memorable way he uses horns at just the right places to keep you on edge. 

Saul Bass did the innovative title and dream sequences, showing how graphic design could rope in an audience. His swirling pinwheel of colors and falling silhouette perfectly captured the unsettling nature of the film, especially when matched with Herrmann's music. Bass would continue to impress, with Anatomy of Murder, North by Northwest, PsychoSpartacus, and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World among his memorable credits.   

Inside Story

An apparition of Madeline, one of the most famous shots in the film.
Hitchcock used Herrmann on seven films, the most famous being Psycho, where his use of strings to accompany Janet Leigh's stabbing death in the shower is memorable and unique.

Costume designer Edith Head and Hitchcock gave Madeleine's clothing an eerie appearance. Her trademark grey suit was chosen for its color because they thought it seemed odd for a blonde woman to be wearing all grey.   

Major Awards: 
  • Nominated for Best Art Direction and Set Direction, and for Best Sound.
  • National Film Registry.
Other Films by Hitchcock:
  • The 39 Steps 1939
  • Rebecca 1940
  • Shadow of a Doubt 1943
  • Notorious 1946
  • Strangers on a Train 1951
  • Rear Window 1954
  • North by Northwest 1959
  • Psycho 1960
  • The Birds 1963
  • Frenzy 1972

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up on such a complex film. I want to experience it again now.