Is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo the greatest film of all time? The 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll thinks so. And even if this is not true (some don’t even think it’s the best of the director’s thrillers), how well do people know this iconic film? Is it possible that this story of murder and obsessive love, a box-office also-ran in its day despite starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, and unavailable for the best part of two decades, is in fact an overlooked work, albeit by one of the most written-about directors in the history of cinema? To many it may actually be better known as the source for dozens of assorted media homages and references rather than as a movie in its own right, famous for being famous but rather little-seen …
“Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice”
Vertigo recently became the source of a rather peculiar controversy when Kim Novak, its sole surviving star, took out a full-page ad in trade journal Variety to complain about the use of a cue from Bernard Herrmann’s music score in the Oscar-winning film The Artist. She claimed to feel artistically abused by its re-use, even though the music had been quite properly licensed and was listed in the closing credits – it even appears in the soundtrack album in fact.
Here is her full statement:
“I want to report a rape. My body of work has been violated by The Artist. This film took the Love Theme music from Vertigo and used the emotions it engenders as its own. Alfred Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart can’t speak for themselves, but I can. It was our work that unconsciously or consciously evoked the memories and feelings to the audience that were used for the climax of The Artist. There was no reason for them to depend on Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo to provide more drama. Vertigo‘s music was written during the filming. Hitchcock wanted the theme woven musically in the puzzle pieces of the storyline. Even though they did give Bernard Herrmann a small credit at the end, I believe this kind of filmmaking trick to be cheating. Shame on them!”
I thoroughly enjoyed The Artist but if truth be told, I was also a bit unconvinced by the use of the Herrmann score within the context of the film, in the sense that I didn’t think the two gelled particularly well. It was in fact a late decision, the music originally only used as a place-holder during the editing and then left in when the director couldn’t bear to be parted from it even though new music was written (and can be heard on the CD). On the other hand, Novak definitely exaggerated in characterising this use of the score in such violent terms, not just because it is done quite referentially in context, but because the score and the film have been sampled and quoted dozens of times over the years. Certainly, one suspects that some of the film’s themes and effects will be more familiar to many as filtered through popular works as different as Spielberg’s Jaws (especially the reverse-zoom, forward tracking shot); Terry Gilliam’s forlorn time travel extravaganza Twelve Monkeys (the cinema sequence); Neil Jordan’s gender-bending The Crying Game; Lucio Fulci’s Perversion Story (aka One on Top of the Other); and that lubricious and sleazy offering from the trashy team of Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhaus, Basic Instict (from the San Francisco locations to Sharon Stone’s haircut); Gilles Mimouni’s L’Appartement (remade in the US with Josh Hartnett as Wicker Park); even music videos by Lady GaGa.
Novak’s over-the-top reaction does point to how unified and homogeneous a work Vertigo truly is however, which is also to say that it can be somewhat unpicked if taken only one element at a time. So what does make the film so outstanding? The oneiric atmosphere is certainly very special, as is its unusual emphasis on music (there are long stretches of several minutes with no dialogue at all in fact). And while some claim that it is misanthropic and potentially even necrophiliac in its implications, this is really a deeply Romantic movie and thus often an irrational and incoherent work. The storyline starts out nice and simple at least …
“Do you believe that someone out of the past – someone dead – can enter and take possession of a living being?”
Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) is a cop who has an accident while chasing a criminal across a rooftop and discovers that he suffers from crippling vertigo. He is invalided out of the force and is contacted by an old school friend to undertake some private detective work and follow his wife. This is where it gets intriguing because the woman is apparently obsessed with a relative, Carlotta, to the extent that she sometimes believes she really is her. Her husband then says that the really weird part is that his wife doesn’t even know about the long-dead relative. The cop follows the woman (Novak), saves her from a drowning attempt and ultimately falls in love with her while becoming ever more concerned about her mental health as she really does seem obsessed with Carlotta. Ultimately she throws herself off the bell tower of a church and he is unable to stop her due to his phobia of high places. He is emotionally shattered and is hospitalised. Much later he meets a woman who reminds him of the woman he loved and for whose death he blames himself. And slowly but surely he tries to mould her into the shape of the dead woman …
“You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been that sentimental”
If the story ultimately becomes fairly implausible at a purely narrative level, this may perhaps even be the true indicator of the film’s greatness. The plot is convoluted to an unusual degree and quite tricksy towards the end, as you’d expect from the authors of the original novel, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, French masters of the surprise ending. Along with Psycho (1960), it is truly one of the few Hitchcock movies that springs a big surprise in the final part of its story, and as in the case of that film, it is not in any way an impediment to one’s enjoyment during subsequent viewings as it is in fact quite neatly sabotaged. In Psycho it is the long and tedious ‘explanation’ from the psychiatrist, here the big revelation is brought forward so as to radically alter our point of view.
“One final thing I have to do… and then I’ll be free of the past”
Along with its Wagnerian music score, the dreamlike rendering of San Francisco, the tragic open-ended finale and the darkly romantic, even morbid feel, all of which make it standout from standard big budget star-driven Hollywood movies of the day, this is a film that glories in its inconsistencies and imperfections, such as the ability of the woman Scottie is tracking to vanish from a building without any explanation despite being under surveillance. By being ambiguous it makes subsequent viewings a great pleasure, while one can also appreciate the subtlety of the design the second and third time after getting past the plot shenanigans. In Hamlet cognoscenti know that it’s the delivery of the “words, words, words” speech that may best reveal the tenor of the whole production rather than how “to be or not to be” is staged. For the discerning lovers of Vertigo, I would argue that perhaps the most important scene is the bookstore sequence in which Konstantin Shayne tells the tale of the ‘sad’ Carlotta.
As the story is told, across two minutes, the ambient light slowly but surely reduces as the events described darken, so that by the end the bookseller has to turn the lights on as Scottie and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) leaves – this is incredibly unusual for a Hollywood movie, and lest one imagines this was a lucky byproduct of shooting on location, it was all done back at the studio and very, very carefully designed. It’s wonderfully evocative, and helps establish the film’s slightly spooky atmosphere. This is just as true in the better known moment in which the film evokes Scottish’s yearning for the dead woman when he awaits for his new girlfriend to emerge with her new blonde hairdo while sitting in her apartment. Anyone who has seen or read JM Barrie’s Mary Rose, a supernatural play that Hitchcock loved, will immediately recognise how he replicates the staging, adding greatly to the films often supernatural feel. And then there is that moment when the film breaks the fourth wall and has a confession that should by rights come at the end and take the viewer’s breath away and instead is ‘spoiled’ much earlier, but which instead adds yet another layer to the already rich and dense text. The film is full of such great and powerful moments, and they have nothing to do with figuring out the plot, though this can also be a pleasure if taken in the right spirit (one could argue that Brian De Palma tried too hard in his own hommages to the film, Obsession (1976) and Body Double (1984), to resolve the parts of the plot that don’t work, though I say this as fan of both these movies too).
” … the external real world of San Francisco past and present is delineated with great precision in a mode that is at the opposite extreme from documentary” – Charles Barr
The late Robin Wood wrote extensively and persuasively on Hitchcock though for my money the best extended piece of writing on the film remains Charles Barr’s 100-page book in the BFI Classics series, which has now been re-released in a new edition to coincide with the Sight & Sound list with a new cover designed by Nick Morley – see here for his blog). It is now available in the UK and goes on sale in the US in September (from Barnes & Noble, etc). I should at this point, in the interest of full disclosure, admit that not only do I know Barr personally but I also get an acknowledgement in the book for a small contribution I made to his research. Also, I am a regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine too, so there are a few vested interests here though I hope no conflicts. For a fascinating and very cine-literate essay on the film, visit the The Film Spectrum site to read Jason Faley’s illustrated post. There is also Dan Aulier’s highly entertaining production history, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, which is lavishly illustrated too, published in 1998 on its 40th anniversary. And if you want to get a sense of the dozens (and dozens) of references to the film, some more overt and plausible than others, just check out this list at IMDb.
Sight & Sound Top 50 Films Poll: There is much food for thought in the new top 50 list, which has seen Vertigo topple Citizen Kane from the top spot after sixty years. Personally, I think there is one Godard too many at least and the same goes for Tarkovski – the absence of Bertolucci’s The Conformist perhaps grieves me most, along with the omission of Menschen am Sonntag and even just one example of Film Noir. But if you haven’t seen some of the titles, well, there are a lot of people out there who think you might want to change that. To see the complete list of Sight & Sound‘s best films of all time, visit: www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time
DVD Availability: I have owned this film on VHS, the mightily impressive LaserDisc (most of the home video extras found on new releases are ported over from this edition) and on DVD where it has come out about 3 times in different editions. These have not been free from controversy – in the 90s the team of James Katz and Robert Harris sought to preserve the film and made a new negative and created 70mm prints from the VistaVision negative. To bring the audio up-to-date (it was re-released in DTS) they had to create many new sound effects – I saw a screening of the 70mm DTS version on its original engagements in the UK and was dismayed by what I found, right from the original gunshot heard in the opening sequence which struck the entire audience as being wrong. Harris, clearly a talented and supremely knowledgeable archivist and restorer, insists that the sound effects do match the original audio but to me it just doesn’t sound right. frustratingly, recent home video editions have refused to include the original mono version as an alternative, rather merely including a two-channel mix down of the new version. One large and expensive box set did include the mono, but none of the single edition releases have unfortunately. The film is due out in a month on Blu-ray in a massive Hitchcock set that will include around a dozen of the great director’s films (contents vary according to territory, but all include the core titles now owned by Universal including Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds - details of the US set can be found here, the UK one here and the German one here). I am greatly looking forward to this new release – and I really hope they include the mono too.