Vertigo (1958)

D: Alfred Hitchcock
S: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

Vertigo is sustained by a dreamlike atmosphere which perfectly captures the entranced state of its central characters. Stewart plays a retired detective with a painful past he cannot escape. Having allowed a patrolman to fall to his death during a chase, he has developed a fear of heights and a massive guilt complex. But when he is asked by an old schoolfriend to follow his wife, Novak, a woman whose behaviour suggests the possession of her soul by a dead relative, he finds himself falling in love with her. Then when she later leaps from a tower in an apparent suicide, he cannot climb up to prevent her and is thrown into a depression. One day some time later he encounters her exact double on the streets and finds himself obsessed with recapturing the dead past. Unbeknownst to him however, it is the same woman, and he has been a victim of a conspiracy to murder. The girl, for her part, is eager to win his love and affection again, but for the woman she is rather than the woman she played. Both characters exist in a world of shadows; real and imaginary, psychological and physical. They are both delusional, obsessed with ideas of themselves rather than the realities of their lives, and the world they see is a psychologically subjective one coloured by their own perceptions. The world seen through their eyes is composed of strong colours tempered by filters of green, purple and red. The sounds they hear are unreal, lost in a vacuum of infatuation and obsession, lies and deceit, trauma and consequence.

It is all the more baffling therefore that anyone should chose to lavish such time and effort on a restoration of the film by focusing purely on tinkering with the sound effects. Using scraps of prints with previously largely unheard sound cues, they have chosen to replicate and enhance a plethora of irrelevant crunching noises, seagulls, waves and motor car engines with state of the art digital equipment. These are so sharp and so clear that the trance is almost broken, and frequently merely announce the presence of the effects engineers above and beyond the masterwork of one of the cinema's most talented artists. It can't spoil the film, of course. Hitchcock's vision is far to potent for that. But it does raise the question of just whom a restoration is supposed to serve; the restorers or the audience.

It is nonetheless welcome that Vertigo should return to the big screen, where its vistavision imagery has been trapped for so long by the insistence on panned and scanned video issues. And it remains as powerful and wonderful as ever.

A lot has been written about this film, too much to make any review worthwhile, and the text is too rich to be deal with cursorily. But its re-release raises three points: one about the fetish for digital sound effects discussed above, another about the issues of gender it inevitably provokes, especially in the current environment, and a final concerning the simple pleasures it offers even casual cinema goers after all these years.

On the second point, this is one of the most subtle meditations on gender in the history of the cinema; so subtle, in fact, that it has been very poorly treated by feminist academics in the past few decades. On the surface, it seems to exhibit patriarchal power, with Stewart's character surrounded by adoring women upon whom he lavishes his all powerful gaze which ultimately destroys them. It provides the women with the trappings of power and independence, then robs them of it both visually and narratively, and suggests that only in the destruction of the female can the male achieve peace and resolution.

But Vertigo is an immensely complex film which deals very much with its own subjectivity under the mask of simple psychobabble and a melodramatic plot line. Its dark undercurrents of necrophilia and various other psychoses are every bit as twisted as those exhibited more explicitly (and with more humour) in Psycho two years later, and Hitchcock was wry enough a director to realise that his own neuroses of voyeurism and fantasies of power were being played out on screen. Its self-reflexivity negates its apparent misogyny and shifts the focus to a study of the representation of both sexes through the eyes of a fantasy of self.

Vertigo deals with a man who willingly loses himself to women, and women who lose themselves to men. Either way, women seem to be the villains of the piece, and, indeed, they are the only ones who are explicitly punished for their transgressions. But the text contains several intricate references to the nature of male power (including the anecdote about the rich man a hundred years previously who used a woman for his own ends which mirrors the plot of the film itself) which firmly lay the blame for society's ills with the exploitations of patriarchy.

The real villain turns out to be the rich husband who escapes unblamed and unpunished as the rich and powerful always do. Power is not a matter of gender, but of will, and Stewart, though male, lacks the ability to overcome his psychological difficulties, ultimately leaving him barren and windswept staring at the dead body of a woman he loved, but who was no more than a chimerical fantasy which allowed him to evade reality. Patriarchy and masculinity are not interchangeable. A man does not have power just because he is a man. In fact, in Stewart's case, his masculinity deprives him of power because it commands him to behave in a manner which robs him of the ability to control his impulses, and his relationships with women are merely reflections of his own problems, with which no-one is able to help him due to the mask of economic, emotional and psychological independence he is required to wear. Stewart is lost because the world does not understand his needs and so neither can he.

