#325. Vertigo (1958)

When I first watched Vertigo while taking a Hitchcock class in college I

(1) fell asleep during one of the scenes where Jimmy Stewart is following Kim Novak around town,

(2) couldn’t follow the story, and

(3) didn’t understand why it’s championed as one of Hitchcock’s best movies (I wrote it off the to the fact that it was shot in color and had the tricky camera maneuver that simulates falling).

            So now that I’m watching it again seven years later within the context of its cultural moment, and a sense of where it stands and what it represents in Hitchcock’s body of work, I feel like I’m coming full circle, completing an arc of understanding; but I also feel like I’m closing another sort of circle because on the day that I started Thousand Movie Project (before it had a name) I watched the first two movies on the List, Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery, and then, in the evening, I made a DiGiorno and watched the documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, about director Fracois Truffaut’s marathon interview with Alfred Hitchcock, who at this point in his career was a beloved household name, he had a world of leeway in Hollywood, but he was considered an entertainer, not an artist; meanwhile, in France, the likes of Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the whole staff of Cahiers du cinema, revered Hitchcock as basically the Shakespeare of his form. And so Truffaut, as the basis for a book-length transcript that has since become a religious text among cinephiles, walked Hitchcock through his entire filmography and asked about his artistic choices in each movie.

            It makes for a great book—but I remember the documentary being kinda lopsided for how it lavished so much attention on Vertigo, particularly from Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, both of whom champion it as Hitchcock’s most personal film, his most influential, and they talk about how it struck a kind of middling chord with critics and audiences of the late 1950s, which is what made it so maddeningly obscue in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and when De Palma got his hands on a grainy print sometime in that latter decade they all gathered in his apartment, I think Spielberg too, and watched the movie over and over.

Truffaut and Hitchcock during their marathon interview.

            When I heard them talk about it with such reverence four years ago, I thought, “OK, I don’t remember Vertigo all that favorably, but if I follow through with watching all the movies on this List, I should have a real clear idea of what these guys are talking about by the time I reach the late ‘50s.”

            And I think I do.

            I still don’t like the movie all that much, still find it pretty tedious, but knowing what I know about Hitchcock, and having at this point read a great deal about how filmmakers work and express themselves, I see something profound in Vertigo’s exploration of (1) the sensation of falling, (2) the idea of people pretending to be others, (3) the idea of manipulating a person’s appearance (particularly a woman’s) and having her play a certain role that resonates with you emotionally (exactly what Hitchcock was doing with his famous succession of blond stars).

            I’m sorry to say that I still don’t totally understand what’s happening in the story as it’s unfolding. Jimmy Stewart is hired to follow Kim Novak, presumably she’s in trouble, but it turns out to be a setup. She’s not the woman she’s dressed as. The whole point is for Stewart to see her commit suicide, think that a certain woman is dead, when, in reality, the woman she’s impersonating was murdered, murdered by the guy who hired him…

            I’m getting this from Wikipedia because in the movie it’s just too much to follow.

I’ve been told I focus too much on this, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hitchcock himself appears in so much of his films’ promotional material. Not just his name lording over the credits or anything–I mean his face, or his silhouette. And I think it’s because most of his movies are only interesting insofar as they expand on the idea of his brand.

  Because one of Vertigo’s defining characteristics, which is also a distinctly Hitchcockian quality, is that there isn’t just a physical MacGuffin in the movie (i.e. the ticking bomb or box of uranium that the hero cares about while the audience just roots for him to shoot bad guys); the whole plot of this movie is a MacGuffin. The story develops so slowly it becomes absorbed in the fog of Jimmy Stewart’s neuroses: he’s suffering from depression, PTSD, agoraphobia, and a general case of…obsession. Which is maybe the byproduct of all those other issues entwined into a cumulative shape.

            To ask what Vertigo is “about” might seem to invite a plot synopsis—ignore those.

            Ignore anybody who tells you, “It’s about a PI who’s hired to follow his old friend’s wife…”

            The movie is about obsession. It’s about movies and about “gazes”, how people look at things and seem content to believe their fictions so long as, on the surface, everything looks OK. It’s about why we (a filmmaker especially) create those visual fictions to behin with. What’s the absence we’re tryna fill? When, at the end of the movie, Jimmy Stewart confronts Kim Novak, exposing the whole charade while also confronting his agoraphobia at the top of the bell tower where this whole fantasy began, what does he get?

            She falls to her actual death this time.

            He overcomes his fear.

            But he loses his beautiful fiction in the process.

            That fiction, like so many that we create, was toxic, but it was also his respite from a terrible truth. Like they say about drug addiction: the drug isn’t the problem, it’s the toxic solution to some other problem in the addict’s life.

            The confrontation of his fiction might be healthy for him personally, psychologically, but if he confronts his neurotic fiction and challenges it, he loses it. And we, in turn, lose our metaphors. We lose art.

            So maybe Vertigo’s a kind of arist’s exploration of (and resignation to) the ways he twists reality in order to cope with it? The way he obsesses over things? Another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s work is that of voyeurism, and in the famous museum scene here where we see Jimmy Stewart spying on Jim Novak as she herself sits before and studies a painting in which characters move about who don’t know they’re  being studied.

            Stewart doesn’t know that we are watching him as he watches a woman who doesn’t know she’s being watched while she herself gazes at people who don’t know they’re being watched…

            The endlessness of it.

            What I finally understand and admire about Vertigo is how enigmatic it is, that it’s a masterpiece not only for its clear technical mastery but for this Roraschach quality whereby it invites a viewer to interpret the material and find, within that interpretation, a reflection.

            I admire it, and I appreciate that it is a thriller and it is geared toward holding an audience’s attention and telling a gripping story (unlike the kind of meditative masterpiece we’ll discuss with Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Aaventura), but, again, it’s a little too ponderous at times, and grips me tighter in retrospect than it does while unfolding.

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