In the last post, I mentioned Park Chan-wook being one of my teachers on what makes an effective thriller and now I’m not gonna be special in naming a bigger one: Alfred Hitchcock. For who doesn’t know Hitchcock to be the “Master of Suspense” and what cinephile doesn’t adore Hitchcock as a technical master who got it on point over and over and then went on to test the boundaries of cinema. And what (good) filmmaker doesn’t consider Alfred Hitchcock as a grand inspiration? Cinephilia shall chase him out as a mob, so I’m gonna void that fate by stating I hold Hitchcock on that same pedestal as others because I’m a boring traditionalist and like other famous polls and cinephiles, from Sight & Sound to AFI to Martin Scorsese, consider Vertigo one of the greatest movies I’ve seen.
Now, Psycho – another canonical work in my esteem – is notorious for its central narrative twist that smashed its story (and cinema to come) into pieces, but I’d daresay that while it’s apparent why Psycho would be the most impactful moment of that rug-pulling move on Hitchcock’s part, it doesn’t feel like the first part. The first moment that comes to mind is the 1935 British production (wherein Hitchcock perfected his clockwork thriller craft before David O. Selznick brought him to America) The 39 Steps where we witness our protagonist being shot and the movie intends for us to spend an extended amount of time believing our only point of view into the movie was killed and removed, aided by a game fade to black upon his “killing” (though this shock is short-lived). The second moment, and the one I felt would have really changed the game if the movie weren’t so poorly-received on its initial release, is the halfway point of Vertigo that neatly cleaves the picture into two separate halves with their own separate plots, retired San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) at the center of them.
The reason for Ferguson’s retirement – as we discover in the first scene of Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor’s script based on Pierre Boleau & Thomas Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts – is his acrophobia, unfortunately discovered at a point where it caused him to fail in saving the life of a fellow officer during a rooftop chase. Shortly after his retirement, an old family friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), approaches Ferguson with the worry that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is possessed by a ghost and wants Gavin to watch over and report on her before he decides whether to approach his psychiatrically or paranormally. In short order, Scottie witnesses Madeleine’s obsession with a long-dead suicidal woman named Carlotta Valdes and her portrait in the Legion of Honor museum before getting personally involved by rescuing her from an ambiguous drowning. And because this is a 1950s post-noir thriller (despite the mention of ghosts and possibly a jump scare, this is not remotely a horror film) and especially because it is one directed by Hitchcock, Scottie slowly begins to fall in love with Madeleine, Laura-style.
Now, it’s around this point that I sadly MUST go into some kind of spoiler territory (not exactly the kind that ruins a twist ending, but the kind that acknowledges an unexpected direction the story goes) and before I do that and insist that if you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon the review and go see Vertigo now, I want to acknowledge the brilliant eye-catching use of color. Even if there were no metaphorical legend by which to associate Vertigo‘s themes with its visuals, it’s a gorgeous kaleidoscope of primaries alongside the ever-alluring presence of greens (Red and Green being the most present colors in the film) that one who just looks for movies to be dazzled could find their thirst slaked by the work here of Hitchcock, legendary costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, and the production designers Henry Bumstead and Hal Perreira. But there is a code to crack here by which Scottie’s obsessions with Madeleine and Hitchcock’s famous obsession with blonde actors (I mean, let’s not pretend this may be the single most personal film of Hitch’s and the one that aligns most with his psychology) is decoded by the usages of those reds and greens in how muted they become in the presence of Scottie’s ex-fiancee Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes in a very underrated performance) who he has absolutely no sexual interest in anymore and Madeleine’s surrounded by very strong and aggressive shades of those colors. Madeleine’s clearly the bigger presence in the film and Hitchcock makes the colors arrest our eyes on her while directing Midge’s presence with a visual boredom that practically dismisses her up prematurely… and then the mess of them spilled over by the film’s famous nightmare sequence where there’s only brash plashes. But what precedes that very nightmare? Well, that’s where I bid adieu to the ones who choose to see the movie…
… for those who remain with us, what precedes it is the very failure of Scottie to save Madeleine from her death halfway through the movie followed up shortly by his own obsession with Judy Barton, a brunette who resembles Madeleine so much that she’s also portrayed by Novak. And Scottie follows this up with a shocking psychosexual fixation on her, forcing her to blonde her hair and wear a similar attire to Madeleine and we can’t not connect such a matter to the way Hitchcock selects and directs his actresses and all with the heavy hue (including a silhouetted echo of an earlier shot that makes one of Vertigo‘s most famous). And that only enters further into a slippery slope of ugly motivations by prematurely showing Judy’s own secrets (something that I had once criticized as a bad move on the film’s part, but slowly I realized this twist was not the point of the movie… the tension and fear in what could happen once it’s discovered is the TRUE point) and Vertigo takes on a whirl similar to all the visual spirals it parades in our face like the other famous shot – the belltower staircase rack zoom where the dolly and zoom lens are both utilized to mess around with space in a toy of visual subjectivity.
Hitchcock may not be indicting himself, but he’s investigating what perverts a man’s intentions and fascinations with women and using himself as the central subject of this experiment and having the audience take a look around in his mind, using all of his favorite narrative elements (even the “wrong man” comes up for a couple of minutes as Scottie is briefly investigated for his liability in Madeleine’s murder) as a complete eruption of the inspirations behind the greatest mind to craft suspense pictures. And Hitchcock the director – not Hitchcock the psychiatric subject – toys around with the audience’s point of view with the great big crack being during Madeleine’s death that I can’t think of a better example of the craftsman turning from a maestro who shot out picture-perfect thrillers like boredom to an artist who actually imbued himself and his personality into the resultant product. Obviously, it may have been too strong for audiences to buy into it at the time, and that alone keeps me from qualifying it as entertainment (some may in fact find it overlong) but now with the amount of retrospect the film’s legacy is granted, who can help but find Vertigo fascinating to look at, even if we’re frozen in shock like Scottie at the staircase.
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