The despair about human relationships (especially between male and female) evident here is as pervasive (but not as cruel) as that which would later make The Birds such a mean-spirited and unwatchable exercise. But it is tempered by a romantic longing for resolution, a classic Freudian desire for a frozen moment which will make everything clear and make all your problems go away. That it never comes is testament to the fact that despite his obsession with psychoanalysis, Hitchcock realised that it was an equally empty formula at the end of the day in which human beings are merely digits in an equation. People don't understand other people any more than they understand themselves, and the world we make for ourselves is no more than a fantasy.

This is a lonely and desperate portrait of human weakness which offers no solutions and promises only death and damnation. It is as damning a portrait of desire as has ever been seen on the screen. Punishment comes to all who exhibit it, and though on a superficial level, justice and the law seem to be served, they are both merely empty formulae by which society judges the true motivations of human beings (primarily male). Spiritual damnation is what is in question here, and the ghostlike imagery and obsession with recapturing the dead past drives the film and the story. These characters try to live lives based upon false and illusory images of themselves as men and women. Their desire is to lose themselves to a romantic fantasy of gender which will allow them to escape the world as it is. But their masks are eroded as the murder plot unfolds, exposing the hypocracies and lies upon which these images are based. Only death awaits them on the other side, a final reality they are unwilling to face but cannot avoid.

Finally, there is no triumphalist masculinity at the end as the heart-rending final chords of Bernard Herrmann's score play out. Stewart stands staring downwards from a height, the body of Novak far below. He is like Lucifer contemplating the fall. His illusions of power have come crashing down. He has conquered his vertigo, but lost his inner life of fantasy to a crushing reality he must face alone.

Vertigo is one of the most emotionally disturbing films ever made, totally engrossing and deeply affecting. Yet over time people have become so lost in trying to define the source of its power that they have forgotten to enjoy the simple pleasures of what is also a well-made movie, including the work of its talented cast. Criticism of Stewart's performance over time has not dimmed his contribution, which, like the rest of the film, has a level of self-study perhaps not given due credit. Who better to play a man so deeply disturbed and inwardly dark than a man who previously stood for wholesomeness and decency? It is a perverse Hitchcockian joke in which Stewart willingly participates, stretching himself as a performer to find the melancholic and manic edge required to make it work. Novak, like most of Hitchcock's women, is given little to do but be observed and judged (as has been so often noted), yet she clearly attempts to make her character human and believable within those constraints. Barbara Bel Geddes is marvellous as the lovelorn Midge, a woman robbed of her individuality and power by her love for a worthless man, but of whose love and affection that same man is also eventually deprived.

The story, based on the novel D'entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau, moves along nicely and has plenty of twists and turns (though by now we all know the basics), and as a movie, it still performs the basic thematic and narrative functions necessary for genuine entertainment. But the intricacy of the direction, the subtlety with which the multi-faceted images are rendered, the tricks and devices of camera movement and focus which allow a sense of the delusions and psychoses of these characters to emerge remain an unassailable contribution to motion picture art. Hitchcock crafts a film which is both involving and watchable, but which easily taps the psychological and emotional depths of the material, making it more than just an ordinary thriller. Every element, visual and aural, is in the hands of the master, and he plys his trade with a passion previously (and subsequently) unseen in his work.

The score is also worthy of particular note; beautiful, powerful and capable of raising a chill on its own terms. But complemented by the eerie visuals (including a semi-experimental dream sequence), it becomes a hypnotic descent into human darkness without resolution. The main theme only achieves a harmonic catharsis during the scene where Novak is transformed from Judy into Madeline under the green glare of neon lights and the demented eyes of her would-be lover, but thereafter returns to a desperately unresolved melody which eventually ends, like the score for Psycho, on a sinister half-tone suggesting a continued disruption of the soul. Robert Burks' cinematography is also stunning: best seen on the big screen, of course. The difficult job of matching the atmosphere of hallucination with the spectacular vistas of 1950s San Francisco nonetheless does not so much advertise the art of cinematography itself as serve the film on the whole. The opening title sequence designed by Saul Bass is perhaps his greatest work in a long career (pale echoes of which were seen not so long ago in Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear) enveloping the audience in a series of dizzying spirals which set the tone of disorientation which continues throughout. The result is a film which is impossible to forget, even if the details of the plot become hazy, and which is still capable of producing a frisson forty years later.

Of course, echoes of Vertigo are heard everywhere. It has become so much part of film folklore that one might fear that its original integrity has been compromised. But the reissue once again proves how commanding a film it is; capable of making the audience leave the theatre not only nodding sagely having seen a great work of cinematic art, but taken through the emotional and psychological wringer. It leaves you breathless and despairing, your heart crushed by the inevitability of its resolution and the certain knowledge that for all its trances, dreams and fantasies, Vertigo has a firm and unrelenting grip on the world we live in every day, and it is not a pleasant place to be.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.