Monday Editor’s Pick: “Vertigo” (1958)

by on June 6, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing through Wed June 8th at 6:30 & 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
What can one say about The Film of Films that hasn’t been said better before?
Dave Kehr from his recently published anthology, When Movies Mattered:

The dream of Vertigo–the dream of a love that leads to death, of a beautiful illusion that gives way to nothingness–is also a dream of the movies. Which is why, perhaps, Vertigo has always meant more to filmmakers and film critics than to the general public. More so than any other of Hitchcock’s works (more so, I would say, than any other movie), Vertigo speaks of a passion for film, a passion that isn’t always a healthy one. It’s a love for the illusory and the ineffable that is also a love for the false, the blood-less, the empty.
Vertigo is, of course, an intensely personal film, but it is also—uniquely for Hitchcock, the master orchestrator of audience response—a fiercely private one. Private not in the sense that it’s meaningful only for the author, but because it assumes an isolated viewer, a spectator alone with the screen. Unlike Hitchcock’s other films, Vertigo is not a social event; it gains nothing from the mass choruses of laughs and screams that usually accompany a Hitchcock film (and Hitchcock does nothing to encourage them), and may even lose a little. The film’s address is so intimate, so hushed, that it seems barely possible the film was made for commercial exhibition. Hitchcock’s ideal audience seems to have been a spectator sitting alone in a screening room—in short, himself, but also everyone who has ever understood movies as sufficient company.


Hitchcock Annual editor Richard Allen in Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony:

Vertigo, like Rebecca, is a film about the allure of the dead upon the living, but in Vertigo the deathly object of desire is fully incarnated in the figure of Judy Barton, who dons the masquerade of Madeleine possessed. The ghostlike quality of Madeleine’s apparent possession bestows a sense of timelessness, or masklike immortality. As legions of critics have pointed out, Madeleine is a fetish object for Scottie Ferguson in a manner that is made explicit by the way in which, when he loses her, he reconstructs her image by using the body of one Judy Barton from Salina, Kansas, who, of course, turns out to have been Madeleine after all. But, as in Rebecca, Hitchcock fully implicates the spectator in the deathly allure of Judy, not simply through character identification and point of view, but through the orchestration of camera movement, color, graphic design, mise-en-scène, and performance in a manner that makes the world of the film itself an extension and amplification of the aestheticized object, Madeleine, within it. The result is a film of aching beauty, the fullest realization of what I have called Hitchcock’s feminine aesthetic, and a supreme achievement in the history of cinema.


Robin Wood in the landmark Hitchcock’s Films (Revisited):

Some of the best films that have come from Hollywood…have had as their core this theme of discontent with the actual world, but none has explored it so profoundly or brought it home to the spectator by such direct, inescapable means as Vertigo.
Vertigo seems to me of all Hitchcock’s films the one nearest to perfection. Indeed, its profundity is inseparable from the perfection of form: it is a perfect organism, each character, each sequence, each image, illuminating every other…In complexity, subtlety, in emotional depth, in its power to disturb, in the centrality of its concerns, Vertigo can as well as any film be taken to represent the cinema’s claims to be treated with the respect accorded to the longer established art forms.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun Times:

Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you what to do and what to say?
This cry from a wounded heart comes at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and by the time it comes we are completely in sympathy. A man has fallen in love with a woman who does not exist, and now he cries out harshly against the real woman who impersonated her. But there is so much more to it than that. The real woman has fallen in love with him. In tricking him, she tricked herself. And the man, by preferring his dream to the woman standing before him, has lost both.



Then there is another level, beneath all of the others. Alfred Hitchcock was known as the most controlling of directors, particularly when it came to women. The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blond. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.
Vertigo (1958), which is one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made, is the most confessional, dealing directly with the themes that controlled his art. It is *about* how Hitchcock used, feared and tried to control women. He is represented by Scottie (James Stewart), a man with physical and mental weaknesses (back problems, fear of heights), who falls obsessively in love with the image of a woman–and not any woman, but the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When he cannot have her, he finds another woman and tries to mold her, dress her, train her, change her makeup and her hair, until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the clay he is shaping; he will gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams.


Janet Maslin for the New York Times:

Nowhere else did Hitchcock’s perfectionism yield such feverish results, in an eerily perverse exploration of this director’s obsessive themes. Way ahead of its time in dreamily suggestive power, Vertigo lures James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson, a man terrified of falling, onto the trail of the voluptuous ice blonde who will bring him down.
The lure of death, the power of the past, the guilty complicity of a clean-cut hero, the near-fetishistic use of symbol and color: these Hitchcock hallmarks are all mesmerizingly on view. (Here’s a film in which the heroine’s twisting hairdo signals the hero’s primal terror. And in which, as the restoration newly emphasizes, there is ominous, alluring magic to a certain shade of green.)
With less playfulness and much more overt libido than other Hitchcock classics, Vertigo was always anomalous. And it has flaws that actually work to its advantage. Much of Kim Novak’s artificiality may have been unintended, but it suits the plot devilishly and works in stark contrast to Stewart’s great, entranced performance as a man who finds himself falling in every sense. And the appeal of Vertigo in the 1950’s was limited by the film’s perverse, disturbing power. That only makes better sense of it today.


And J. Ho in a pithy half-dozen lines of print:

Hauntingly perverse, the great film about the lost fetish object is itself a prize fetish object. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s surrealist masterpiece—it might have been titled “Enigma of the Hour” or Meshes of the Afternoon.

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