It's nice to see critics accepting Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 commercial flop as a masterpiece; when I first saw it more than 30 years ago it was a neglected film cited by Pauline Kael as a junky Hitchcock demonstrating the absurdity of auteurism. But masterpiece it is: I can think of no film that makes romance more palpable and affecting. As Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) follows Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of a wealthy acquaintance who has hired him to help unravel the mystery of her wanderings around San Francisco, the city's hilly topography, a redwood forest, and the seacoast all become metaphors for the illusion of romantic infatuation. Scottie's obsession moves from seeing women as unattainable ideals to wanting to control them completely, a progression that gives the film, which is mostly made from Scottie's point of view, a certain creepy unpredictability. The compositions and colors are profoundly alluring never has Hitchcock's famously preplanned imagery been more sensual and seductive. But every image is also undermined by a deep instability: sensuous colors, shifting camera angles, and the inward-directed camera movements all create an imbalance that denies the viewer any film ground. The "vertigo" shots in which Scottie and his view seems to recede and advance at once make explicit the push-pull that undermines every composition. This restoration, correcting a botched 1984 job, does well at coaxing colors from a fast-fading camera negative. Though the image doesn't quite match the vibrancy of the original Technicolor release prints, it comes close. The new sound track, however, is a serious mistake. Wishing to use original stereo music tracks, though the film was released in mono, the restorers had to rerecord all the sound effects: how can remaking the sound be called "restoration"? The new footsteps are too loud, and the sounds of car doors closing in stereo have an almost pornographic realism that disrupts the dreamlike mood that the original, quieter sound track helped foster. Still, I was able to tune out most of these moments, and this is the best version we're likely to see of a film whose compositional subtlety does not translate to video. Fred Camper
Copyright © Fred Camper 1996.
I've long wished to write on Vertigo at greater length, but it and Hitchcock have already been much written on. Recently a friend saw an original IB release print, and wrote me about it. Among other things he recommended that I read the review of it by G. Cabrera Infante, the Cuban novelist who was also a film critic, and wrote an excellent review at the time, collected in the anthology of his film criticism, A Twentieth Century Job. I wrote back to him with a kind of outline of the thoughts I would put into a longer piece, which I now post, with only very slight alterations, below. I was thinking here of the film in its original IB Technicolor release prints, which is the way I've mostly seen it. Fred Camper, April 26, 2001.
On to Vertigo. The Cabrera Infante review is very good, perhaps the best I've read of his. Of course, Vertigo often seems to elicit critics' best work; Dave Kehr's old review of it is excellent, as is Robin Wood's chapter in his Hitchcock's Films. Certainly Cabrera Infante gets credit for naming it a great film so early, and being so sympathetic to it; I was interested to see within the review confirmation of your statement that he was reading Cahiers at the time, in his citation of Douchet, which makes his work seem a little less original. But still, his piece is objectively better than other contemporary "voice in the wilderness" reviews, such as Sarris on Seven Women, though I still prefer that one in a way, even though it says little and is much shorter, since Seven Women was and is also more obscure, harder to appreciate. I mean, you'd have to either have very particular aesthetic biases, or be an aesthetic idiot, to not see the merits of Vertigo, it seems to me.
Until the last two paragraphs, which were superb, I'm not sure that I learned much of anything, though or, should I say, I disobeyed your order that I "WILL learn" and I found a lot to quibble with. While the Pascal reference seemed potentially appropriate, the surrealism stuff seemed questionable, especially vis-ΰ-vis Magritte, and I just don't accept that the film has a mythological dimension at all. It seems to me to be too thoroughly psychological for that, and to read it in terms of myth seems to me not to see how rooted it is in a kind of neo-Freudian economics on the part of the characters and Hitchcock. Until the last two paragraphs, it seems to me that the review is talking about relatively superficial elements that could be just as "true" of a bad film.
Of course, as a contemporary review, it's just fine, and I can certainly see my friend's point, that, reading it at the time in his late teens, it opened his eyes to a way of looking at cinema otherwise unrepresented in 1950s Havana.
Perhaps, though, I can illuminate my worship of "abstract visual spaces," in my slightly self-parodying phrase, by giving you my own take on the film.
Like a lot of great Hollywood films, it contains a very explicit image that could serve as a metaphor for a quality that's present, more abstractly, in every shot. In Vertigo, that image isn't even that great: it's any one of the vertigo shots themselves, actually. But this is something that Cabrera Infante certainly gets right, that every image is undermined by "tide and undertow" as well as the "swinging of time over space."
