1958 - PG - 129 Mins.
|Director: Alfred Hitchcock|
|Producer: Alfred Hitchcock|
|Written By: Samuel A. Taylor, Alec Coppel|
|Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore |
|Review by: David Rolston
Once a decade Sight & Sound publishes its prestigious Critics poll of the best films of all time, most recently in 2002. In that poll, Alfred Hitchcock's enigmatic objet d'arte "Vertigo" reached its zenith, coming in as the second greatest film of all time. Few films have received the same intensifying re-evaluation, and the Sight & Sound ranking reflects the odd power of Vertigo to reveal fresh nuance and insight upon repeat viewings over a number of years. Those who saw it in its original theatrical run have often commented how the vivid Technicolor imagery stayed with them long after they'd seen it, often for many years. Vertigo's density is the very thing that continues to intrigue and confound audiences today just as it did when it opened in 1958. During its original theatrical run, reaction to Vertigo ran from perfunctory praise to outright condemnation. In general, critical reaction to the film was not favorable, and many criticized the complexity of the plot and the pacing. The film was neither a success nor a flop, turning a modest profit less the net profit pointl salaries of Hitchcock and star Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo finished in 21st place on the box office gross list for the year.
During a famous series of interviews with Hitchcock conducted by Francois Truffaut and later published in book form as Hitchcock/Truffaut from 1966-68, neither Trufffaut nor Hitchcock had much to say about the film in comparison to their exhaustive discussion of many of his other works. Through a production deal with Paramount, Vertigo was one of a handful of films Hitchcock produced himself under a deal brokered by the legendary Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman, which stipulated that the distribution rights would revert back to his control eight years after their release, a highly unusual arrangement then and since. In 1971 Hitchcock quietly removed Vertigo from distribution, where it remained for nearly thirteen years. In the late 1960's critics had begun to focus on the film's unique and mysterious position in the Hitchcock filmography. After Hitchcock died in 1980, Universal brokered a deal with his estate to re-release five of these self produced films in 1984 beginning with the audience favorite Rear Window, followed by, Vertigo. There was tremendous interest in these releases amongst cinephiles, critics and historians, and Vertigo in particular due to the discussion of it in Donald Spoto's controversial biography of Hitchcock 'The Dark Side of Genius' which had been published the prior year and was a bestseller. Spoto echoing the sentiments of other Hitchcock biographers focused on what has become a prevailing theory about Hitchcock's career long thematic interests in icy Blonde temptresses, his obsession with his prototype, Grace Kelly, and the series of actresses he may or may not have 'remade' in her image once she retired to become the Princess of Monaco. In Vertigo many have found layer upon layer upon layer of complexity in this regard, as Kim Novak is both the stand-in for the Hitchcock 'Blonde' and a character within the film playing a stand-in. Novak as Madeleine is manipulated and remade by the powerful men in the film to suit their deepest darkest desires. Vertigo revels in this entanglement, even as it reflects on the resulting tragedy. Indeed one of the qualities that sustains interest in Vertigo to the present day is it's lyrical operatic melancholia. That the film was made at all within the risk averse studio system, and with a star of the magnitude and public persona of Jimmy Stewart in the title role is a testament to the power that Hitchcock wielded in his prime. That he would use that power to make a film like Vertigo is a testament to his artistic sensibilities and love of literature, qualities that were downplayed by the director himself in service to the requirements of promotion, commerce, and his carefully cultivated public persona as a craftsman of crowd pleasing thrillers. Vertigo was described by the director himself as a "murder mystery" but clearly it was designed to be something much more, whether consciously or subconciously.
The film that was shown theatrically in 1984 was but a shadow of the original, as the 35mm negative masters had deteriorated significantly in the decades since the film's release, and the sound track in particular had suffered badly. This did not however prevent an explosion of renewed interest in Vertigo, and the contention among many Hitchcock devotee's that it is his masterpiece. Head of Universal classics, James Katz who was responsible for the 1984 restoration and re-release effort felt vaguely dissatisfied with the state of the 1984 restoration. In particular an offhand comment praising the film "in spite of it's condition' stuck in the back of his mind. Years later, while working on a restoration of My Fair Lady, he happened upon the original sound elements for Bernard Herman's Vertigo score in a paramount vault. He was able to commission a duplication with the tape elements which were literally disintegrating during the dubbing process. As a former Paramount Pictures employee, I remember passing the old material vaults on particularly hot days and wondering about the temperature inside them. I was amazed one day to find someone putting materials into one of these ancient structures, which resemble nothing so much as an antiquated wall safe. It's a wonder that anything materials from the last thirty years could survive such conditions. It has only been in the last 15-20 years that movie studios have taken steps to preserve films, and strike CMYK masters. If not for the efforts of Katz and his team the original Vertigo like far too many other classic films may have been irretrievably lost. The finding of the soundtrack and the subsequent copy offered the opportunity to restore Herman's haunting musical backdrop, which was only a pale shadow of itself in the 1984 release. Another intriguing discovery of the 1984 effort was that Vertigo had been shot by Hitchcock in Vista Vision, a widescreen 1:1.85 format that was then shrunk to 35mm for release. With these unearthed relics, Katz and his restoration partner Robert Harris began to enlist the support of Universal and the American Film Institute with the intriguing premise of transferring the film to 70mm from the Vista Vision elements and using the unearthed Herman musical store to anchor a Digital Theater Sound (DTS) soundtrack. This would not only restore the faded glory of one of Hollywood's most renowned composers, but would also allow them to digitize and clean up the faded muddy dialogue tracks which were soundly criticized by a number of reviewers in the 1984 re-release. The restoration plan was not completely without controversy since the original Foley (sound effects work) were lost in the process and had to be recreated using production notes.
The project which enlisted support from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, the American Film Institute and Universal studios eventually cost over 1 million dollars. Work was completed in 1996 and Vertigo was re-released to much fanfare, playing sold out engagements in major US cities, lead off by AFI events with iconic star Kim Novak holding court and reminiscing with audience members about her experience. I was fortunate to be able to see the re-release at one of these AFI events. The final product (now available on DVD) allows modern audiences to experience the film in a format as close to Hitchcock's original as there will ever be, and the resulting experience is even more thrilling, vibrant, hallucinogenic, perverse and obsessional than the decades of critical evaluation had proclaimed it to be. It's no small coincidence that 2002's poll for the first time placed the film second in the canon of Cinematic achievement, in a list where it was only surpassed by Citizen Kane. Seeing the film with an audience, also provided the opportunity to assess how well the film has aged. One of the great surprises is the many flaws and places where the film now seems camp, in places where it was intended to be serious.
Any serious lover of movies must see Vertigo if for no other reason than it's monumental stature and influence over the legion of filmmakers who continue to reinterpret and borrow from it. For example, Hollywood story structure guru John Truby has a term for the way many classic films have a dramatic opening sequence, and calls Vertigo the definitive "Running Start" in that it literally opens with the hero Scottie Ferguson running across San Francisco rooftops in pursuit of a criminal. Brian DePalma has a long and distinguished career openly borrowing with both hands from Hitchcock, and Vertigo in particular. His 1976 film Obsession is considered by many to be an unofficial remake, from the plot similarities down to the commission of a score by Bernie Hermann. He is not by any means alone, as rarely does a film engage in the study of obsessional or compulsive behavior without in some way reflecting Vertigo's treatment of those elements.
On every level the film is a technical marvel even by today's standards, from the psychedelic Saul Bass title sequence to the subtle matte paintings, to the use of various focal lengths and seamless blending of backlot footage with location work, and the gadgetry and technique involved in visually demonstrating the Vertigo effect. The vivid cinematography employs a vibrant Technicolor palette with liberal dollops of shadow and darkness to portray San Francisco as a beautiful and mysterious city that is nothing short of mythic: from the Mission Dolores graveyard to the Palace of Fine arts, to the nearby Muir redwood forest and the iconic sequence that takes place at Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate bridge, individual shots and sequences from the film have become part of the very language of cinema. When people comment on the design of the recent Matrix films, one wonders if we would so readily equate a green pallet with dream worlds if Hitchcock had not already established this motif so expertly with Vertigo. Before Vertigo people simply didn't consider the emotional effect of color on an audience. It's hard to think of color design in film without acknowledging Hitchcock's legacy as an innovator in the practice of using color and composition to subconsciously underline the story, and Vertigo is now seen as the ultimate example of his artistry with several color schemes interwoven throughout the film. Would Neo's Matrix have had the same green tint if Hitchcock hadn't first bathed Kim Novak's haunted Madeleine in a ghostly green hue? What the 1993 restoration also reminds us, is the genius of Bernard Herrmann's score which like the work in so many of his Hitchcock collaborations is an inseparable part of the emotional landscape.
Hitchcock liked to soak in the ambiance of a place, often building sequences and stories around locations. He owned a home just outside San Francisco, and took his time finding a mystery that matched the city of his imagination, settling finally on a French novel titled 'Among the Dead' by co-authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The duo's previous work had been made into the classic Clouzot suspense film Les Diaboliques after Hitchcock had bid and lost for the rights to it. Paramount recorded a reading before the novel was even translated into English and snapped up the rights for Hitchcock in a quid pro quo agreement that the director would also make a film out of their recently acquired African adventure novel Flamingo Feather. 'Among the Dead' contains all the core elements of the film including the lead character's affliction with Vertigo. Thematically, however, the story reflects the lives of the authors and the sense of loss following the calamity of World War II, and the family and friends that were swept away in that conflict.
In Hitchcock's hands, Vertigo is really about middle age itself. Hitchcock was entering the twilight of his career and his life, facing serious illness and the onset of old age. His star, Jimmy Stewart was 49 when the film was made. Certainly on the surface Vertigo is constructed upon an examination of twin psychoses: Scottie's affliction with a career ending case of altophobia, and as in many of Hitchcock's films, a fetish like compulsion with the voyeuristic pursuit of a beautiful stranger. Those themes lend the film a certain universal seductiveness that belies it's deeper themes. Undoubtedly the thing that gives the film its staying power and resonance with each successive generation is it's exploration of the our relationship to the past, and the traps that exist especially as we age, in becoming attached to days and people gone by. It seems now that Hitchcock presented these issues with more complexity and intensity than the audiences of the 1950's were prepared for. It appears that audiences and critics continue to catch up, and Vertigo's renown continues to appreciate as time goes by.