Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Happy Birthday Vertigo!

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has an interesting article about Alfred Hitchcock's film, Vertigo. It's written by David Sterritt, a film critic and professor at Columbia. Vertigo was released to mixed (if not downright negative) reviews in 1958, but the film eventually became a critical darling. I saw it first in college, and my previous Hitchcock experiences had involved his television show (now available on NBC's website), and North By Northwest, which is more of a jaunty romp, a parody of a Hitchcock film, than classic Hitchcock.

Sterritt comments that the reviewers thought the movie was too farfetched; I remember thinking that this was a part of its allure. It was so odd: a detective story turned into a ghost story turned into a movie about obsession and deceit. I think Vertigo, and particularly the choice to cast James Stewart in the role of stalker/obsessor, resonates with David Lynch's Twin Peaks (also available for online streaming!). Something isn't quite right, and whatever that element is (the acting, the writing, the cinematography), it makes the movie feel slightly off kilter. This serves the purpose of making the viewer very much aware of the artifice, as might be the case in an avant-garde film, but since Hitchcock is a storyteller director, we are also immersed in the suspenseful plot. A delicate balance that few can pull off with any success.

I liked David Sterritt's final thoughts, and I excerpt them here:

To my mind, three aspects of Vertigo stand out above all others. One is its ingenuity in probing the nature of cinema itself. As perceptive critics have observed, Scottie is a surrogate for Hitchcock, transforming Judy into the fantasy character of his dreams. When her makeover into Madeleine is almost complete and Scottie sends her out to fix one final detail, he's like a movie director ordering a retake so the shot will be precisely as he envisioned it. Hitchcock's implicit commentary on his profession isn't very flattering, moreover. Scottie is a control freak just like him, bending every contingency to the demands of his own will.

Related to this is the film's exploration of how looking and seeing collude with fantasy and desire to shape our conceptions of the world. Scottie spends much of the film gazing at the woman who enthralls him, yet he remains pathetically ignorant of everything about her until a chance revelation makes his reveries come crashing down. Movies appeal directly to our sense of sight, so Hitchcock was going boldly against the grain by taking such a relentlessly ironic view of vision's role in shaping — and misshaping — human experience.

Most remarkable of all is this suspense picture's radical approach to suspense. Scottie ends the first scene dangling from a drainpipe high above the streets, and he begins the second scene in his friend Midge's comfortable apartment. How did he get from the drainpipe to the easy chair? We never find out, which means that, metaphorically, Scottie is in suspense throughout the rest of the story — suspended between Madeleine and Judy, desire and despair, reality and fantasy, living and dying. In the final shot, he's again gazing down at a lifeless body: the corpse of Judy, now unveiled as the duplicitous lover who caught him in a web of murder and deceit.

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