Alfred Hitchcock has become such a deity of film, it's accepted as universal fact that everything he did is a work of genius. Every movie from The Lodger (1929) to Family Plot (1976) is accorded the hushed reverence usually reserved for sacred documents--divine parcels of film from the elysian fields. What usually gets left out of our estimation of Mr. Hitchcock is the fact that, first and foremost, he was a highly skilled craftsman of popular entertainment--when you're talking about flocks of birds pecking people to death, you're not talking High Art.
Vertigo, on the other hand, is as artistic and complex a film as Hitchcock ever directed. Some critics say that it's his most personal film, and hence his greatest masterpiece. Whether or not you can accurately claim one Hitchcock movie to be "the best"--they're all generally good for different reasons--Vertigo is nevertheless one of his most captivating, with an eerie sensibility all its own. And with the restored version being shown this weekend at the Tennessee Theater (see movie listings for show times), we have an opportunity to see this film in, literally, a new light. This is not simply a newly-struck print; this is a painstakingly restored version with lush colors, newly pumped-up sound, and a cleaned-up score. If you've seen Vertigo on video before--or even its previous re-release in 1984--prepare yourself for an entirely different moviegoing experience.
Panned on its 1958 release ("The last half-hour is as dull as ditchwater, for there is no suspense, and no mystery remains except the mystery of who is supposed to care what happens," wrote The London Observer), Vertigo is not an easy film to love. It's the least entertaining of Hitchcock's movies, lacking the voyeuristic charge of Rear Window, the wit and action of North by Northwest, or the horror of Psycho. Instead, it has the languid pacing and sustained creepiness of a particularly strange dream. It's as if Hitchcock wanted to challenge himself by creating a thriller without any actual physical thrills (except, of course, for the opening chase sequence). Clocking in at two hours and eight minutes, it isn't a breezy bit of good fun.
So how, then, has Vertigo come to be regarded today as Hitch's finest work? A viewing of this new version should give you a few good ideas.
MOVIE GURU RATING: Nirvana|
Jimmy Stewart stars as John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police detective who retires after learning he's an acrophobic (someone with a fear of heights). However, a former school chum asks him to do a bit of detective work for him--his depressed wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) has been entering trance-like states in which she believes she's actually a woman from another century...would he follow her? Scottie does, and finds himself falling in love with her--yet she somehow manages to kill herself. What follows is another haunting by the dead, but in this case by Madeleine in Scottie's thoughts.
Later, after this ghostly interlude, Vertigo enters even creepier territory--and becomes more revealing of Hitchcock's own fixations. As Scottie suffers his heartache, he comes across a woman who looks somewhat like Madeleine. He enters a relationship with her, and then tries to transform her into the late Madeleine--making her wear the right clothes, walk the right way, talk the right way. (How much queasier can you get than watching Jimmy Stewart engage in ersatz necrophelia?) In many ways, this was how Hitchcock treated many of his leading ladies, molding them into his idealized vision of the icy, blonde femme fatale (a la Eva Marie Saint, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, etc.). Why did Hitchcock want to populate his films with icy, blonde femme fatales? Perhaps that's best answered by somebody's psych thesis.
As for the film itself, the restoration by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz brings out a whole new mood. Hitchcock picked out a color palette that's so saturated as to seem surreal, but it had faded badly over the decades until the film's true effects had been lost--possibly forever if action hadn't been taken. Where before it seemed rather slow and ponderous, Vertigo now feels dreamlike. And Bernard Herrmann's score--newly digitized and restored from the original recordings--becomes a character all its own now, with amazing sound quality and a sense of foreboding that underscores the fatal weirdness that transpires in the film.
In previous viewings of Vertigo, I kept wondering where Hitchcock was trying to take us; now, I realize that Vertigo is a true psychological thriller--relying more on mental conflicts than physical ones. And, perhaps, he was taking us on a small tour of his own obsessions.
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