50 years, 50 films Vol II: Vertigo (1958)
No surprises here. Hitch’s thriller of obsession has, after all, recently been named the best film of all time
Well, this shouldn’t come as any great surprise. Two years ago voters in the influential Sight and Sound poll decided that Citizen Kane was not, after all, the best film ever made. That title was now held by one of the strangest films in Alfred Hitchcock’s untouchable portfolio. Adopting an awkward pout, it could be argued that the award was as much for the director as for the film. For all the love directed the way of Renoir, Ozu, Kubrick and the rest, Hitch remains the director that most excites the average film critic. Maybe Vertigo wins because, in style and intention, it looks so much more like the sort of film high-brows might like. North by Northwest is just too enjoyable. Psycho is too close to pulp (and has a very sluggish second half). Heck, Vertigo looks like a proper art film.
These are all tenable arguments. But Vertigo does deserve its continuing status. It’s as if all the various obsessions of Hitchcock’s career — guilt, inappropriate desire, irrational anxiety — have been invited to elbow aside the genre conventions and take space upstage. The story really makes no sense. The action sequences are rare and separated by great valleys of brewing menace. The result is a film that, disturbing in its conclusions, pure in its intentions, sees notions that would previously have been subtexts reach out and rub their filthy belly against the audiences’ faces. Other Hitchcock protagonists look as if they may, possibly harbour unlovely instincts; Scotty Ferguson really does want to turn a passing stranger into a dead woman and do what men in love do to live women. And he’s played by the reliably likeable Jimmy Stewart. That’s George Bailey tailing that poor lady. The combination of high artifice and sordid gutter-draining turned off contemporaneous critics. The unhealthy blend has invited subsequent audiences to derive endless pleasure from this properly peculiar film.
As you will probably know, Vertigo begins with Scottie chasing a suspect across the rooftops of San Francisco. After a precarious moment on a high grating — shot with a dizzying reverse zoom — he finds himself saddled with a fear of heights. Some time later, now on leave, Scottie meets an old associate and agrees to follow the man’s potentially unfaithful wife (Kim Novak). Accompanied by one of Bernard Hermann’s most slinky scores, Scottie’s car creeps menacingly through beautiful parts of that Californian city. She dies in a fall. Scottie can’t save the apparently disturbed creature. Some time later, he meets a less sophisticated girl who looks just like her and sets about turning that person into a version of the dead woman. Got that?
Hitchcock never had much time for those whingers who pulled apart the logistics of his always-fantastic plots (Lord, he would have loathed the internet age). It was the film-maker’s job to make any unlikely moments easy to ignore. To this point, he used humour, action, violence and suspense to achieve that task. Vertigo does other things. There is certainly suspense here, but it is off a very obscure colour. There isn’t much violence. There is much less humour than in any of his great films. (If To Catch a Thief — released this week in a nice new print — had first emerged in the current decade it would probably have been labelled a “romantic comedy”.) Already beginning to attract the attention of snooty French critics, Hitchcock, in Vertigo, almost completely abandoned the obvious tropes of the thriller and allowed pure cinematic technique to take over: weird editing, long takes, bizarre animations, experimental camera techniques. This took some getting used to.
For all that, Hitchcock, was a populist at heart. After receiving a drubbing and seeing his film perform indifferently at the box office, he went on to make the unashamedly zippy (and brilliant) North by Northwest. Then came the strange left-turn that was Psycho. Few directors enjoy such fecund periods this late in their career. There’s nothing quite like Vertigo in Hitchcock’s locker. Yet it acts, in its way, as a neat compendium of the Hitch aesthetic in action. Yes, let us say it again. It deserves it acclaim.
For 1958 we also considered Man of the West, Touch of Evil, Mon Oncle, Dracula, Ashes and Diamonds and Lift to the Scaffold.