Thursday, August 15, 2013

Classics: A Review of Vertigo By Lauren Ennis

Nothing says love like duplicity and murder
A film’s status as a classic is marked by several varying factors including its critical success, commercial success, and ultimate legacy. One of the most crucial factors in a film’s success is its ability to resonate with audiences both initially and over the course of several viewings. While some films fade after their initial, overnight ,success others gain prestige as time goes on and audience perceptions change in their favor. One film with an ever evolving reputation is the Alfred Hitchcock fan favorite Vertigo. Through its innovative cinematography, memorable score, and iconic performances, Vertigo has gone from box-office disappointment to collectible classic since its release in 1958.

The story begins on a suspenseful note typical of Hitchcock as police officer John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson (James Stewart) attempts to apprehend a criminal with his partner. Tragedy strikes when Scotty’s partner falls, and is left hanging onto the edge of a building for his life during a rooftop chase. Despite his best efforts, Scotty is unable to overcome his crippling fear of heights to help his partner, who falls to his death. Scotty determines that his phobia is too great a handicap for a policeman to have and retires from the force, completely devoting himself to the task of overcoming his fear. He starts out pursuing his goal with high hopes through the help of his friend/ex girlfriend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), but is quickly disappointed with the failure ridden process. His course soon changes, however, when old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) approaches him with an offer to work as a private investigator. Elster explains that he fears for his suicidal wife, Madeleine's (Kim Novak), safety after she has taken to wandering about the city without telling anyone where she is going or why. Scotty initially refuses the offer, but soon finds himself too intrigued not to accept, and pursues Madeleine  across San Francisco. By putting together information from his conversations with Elster and Madeleine’s trance-like behavior, Scotty concludes that Madeleine is possessed by the ghost of her late great-grandmother, Carlotta, or at least thinks that she is. The more that he learns about Carlotta’s tragic life, including her suicide, the more he becomes convinced that Madeleine is following in her ancestor’s ill-fated footsteps. After rescuing her from a possible suicide attempt, the two become fast friends and eventually embark upon an affair. Scotty’s new romance with Madeleine seems to provide the redemption he so desperately needs until his fear of heights interferes once again and prevents him from saving her from another suicide attempt. Following Madeleine’s death, he finds himself in an even greater depression than after his partner’s death, which ultimately alienates him from his friendship with Midge. After spending several months in a mental hospital, Scotty attempts to move on with a fresh, if lonely, start. His life changes, however, when he meets Judy (Kim Novak) a local shop girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to Madeleine. The film then takes a suspenseful psychological turn as Scotty realizes that all is not as it seems regarding either the former or current loves in his life.

Upon its initial release, the film proved to be both a critical and commercial failure, with many suggesting that Hitchcock had lost touch with the public. Audiences found the film too slow paced and missing the director’s trademark thrills and sly humor, while critics found the storyline to be too melodramatic and self-indulgent. Shocked by the public backlash, Hitchcock blamed former favorite leading man James Stewart for the film's failure, claiming that he was too old for romantic roles, and refused to cast him again. Stewart proved the director wrong by going on to continue starring in films in various genres into the 1980’s. Kim Novak continued to work in melodramas and romantic comedies (including Bell Book and Candle opposite Stewart), but was unable to attain another role as well known as her Madeleine/Judy, and has since become synonymous with Vertigo.
It's uncanny!

Hitchcock was reportedly devastated by the film’s poor reception, as it was his most personal film to date. An analysis of Scotty as a character reveals just how personal this film really was for the famed director. When one compares the director to his hero, it becomes clear that in many ways Scotty is a stand in for Hitchcock. For example, Hitchcock was known to have shared Scotty’s fixation on blonde women (even girl-Friday Midge has the required tresses) and need to dominate the women in his life. The way in which the director would control every aspect of his films, particularly the looks and behaviors of his leading ladies, directly mirrors Scotty’s treatment of Judy later in the film. The similarities between the two men become obvious during the scenes in which Scotty mercilessly forces Judy to change herself into a replica of Madeleine despite her protests. Scotty’s demands are almost identical to those which Hitchcock allegedly made of actress Tippi Hedren when she starred in his later films The Birds and Marnie, revealing that both director and character possessed disturbing views of women. When comparing Hitchcock to Scotty, it is easy to understand how Hitchcock would have taken criticism of the Vertigo so personally, as the film embodied so much of himself.

Although Vertigo is widely considered a masterpiece, and has recently begun usurping Citizen Kane’s spot on the top of various “best movie” lists, I was unable to become completely engrossed by the film. I enjoyed the first third of the film, which followed Hitchcock’s usual formula for mystery and suspense, but by the time that Scotty and Madeleine began their affair I found the plot increasingly implausible and full of holes. For instance, how does Scotty know that the necklace is a crucial clue in the mystery if he never sees Madeleine wear it? Also, what happens following the second fatal fall from the tower; has Scotty been framed, and will Elster face consequences now that his scheme has been discovered? Overall, I found Elster’s plot far too elaborate and reliant upon timing and coincidence to be successfully carried out, and as a result was unable to suspend my disbelief following Judy’s confession letter.

I also found the acting too theatrical and over the top to maintain believability. Bel Geddes' performance is too cute and girl-next-door to add any depth to Midge’s relationship with Scotty, and Stewart’s usual ‘golly-gee’ manner does not add any pathos to their scenes. Similarly, Novak portrays Madeleine as a blank slate, which makes her ideal for Scotty to see as a living fantasy, but makes it difficult for viewers to identify with or care about her. Stewart’s performance becomes progressively and uncharacteristically more theatrical as the movies continues, making it increasingly difficult for the audience to see Scotty as an actual person and relate to him. Though not entirely the fault of the actors, the  love scenes between Stewart and Novak are particularly tedious as they feature the characters endlessly declaring their love for one another without first establishing a basis for that love, or providing any evidence that it does in fact exist.

Vertigo is a film that truly is an acquired taste. For today’s critics, the film is a nostalgic reminder of films that didn’t need action to be effective, and an example of the artistry that films can become when created by the right hands. On the opposite spectrum, for 1950’s audiences, the film represented the bloated tendencies of the auteur theory, and the implausibility that Hollywood was becoming more prone to. Personally, I found the film interesting, if not enthralling, and would have perhaps given it a second chance if not for the heightened expectations brought on by its elevated status. If nothing else, the film is worth viewing for those seeking insight into the mind of the Master of Suspense and those curious as to what all the fuss is about.

I'll have whatever he's smoking


  1. The "Greatest Film Ever" my left boot! I heart the Hitch, but this is far from his Best Film. Albeit he claims it was his most "personal" film

  2. "Greatest Film Ever" is a misnomer, there's no such thing. But if you don't think Vertigo is great, that's your problem, not the films.