By the time “Vertigo” made its waves, most assumed – however wrongfully – that his greatest years lay behind him. The film received tepid critical responses and did poor box office returns, in a time when the studio was all too eager to perpetuate the public’s consensus that the future of mainstream thrillers was slipping from the hands of the veterans. Little did they suspect he was just getting warmed up; on the nose of the movie’s highly publicized disappointment – and the ensuing fall-out between director and his lead star – came an arc of monumental sleepers (“North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds”), all of which left little doubt that a dismissal was the fuel that drove his creative engine back to high velocity. Those films had such a striking endurance, in fact, that they indirectly encouraged the reconsideration of his lesser hits – a trend that would ultimately shine the light back on “Vertigo” over time, where its hidden wisdom made it enough a precious commodity to unseat “Citizen Kane” at the top of the AFI’s list of great films. The enthusiasm of today’s film buffs emphasizes how a delayed response usually favors the material of the more meticulous masters, who sometimes must suffer the burden of a late recognition while audiences take the time to catch up to their evolved thinking.
My own experience with the picture once mirrored that sensibility. I first came to “Vertigo” at the age of 16 – well after “Psycho” and “The Birds” were already lodged in my memory – and discovered not a great thriller or mystery, but a strange concoction that looked great without saying much of obvious consequence. To the eyes of one who assumed the most of a sensational possibility, it seemed held back from the high stakes. But had I unfairly judged it based on the coarse standards I carried as a teenager? Or had my limited knowledge of the director been an obstacle keeping me from sensing the skill, the rich subtext, behind the images? On a cold night this past winter I sat among a crowd of predominantly older moviegoers for a 60th anniversary revival and realized, at last, why it still catches so many by surprise. Hitchcock’s film is distinctive, above all else, because it is the only one in his long catalogue without a scornful mask separating the obsessions from the vulnerabilities, and into the frames he pours the very living essence of his timeless panache. No other movie remains that comes this close to peering behind the membrane of the master.
A sense of this distinction is visible in the early scenes. Mirroring the prologue of “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart emerges in the role of the obligatory professional now isolated by crippling personal limits – a man nicknamed “Scottie,” in this case, who is in the clutches of a paralyzing fear of heights. The degree of his phobia is emphasized at first in a scene where he attempts to prove his stability by climbing on a ladder in a high-rise apartment. While catching a glimpse of the distance between him and the world outside the windows, a flashback transpires, showing us a detective in pursuit of a perpetrator before an accident on a rooftop leads to the fatal fall of a police officer. Guilt and physiological barriers leave behind a shell of a man who occupies his time in the company of a devoted ex-lover (Barbara Bell Geddes), although when he is summoned out of retirement by a former colleague, his participation plays like a trigger to a direct confrontation of those demons.
Hitchcock used this possibility as the nourishment to a mystery in which he is assigned to follow around – and if necessary, protect – the beautiful wife of a former colleague (Tom Helmore), who apparently disappears for hours at a time with no substantial explanation. Somewhere in these scenes, the director’s obsessive nature overwhelms the material. Consider, for instance, how Kim Novak, who plays the mysterious Madeleine, appears in front of the camera: always seen in tightly concealing attire with touches of formality, her look moves beyond mere aesthetic and seems to be in the service of fetish. Scottie silently mirrors that quality, particularly during a sequence when he follows her through a back alley and into a florist’s shop, where she has bought a bouquet to carry to a gravesite. Later, while observing her at a museum, notice is provided that the flowers are identical to the ones seen in the painting nearby – certainly not a coincidence. But is she drawn to the art and the woman in it for reasons more complex than simple fascination? Why does she wander with such intent, such focus?