What makes the film a great one for me, though, is not Kim Novak's acting (though his description of that is not bad) or any of that stuff, but the way that each shot seems to balance sensual presence and instability, presenting a tactile surface that is always undermined, always seems in danger of vanishing that is, in particular, and as Cabrera Infante suggests, undermined by the flow of time. This is why those four close-ups of Judy's makeover always seemed so great to me, for example. This description of the film's style could easily be more developed, in my usual manner, by citing specific shots and shot sequences, but the tracking shots, and the looks in, the moves in, the oddly destabilizing camera angles, the entrancing colors, all contribute to it.
Now it's true that just about all the elements (script, acting, plot, IB Technicolor, locales) do work together in Vertigo, with the possible exception, for me, of some parts of the dream sequence and perhaps the psychiatrist. And I'll admit those elements help; I don't want an ugly woman playing Madeline, or someone who is wrong for the role either. Similarly, great as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is visually, it does also depend on one's knowledge of John Wayne's prior roles, in Ford and also in Red River, and I certainly appreciate the way the ultimate and surprising equality of the character played by Stewart with the Wayne figure gives the film a narrative complexity it wouldn't have otherwise, and that some of Ford's other "old/new" films which use more cardboard figures to represent the "new" (The Last Hurrah being the most absurd, in a good sense) lack. But The Last Hurrah is great too, and I'm not sure I was even following the narrative of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance very much the first time I saw it, and was utterly wiped out by it.
I've seen lots of films with narratives I liked, and terrific acting and wonderful scripts, that weren't much good otherwise, and that, I would say, "failed as cinema." I guess this is where I differ with most, in that the bedrock of narrative film art, for me, has to be rooted in qualities of the imagery.
There's also two levels of narrative interpretation that I've long given the film and that I don't think have been written on by other critics (though I suspect the second has in part). First, on a strictly psychological level, it seems to me a film about male impotence, and the male virgin's view of the vagina. This is Scottie: they almost married in college; she broke it off, why? We don't know exactly, nor are we invited to imagine exactly, but it's hard, especially in light of Stewart's performance, not to see it as due to some insufficiency of his own. (He is still "available"; she's obviously still smitten by him; why aren't they together? Her painting suggests she knows he doesn't properly desire her.) The male virgin sometimes becomes impotent for fear of, to put it crudely, "falling in," and the vertigo of Vertigo seems to be connected to that: he's entranced by Madeline, he undresses her while asleep, but can he consummate, or is he merely entranced, in a "sub-adolescent" way (quoting a blurb written by Tim Hunter years ago) with a romantic ideal/clichι (the sea rises as they kiss by the ocean). Much of the movement of the film is inward; his view of the flower shop reached first down a long dark alley and then through a slit in a doorway is the film's most "vaginal" moment, perhaps: discovering the slit in the dark, and finding a "paradise" inside. This idea is best supported by the imagery's "vertiginous" quality, and by the ending, which I think Cabrera Infante gets wrong: Scottie can do nothing after the ending. Hitchcock, asked what he does next, supposedly answered, "He makes love to the nun," a characteristic joke that, by trivializing the end, reveals itself if one looks to its opposite: He can't make love to anyone, standing there, powerless, dwarfed by the phallic architecture of death, his tie flapping impotently in the wind. Second, and perhaps more obviously, Vertigo seems obviously a parable about cinema, and in a far more interesting way than Rear Window. It's in three sections: 1. The movie watcher 2. The movie watcher gets so involved in the movie that he mistakes it for reality 3. The movie watcher tries to become a director. So, Scottie follows Madeline into the movie directed by Gavin Elster (who is potent, who longs for the days of old San Francisco when men had the "power and the freedom" to murder their wives and their steal fortunes and get away with it), "sucked in" to Madeline's vertiginous wanderings like the viewer being sucked in to the screen. He likes it so much he tries, Buster Keaton fashion, to enter into the image, plunging into the Bay underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, journeying into depth, and then permits himself the illusion that he's an equal participant in Elster's movie, co-director as it were, when it's actually Elster who is still pulling the strings. This ends tragically, as it must, and he tries to recoup his failed ambitions by becoming a director himself, but, lacking in imagination, all he can manage is a "remake" of the earlier movie. So, he tries, starting with casting, then wardrobe, them make-up, then the hairdresser. When Judy finally returns, he is a director waiting for his "take," but the hair is wrong, the take is ruined, it's not a "print," so he has to send her back to hairdressing in order for the shot to be right. When it is, he's sucked into the magic once again, but he also knows that's something's wrong, as we do, and then finally the spell is broken by the necklace.
Copyright © Fred Camper 2001.