For no real reason other than the fact it was lying in the huge pile of library DVDs besides my TV, the first film I have decided to check out is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Hitchcock is probably the most iconic director in cinema history but my personal experience with Hitchcock only extends to two films. I watched the first, Psycho (1960) for a high school English class quite a few years ago now. Whilst I haven’t seen it since then I remember being shocked (in my school boy innocence) that I could like an old film so much. I was also struck by the technical skill of Hitchcock and the manner in which each shot had something to say. Not to mention one of the most famous twists in all of cinema history. I saw my second Hitchcock film a month or two ago as part of a first year uni course. It was Rear Window (1954) and whilst again I was astounded by Hitchcock technical proficiency, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the film overall. For some reason the story just did not grab me and whilst the set was incredibly constructed, I felt the film at times constrained by its setting. It will be interesting to see if these sentiments hold up with a second viewing of these films (Hitchcock has a massive 18 films including these 2 on the 1001 list).
So now, after that rather longwinded intro, on to Vertigo. My film studies lecturer described this film as probably Hitchcock’s best and most well realised film. My knowledge of the director’s work is not sufficient to make any such claims but it is certainly an exceptional work. It opens with a long and beguiling credit sequence featuring extreme close ups of a face and whirling graphics. It really is a treat to watch in an age where credit sequences generally consist of a bunch of names over some average graphics that someone has slapped together at the last moment (Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) is one recent film which bucks this trend). From here the film jumps straight into a chase scene across rooftops, accompanied by unrelenting music. The tension is high and we see a police officer plunge to his death whilst attempting to save the life of his colleague.
Finally the audience is able to draw breath. We are introduced to the police officer that watched the other one plunge to his death. His name is John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson and we learn that as a result of the incident he now suffers from extreme vertigo and has retired from the force. He has been told that only another shock to the system like the initial one he suffered will overturn the condition. My ears pricked on hearing this. I was certain at some stage we would see this second shock to his system. In this sequence Ferguson is chatting to his lifelong friend Midge. The relationship between the two is lovingly portrayed throughout the film. They have a believable rapport and inject some humour into the film. Personally my enjoyment of the film was at its greatest when these two characters were on screen together.
The major plotline of the film kicks off when Ferguson receives a call from an old college acquaintance who asks him to follow his wife. In the opinion of this college friend his wife has been possessed by a dead women. Scottie initially scoffs at this suggestion but reluctantly agrees to trail the wife. After saving the wife Madeline’s life when she jumps into San Francisco Bay, Scottie and her fall in love. It is an affair that seemed somewhat uncomfortable to me as a viewer. Not just cause she was a married woman but also because she was clearly mentally unstable and Scottie seems to have no qualms taking advantage of this. I was not sure why Scottie falls for Madeline, why he initially chooses to make a move on her. This initial plotline ends with Scottie’s vertigo coming back to haunt him as he watches his love plunge to her death from the roof of a church.
It is here that the film takes an unexpected tonal shift. Prior to this it has been a reasonably conventional (but brilliantly shot) thriller. The audience is subjected to a scary nightmare sequence into which Hitchcock inserts pieces of animation. This is a bold sequence which could easily have backfired and come off looking twee, or just downright laughable. But it works exceptionally well and it is on this sequence that the whole film turns. From here it is Scottie’s sanity that it in question. He tracks down and seduces a woman who he thinks looks somewhat like Madeline. He forces this woman Judy to buy clothes that match those Madeline wore and colour her hair the same striking blonde colour. These scenes, with Scottie forcing the increasingly uncomfortable Judy to do his bidding are exceptionally unsettling even to the modern viewer and really complicate ones feelings toward Scottie. These scenes reminded me a lot of a similarly unsettling scene late in James Ellroy’s classic crime novel The Black Dahlia which I have no doubt were heavily inspired by Vertigo. The film concludes with Scottie uncovering the film’s big twist, that he has been played and with Judy accidentally plunging to her death. The end of the film left me unsure as to how I was meant to view Scottie. His actions toward Judy in forcing her to dress like Madeline were clearly those of someone not of sane mind and this unnerving chronicle of his obsession really coloured my opinion of the film’s supposed ‘hero’.
The use of music by Hitchcock dominates much of this film in much the same way that the setting dominates Rear Window in my opinion. And the film is majestically shot and composed, with many scenes of the film being artworks in themselves. The high camera angle shot of Madeline’s body being discovered whilst Scottie flees the church springs to mind as a picture that would look pretty cool hanging on my wall. Like any film, this is an imperfect one. But to examine the films flaws – such as the character’s occasionally underdeveloped motives and the unsatisfactory tying up of the initial thriller plotline – in any great detail is really to quibble unnecessarily. It is a brilliantly made and at times exceptionally unsettling film.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny