My First Cinema Experience: Vertigo

Without obsession, life is nothing.

These words are from American director John Waters but they could easily have been pronounced by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest directors of all time (and, for me, THE greatest director of all time!). They synthesise perfectly the feelings I experienced, and I’m still desperately trying to experience again, when for the first time , I saw the movie I consider his masterpiece and what remains my strongest cinema experience: Vertigo.

Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, said in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas: As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster. Well, as far back as I can remember, I’ve always BEEN a film buff! By the age of 18, I had devoured every book or magazine I could put my hands on and watched as many movies as humanly possible. Along the way I have experienced a wide variety of emotions from uncontrollable laughter to incommensurable fear watching movies such as The Goonies, Young Frankenstein, The Gremlins or Young Sherlock Holmes, and I have still not yet recovered from the vision of Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was ten.

Nothing, however, had prepared me for the story of a man who falls in love with a woman who does not exist…

Do I need to remind you of Vertigo’s plot summary? Yes? OK, so, for the sleeping ones at the last row of the classroom…, Vertigo tells the story of Scottie, a former San Francisco police detective with physical and mental weaknesses (predominantly fear of heights), who is hired by his friend Gavin to follow his wife Madeleine, and whom he falls obsessively in love with.

In my youth, I was already interested in Hitchcock‘s work. However, this was more related to his exceptional ability to create suspense, such as in Psycho, which profoundly marked me some years earlier, to his irrepressible need of control when he directed a movie, particularly when it came to women.

I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: they were blond, icy, remote and most often imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps, but sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated. This was already a perfect motivation to watch Vertigo but, furthermore, adding to its mystique was the fact that it was one of five films owned by Hitchcock which was removed from circulation in 1973.

Therefore, when I read that one of its masterpieces had been meticulously restored by two American film historians and would be re-released in cinema, I knew I had to see it! And one of the greatest things with Paris, at least at that time, was that there were numerous small cinemas which showed very old movies in the best environment for real cinephiles.

I checked in the journal and there it was, but only showed every Tuesday afternoon! Was it worth skipping school for Hitchcock? Definitely! The only other problem was that it was Wednesday and that I would have to wait nearly for a week!

And then, it came… It was a gloomy raining Tuesday which perfectly suited my cinema mood. The cinema was called Le Brady and seemed desperately empty. I stayed ten good minutes absorbed in the contemplation of the poster on the wall of the cinema before entering. The ticket lady looked like Anne Ramsey, the woman who played Mama Fratelli in The Goonies. A creepy lady, but a good sign, isn’t it?

After she sold me the so coveted ticket, not with a suspicious look which seemed to mean: No school today?, I followed a narrow ancient corridor leading to one of the only two rooms in the cinema, which was hopefully empty. Hopefully, because I never really liked cinema audiences; they are most often not respectful of the artist’s work and always extremely noisy. On the other hand, I was a little bit disappointed as I expected that more cinephiles would have, like I did, try to see this forgotten piece of art.

Anyway, the lights slowly decreased and the familiar sound of the projector was heard…

From the first image of the opening sequence with the notes of Bernard Herman’s hypnotic music I was conquered and gradually, as the plot progressed, I felt I was going from extreme interest to total identification with characters: I could feel Scottie’s obsession growing in me as he followed the mysterious Madeleine and was equally affected by Judy’s (a character appearing later in the story) pain. In fact, Hitchcock so cleverly manipulated the story that at one point, I even identified with both of them, and feared for both of them.

This whirlpool of feeling culminated in an unrivalled scene taking place in a hotel room, lit by a dreamlike effect neon sign. As Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Novak’s face (showing such pain, such sorrow, such a will to please) and Stewart’s (in a rapture of lust and gratified control), we feel hearts being torn apart.

While Scottie embraces her, even the background changes to reflect his subjective memories instead of the real room he’s in. Bernard Herrmann’s score creates a haunting, unsettled yearning. And the camera circles them hopelessly, like the pinwheel images in Scottie’s nightmares, until the shot is about the dizzying futility of our human desires, the impossibility of forcing life to make us happy. This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness…

By the end of the movie, I was devastated. When the lights came back I stayed in the room, fixing the screen with an empty look but with a torrent of feelings in my head. I would have stayed like this forever if the usher had not told me that I had to leave because he needed to prepare the room for the next screening. I left the cinema and came back home walking, thinking about what I had just experienced all the way.

Since that day, I started looking for all Hitchcock movies in a desperate attempt to experience the same feeling once again. Like Scottie with Madeleine, I literally became obsessed by this movie conditioning my future life.

Of course, since this gloomy rainy Tuesday, I have seen an incredible quantity of movies, and I have been subjugated by great movies, but never as profoundly and intensely as for Vertigo, which remains my first true cinema experience…

Julien Bassignani

Updated: Jul 29, 2014

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