See It Big: Vertigo

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Night Moves
Michael Koresky on Vertigo

If cinema is a dream, Vertigo is its nightmare. Since its largely ignored release in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock’s sumptuous shocker has steadily climbed its way up to the top of greatest-films-of-all-time lists (including the granddaddy, the every-ten-years Sight and Sound poll). What is it that makes this delirious tale of obsession and psychosis so stick in the craw? Surely there are other films, masterpieces even, which tell of dark, doomed romance, but perhaps never with such all-consuming rapture. And Hitchcock himself made other films that so severely complicate our identification with his main characters, as is the case with James Stewart’s relentless, increasingly unhinged Scottie, but not even Notorious, Rear Window, or The Birds—not even Psycho—feel quite as dangerous. In those films, the world returns to some semblance of order (the birds may not have been vanquished, but the family unit is maintained), yet in Vertigo we’re left hanging.

From the terrifying near-fall that opens the film to the chilling image of death that rises out of inky blackness in the Mission bell tower, Vertigo is a movie that brings its viewers to the edge, over and over. Its plot is rewardingly intricate on a moment-to-moment level, but its cumulative effect is indescribable, predicated as it is upon a series of conundrums and dead ends. It’s a ghost story without a ghost; a love story without true love; a narrative of crime and no punishment; a tale of doubling without any literal doubles; a nightmare from which one never wakes up. As Truffaut said in his interview with Hitchcock in 1962, the film has “the logic of dreams.” In this way, one could argue it’s the realization of everything he ever tried to do, and he achieves it through a remarkable aesthetic approach that heightens every moment as potentially surreal. The always prescient Chris Marker, who paid extended homage to it as early as 1962, in his half-hour science-fiction masterpiece La Jetée, might have figured out first that Vertigo is a film that enters one’s subconscious.

Like the shapes that swirl throughout its Saul Bass–designed title sequence, accompanied by our first taste of Bernard Herrmann’s exquisite score (meant to evoke Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, it’s swoony to the point of hair-raising), Hitchcock’s film is structured as one long downward spiral. As with Stewart’s retired San Francisco private detective, we think we’ve got a handle on the plot, only to watch it gradually slip through our fingers. The biggest twist is that the plot itself is the MacGuffin; it’s all a ruse set up for our pleasure and pain, just as it is for Scottie’s. Of course, that doesn’t mean the plot isn’t a doozy. Adapted by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor from Boileau-Narcejac’s 1954 novel D’entre les morts, it follows Scottie as he’s lured back into business by old school chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a shipping tycoon who’s become increasingly suspicious that his wife, Madeleine, has been somehow possessed by the memory—or spirit—of a distant ancestor named Carlotta Valdez, whose tragic suicide made her a figure of local legend.

Not one for superstition, and still emotionally recovering from a near-death experience that saw him hanging from the gutter on the side of a very tall building, Scottie reluctantly agrees to take the case; whatever doubts he had evaporate the moment he lays eyes on Kim Novak’s Madeleine, a vision in an emerald-green and black dress set against the blood-red wallpaper of Ernie’s restaurant. It’s a scene Scottie will try to recapture once all has been lost. Hitchcock stages it with a gorgeously choreographed pas de deux of camerawork and editing. Scottie waits patiently at the bar as Madeleine eats dinner with her husband. As he turns slightly, the camera gracefully tracks from his point of view, finds her in the crowd, and steadily moves in, showing her only from the back at first. The camera is already in love by the time Novak has risen from the table and approaches, strategically stopping near the bar to flash her perfect porcelain profile, glowing against the scarlet wall. There is a cut back to Scottie, his head angled slightly, as though he can barely see her, and doesn’t want to be caught looking. Then, a series of abrupt, rhythmic cuts, as both Scottie and Madeleine swivel their heads, creating a sense of unified motion, even though they’re going in opposite directions. The effect is ravishing, and it sets the stage for a tale of two obsessed people moving together but always on separate tracks.

Scottie’s subsequent pursuit of Madeleine goes well past professional devotion, and the movie goes far beyond being a private detective story. There’s a hushed, patient beauty to the manner in which Hitchcock directs Scottie’s tracking of the enigmatic blonde throughout the picturesque city by the bay. Aligned with Scottie’s tireless perspective, Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks’s camera is unusually curious, taking in more details than are ultimately necessary, but which give the film its haunting texture. Think of how the camera pans up slowly to capture the ceiling of the parlor at the McKittrick Hotel, where Madeleine mysteriously goes to sit for a few hours every afternoon, checking in under the name Carlotta Valdez; consider the wonderfully pointless cutaway to the chandelier in the same scene a few moments later. In adopting the point of view of a misled sleuth, Vertigo peeks at places other films wouldn’t bother. That astonishing pair of smooth forward tracking shots into the portrait of Carlotta at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor—which also take in Madeleine’s flower bouquet and the bun in her hair, both matching those in the painting—focus our attention ruthlessly to what are ultimately minor plot details but major visual elements, designed to cajole and haunt us. Even after five, ten, or twenty viewings, we watch and make ourselves believe that surely this means something. It must. Otherwise, why can’t we get it out of our heads?

Hitchcock is playing us, just as Elster is playing Scottie; everything is set up and performed to perfection. Madeleine’s feigned suicide leap into San Francisco Bay, done in order to get Scottie to fish her out, is the first in a series of poses. After he brings her unconscious body back to his apartment to recuperate (just how did he get her out of those clothes?), Madeleine awakens and glides out of the bedroom, bathrobe-clad, in a rehearsed daze: it’s a movement that will be mimicked later in the film when Scottie forces her, now a brassy brunette named Judy, to play this very same role, to recreate the image of this impossible woman. At that point, he has already lost her. And we have lost Scottie.

Vertigo moves seductively, smoothly, but has the effect of blunt-force trauma. Films this opaque are rarely so powerful. This is because amidst all the film’s echoes and tricks, Hitchcock never loses sight of his central lost souls: Scottie, Madeleine/Judy, and even Scottie’s long-suffering pal, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), are all tragically destined for unhappiness, and in some cases, worse. If Vertigo has the rare ability to haunt one’s waking life as well as dreams, it might be because those caught in its web are so clearly fragile, each harboring her or his own crippling fears and resentments, all of which are cruelly exploited. Even when Scottie transforms before our eyes from the possessed to the possessor, he remains pitiful, because Stewart has so effectively hollowed himself out (even at his lowest points in It’s a Wonderful Life, Stewart did not look this drained of rationality).

Hitchcock’s films—including his most brilliant and multilayered—are often made of surface teases; Vertigo feels like one of his few outright plunges into the deep end. That’s perhaps because the mystery isn’t the point, but rather the profound psychological damage that this mystery stirs up. Hitchcock told Truffaut that he chose to give away the central plot twist not at the end as in the source book but at the opening of the second act, a decision that appalled his collaborators. He said his reason for doing so was “Then the child will ask its mother, once it knows everything and Stewart doesn’t, ‘What comes next?’” Indeed this is the main question for a viewer of Vertigo. It’s what we ask, even after that ambiguous final image—of Scottie on one more fatal ledge—has faded from view.

Vertigo is playing July 28 and 29 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.