The dual function of the details – which service Hitchcock’s brand of sly voyeuristic curiosity as well as the need of the audience to articulate a reaction – fills the movie with a quiet but elegant complexity. Soon it becomes obvious that he may be playing us for fools as deeply as his hero – especially in the scenes that follow Scottie’s rescue of Madeleine, who has thrown herself into the river in an apparent bid to mimic the suicide of the woman in the painting. At his apartment, their interactions suggest, furthermore, the unspoken loneliness within their lives. Her lost, insecure nature seems to mirror the struggle going on within him, whose assignment becomes an instinct to safeguard. But how can you protect a woman from herself if you lack the foresight to deal with your own limits? The film shrewdly deals with this prospect not in a passive moment, but in one where he must ascend the steps of a tower to prevent her impending suicide and be stricken with an attack of vertigo.
Much is said of the visual device used to indicate this condition. Essentially recreating an experience on the set of “Rebecca” – where he famously fainted in the middle of a party – Hitchcock implores a method with the camera in which he zooms towards an object while simultaneously pulling the tripod backward; this allows parts of the image to “flatten” out while creating the illusion of an increasing depth between two spaces (the industry would name this concept the “contra-zoom”). So serendipitous was the experiment, in fact, that many of his understudies have used it at least once: the most notable example being the famous shot in “Jaws,” where Spielberg relies on the technique to emphasize a realization in his police chief during a shark attack. Yet the master of suspense doesn’t so much call attention to the mechanic as he does the feeling it inspires. This is what makes him the most sublime of the great directors. Also consider how fluid this wisdom seems in a later scene after the story moves into its more neurotic second act, where he frames the experiences of Novak and Stewart in a shot where she emerges from a doorway recreated in his image, and the camera circles around them while the set seems to change between the lighting cues. Modern directors would be displaced by the awe of their methods, forcing us to contemplate the structure more importantly than the feeling. Here the master sees it just as a ubiquitous gesture of his intrusive lens.
If his name means anything now to the current generation of filmgoers, it’s almost inadvertent; they may hear it during a conversation or interview for any number of current thrillers, particularly those about characters who are either crippled by self-doubt or accused of crimes they didn’t commit (two of his most famous devices). Usually the need to investigate sources falls on the mission of the filmmakers, who are charged with knowing every detail of the unseen mechanics. They are the pilots to our passengers. Yet no other single person in this industry has influenced more in his profession, and no body of work comes close to enduring as consistently. Reading any list of his achievements offers impressive epiphanies: as we recall our experiences with many of these films, we also sense their influence in any number of specific releases that exist in the margins of more current film history. Just as “Vertigo” directly inspired De Palma for his “Body Double,” so did “Rear Window” lead to “Disturbia,” “The Lodger” to “M,” “Dial M for Murder” to “A Perfect Murder,” “Strangers on a Train” to “Throw Momma from the Train,” “Shadow of a Doubt” to “Stoker” and “Psycho” to “Dressed to Kill.”
Any attempt to narrow the field down to the essentials is a challenge too daunting to face with ease. The aortic rhythm of “Rear Window,” for instance, may be no more important than the dozens of films that continue to be living testaments of their maker’s craft. But “Vertigo” earns its status and reputation, primarily, because it is where the great provocateur came the closest to unravelling the illusion. The entire last act, after Scottie has lost the apparent love of his life and essentially found a perfect stand-in, is symbolic of all the meticulous physical and emotional games Hitchcock would play on his female leads. More often than not the films seemed to resent them for their icy perfection. But for a brief second there stands Novak, confident and sure of herself, in a role where her emotions are the result of a genuine sympathy rather than a cruel deconstruction. Just as the movie itself persists as a microcosm for a creator’s dichotomous methods, so does his heroine endure as the undistorted archetype of his relentless fixation on control.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Thriller/Mystery (US); 1958; Rated PG (Rerelease); Running Time: 148 Minutes
James Stewart: John “Scottie” Ferguson
Kim Novak: Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton
Barbara Bel Geddes: Midge Wood
Tom Helmore: Gavin Elster
Produced by Herbert Coleman; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor and Maxwell Anderson; based on the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac