Hitchcock Collection: Vertigo Review
”This last pain for the damned our fathers found,
They knew the love with which they were not crowned.”
From “This Last Pain” by William Empson.
Vertigo is the masterwork of a great director at the very peak of his talent. If I could come up with any more superlatives then I would shower them upon this film because it’s one of the most beautiful, moving, provocative and emotionally insightful works that the cinema has ever produced. Needless to say, it flopped on release and then vanished from sight for the best part of twenty five years, leading some to claim that its reputation was based more upon its unavailability than any superior intrinsic quality. That this is not the case has become clear since its re-release in 1983 and is even more obvious now that the film has been painstakingly restored to its original visual splendour by Robert Harris and James Katz. When he made it, Alfred Hitchcock was 59 years old and everything he had learned about cinema in his 38 years in the business is poured into Vertigo with a painful emotional intensity and visual passion that is unlike anything else he ever directed. Fans may argue about their favourite Hitchcock. Indeed, I often think that the Hitchcock movie I like best is either Notorious or North By Northwest. But the one I keep coming back to, in the certain knowledge that I will find something new while experiencing the same thrill of cinematic discovery that I felt on first seeing it, is Vertigo.
I first reviewed the film for DVD Times back in May 2000 and some of this review is the same. But in that original piece I sense a certain hesitancy, a somewhat grudging tone as if I was running away from my feelings about the film. I hope that this review will make up for that deficiency. I’ve incorporated much of it into this new piece but have considerably expanded upon what I wrote back then.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS EXTENSIVE PLOT SPOILERS.
In structural terms, Vertigo is a fundamentally flawed suspense thriller, hinging on a plot twist which is revealed half-way through the film. A first viewing can suggest that Hitch has made a catastrophic mistake somewhere along the line, giving away the mystery so soon. This is a fundamentally mistaken impression because Hitchcock isn’t making a conventional thriller but it’s worth considering because it was the focus for considerable criticism on the film’s original release. Indeed, the film begins in relatively conventional fashion with Jimmy Stewart’s haunted private detective Scotty taking on a sympathy job offered by his rich friend Gavin Ellster (Helmore).
In the first scene we have learned the source of Scotty’s demons – when he was a cop, he suddenly developed vertigo during a rooftop chase and his incapacity led to the death of one of his colleagues. Ellster asks Scotty to follow his wife, who has been making mysterious trips away from home. Ellster claims that his wife is possessed by a dead person. Scottie doesn't really believe Ellster, but agrees to follow her. Madeleine Ellster (Novak) is stunningly beautiful, and Scottie, a bachelor with a pining old flame constantly on hand, falls instantly and passionately in love with her. Following her, he discovers that she seems to be obsessed by a nineteenth century woman named Carlotta Valdes who drowned herself in San Francisco bay. Ellster feels that his wife may be intent on following Carlotta's doomed footsteps unless Scottie can do something to prevent history repeating itself. Scottie, completely obsessed with Madeline, sees this as his opportunity to remake himself as a knight in shining armour - but he doesn't realise that forces beyond his control are beginning to involve him in events he doesn't understand.
During the middle of the film, Madeline appears to commit suicide and Scotty, haunted by his failure to save her, begins to haunt the places where he saw her. One day, he sees a woman calling herself Judy (Novak) who is the spitting image of Madeline and his obsession is vividly revived as he begins to make Judy into Madeline – most memorably in the scene where he dresses her and makes her up into a recreation of the woman he loved and who he thinks is dead. But we discover, through the sole point in the film focalised from a point of view other than Scotty’s, that Judy was playing Madeline for Ellster, who wanted his wife dead and needed to use Scotty as the fall guy to witness the ‘accidental’ death. In conventional narrative terms, this is a disastrous lapse of suspense, ruining what could have been a stunning surprise ending. But Hitchcock isn’t making a typical suspense film. He realised that this is really a story about Scotty’s hopelessly blind obsession and that he is a man who literally can’t see what is staring him in the face – the Judy IS Madeline, or at least the Madeline he fell in love with. It’s a story of slow and terrible self-realisation which we share all the more viscerally for our knowledge of how this most sensitive and self-deluding of men is being manipulated.
This is, naturally, a psychological minefield and a gift for film theorists. Because, with the one essential exception, it’s so remorselessly told from a single point of view, and a male point of view at that, it’s full of suggestions and subtexts about the way the male gaze objectifies and controls the female. Academics, notably Laura Mulvey, have deconstructed the famous scene in which Scotty turns ‘Judy’ into ‘Madeline’ as a kind of summation of the way masculine power is asserted over repressed women. Mulvey talks a good deal about the male gaze and her work has been very influential in discussions of Hitchcock’s work, also taking in Rear Window where the James Stewart character is only slightly less obsessive than Scotty. However, there’s another level operating here and it’s a surprising and rewarding one. By telling us information about the true identity of Judy that Scotty doesn’t share, Hitchcock makes us step aside from Scotty’s character and forces us to consider him critically. Robin Wood writes in “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited” that instead of sharing Scotty’s obsession, “Hitchcock makes us study it”. This would barely be possible were it not for the extraordinary performance given by James Stewart, one which is certainly among his very best screen work. It’s certainly an atypical role for Mr American Everyman but that’s what makes him such perfect casting. As in his previous two films with Stewart, Hitchcock deliberately subverts the actor’s image and this final collaboration takes the process to its logical conclusion. Stewart portrays, with subtle insight, the agonies of a man whose conventional life is suddenly thrown into chaos through the discovery of his true, hopelessly human and inadequate self. To put it crudely, Stewart makes an ideal pervert because he forces us to recognise that the perversion, obsession or whatever you want to call it is endemic within each of us and not something out there which we can avoid or carefully put aside.
Yet the detachment only goes so far because it seems to me that, above all, Vertigo is an intense and passionate meditation on an eternal subject – the cruel mystery of love. Because we see the film almost exclusively from Scotty’s viewpoint, we share his slow spiral into obsession and his increasingly irrational belief that his intense feeling of what he believes to be some kind of pure and noble love can somehow change events. What he doesn’t realise is how completely and sadistically he is being manipulated – and the film suggests that even if he did realise, it wouldn’t change anything. Love has him in its glacial embrace and refuses any hope of release, even at the end when the situation is made abundantly clear to him and he describes himself as ‘a set-up, a made to order witness”. His face at the end – stricken with truth and tragedy – tells us that this is indeed the last pain of the damned referred to by William Empson. Scotty knows the love he has not found in all its horribly painful reality – Judy’s desperate pleas that she does love him and doesn’t want to lose him sound hollow and he can’t bring himself to believe her, hating her and loving her to such an extent that he can barely think. It is certainly something from which he will never recover. I’m reading all this into the scene of course but I think it’s all there to see in James Stewart’s horrified gaze of recognition as he realises that all he has to look forward to is an existence of numbed emptiness. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Midge will be willing to act as some sort of cure, bringing Scotty back to himself. But, cynical as it may sound, I doubt it. In losing his vertigo, he discovers his true self and the realisation is not a pleasant one. His case of obsession is just as pathological as his fear of heights and will surely be even harder to cure.
And in this portrait of a sad, blind passion leading up endless dead-ends, I think we find a breathtakingly frank self-portrait of Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps not one which he ever intended us to find and not one which easily correlates with the jolly fat man introducing those macabre half hours on TV. It may only have been half-conscious – indeed, had it been otherwise I doubt it would have been so revealing. Some connections are obvious. Scotty’s attempt to turn Judy into Madeline was mirrored by Hitchcock’s repeated attempts to turn various actresses into the cool blonde that he found (and then lost) in Grace Kelly. Vera Miles was his first attempt but she ruined his efforts by becoming pregnant. He took a great interest in Kim Novak but they didn’t have a particularly good relationship while shooting. The actress who he finally succeeded in ‘creating’ was Tippi Hedren and his feelings for her seem to echo those of Scotty in Vertigo. He chose her look and her clothes, he controlled her image and her exploitation. Ultimately, he fell in love with her and made the terrible mistake of telling her and was, inevitably, rebuffed. Unlike Scotty, Hitchcock had the good fortune to be with a wife, Alma, who loved him and was willing to put up with his infatuations in the knowledge that he would always come back to her. But it seems to me that the feelings of unrequited love and the sense of being on the verge of losing control to a form of self-destructive obsession are so much a part of Hitchcock’s personality that it’s only in his art that they find full expression. I’ve discussed this in previous reviews, the supposed ‘dark side’ of Hitchcock, and while I don’t think it is by any means the full story, there are times in the films when the terrible sadnesses and inner demons come out so nakedly that the viewer is taken aback by the emotional truth of what they are watching. That this finally leads to the shocking misanthropy and despair of Frenzy is hardly surprising if you consider the films taken as a kind of on-going psychological document.
In devising a film which took emotional narrative about as far as it will go, Hitchcock required immense technical skill. He was used to storyboarding of course and the opening set-piece – a nail-biting mini-chase – is a model of economy. It also utilises the technical advance which was so necessary to evoke the sensation of vertigo – the reverse zoom which was later used to memorable effect by Steven Spielberg in Jaws. Vertigo, as a work of film art, is just about perfect and only marred by a couple of iffy performances – the nun at the end gives a disastrously ‘off’ line reading.
Hitchcock couldn’t do all of this on his own of course. The script by Samuel Taylor, an amendment of Alec Coppel’s unacceptable original draft, is very tightly constructed and, although long, written with great economy in characterisation. The way in which Scotty relates to his long-term old flame Midge, for example, tells us everything we need to know about his emotional state. Hitch also needed a very talented collection of artists to pull this unconventional film together and he was lucky enough to have three of the best as close collaborators. Robert Burks supplies cinematography that is so rich in colour and contrast that it makes you feel the film as you watch it. George Tomasini’s editing keeps the story flowing without artificially heightening it or stamping on every subtle psychological point. Best of all, Bernard Herrmann’s music score – his very best in my opinion – captures the tone of the film exactly. It’s neither sentimental nor excessively florid. It rises over the titles, melts into the background and then blossoms in the final scenes with grace notes full of the promise of love’s fulfilment and then the unmistakeable tone of infinitely poignant regret. Add to the brilliance of these men the production design of Henry Bumstead and the costumes of Edith Head and you have a work of technical genius which Hitchcock never quite matched. There are scenes with an eerie, oneiric quality quite unlike anything else in American cinema – the trip to the graveyard, the conversation by the ancient felled tree – and it’s remarkable that these appear in a mainstream studio product. In essence, it’s a film with all the virtues of the Hollywood studio system and none of the vices. Vertigocomes from, and may even epitomise, a period at the end of the ‘Golden Age’ when it was possible for personal voices of directors such as Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann and John Ford to clearly chime through the relaxing restraints of studio control. , Although they get less attention than they deserve in the rush to salivate over the 1970s, the years between 1951 and 1967 are my favourite period of American film history. A viewing of Vertigo is all you need if you want to understand why I feel that way. It’s an astonishing film.
This new edition of Vertigo is an improvement on the previous disc. It contains an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer which is often quite stunning and always excellent. The colours really are to die for – richly saturated and enough to knock your eyes out. There is a low, pleasant level of film grain and virtually no problem with artifacting. Whether or not this looks like the fabled 35MM IB Print that those more knowledgeable than me tend to bang on about is a moot point. What I do know is that this version of Vertigo looks absolutely gorgeous. There are a couple of qualifications to this, notably the colouring of the face in the opening credits which was intended to be black and white and was originally processed in muted colour as a compromise. The picture quality is still well worth full marks in my view.
The soundtrack has been the source of much controversy. Finding that no ‘original soundtrack’ existed to source a new track from, Harris and Katz used a stereo recording of the music score which was then combined with some new foley effects. Many of these stood out unpleasantly, despite allegedly painstaking attempts to match them to the period. As regular readers know, I am a somewhat grouchy crusader for original mono tracks and I have a virulent hatred for remixing. I’ve never liked the remix on Vertigo and the joy of having a mono option is hard to express. It’s not ‘the original mono’ because this no longer exists. Instead it’s taken from a fourth generation 35MM print and, as a result, it is crackly and a little hissy. However, it still sounds better than the remix to my ears – even though we lose some of the enveloping richness of the stereo music score - and it’s the soundtrack choice I recommend. Some readers will, no doubt, turn up their noses at the thought of choosing mono over remixed 5.1 but it’s good that we all finally have the choice.
The extras are carried over from the Universal’s 1998 release of Vertigo. The film is accompanied by a commentary track which features restoration gurus Robert Harris and James Katz, Hitchcock’s associate director Herbert Coleman, Kim Novak, Pat Hitchcock and Steven Smith, an expert on Bernard Herrmann. This is all very diverting, not least for the comments of Mr Coleman whose memory may be a bit suspect but who is always very entertaining and offers some amusing anecdotes about working with the Master.
As for the rest, the ‘Obsessed With Vertigo’ documentary is adequate but disappointingly brief at 30 minutes and too fascinated with the restoration done by Katz and Harris. They are featured beaming like twin Cheshire Cats at the thought of remixing and adding new foley effects to the soundtrack and this alone made me want to spit blood. Clearly the restoration is valuable and important but not as important, I submit, as the making of the film and that’s what we need more detail about. There are two theatrical trailers, one for the film and one for the 1996 restored version. A chance to see the appalling Foreign Censorship Ending is welcome – it ruins the end of the film – and the Vertigo Archives are packed with drawings and photographs. This last item is sheer bliss for a Hitchcock junkie and the best extra feature on the disc.
The film is fully subtitled as is the documentary but not the commentary.
Vertigo is a great, great movie and essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in cinema. The improved anamorphic picture quality and inclusion of the mono track make this new disc well worth a look.