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New York Times (15/Jan/1984) - Vertigo still gives rise to powerful emotions



Vertigo still gives rise to powerful emotions

An astonishing burst of applause greeted the penultimate moments of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 "Vertigo" at the performance I attended last week - astonishing because, only seconds later, the film's real ending left the audience gasping in disbelief. Those who had cheered the happy- looking near-finale must not have seen "Vertigo" before. They must have been caught off-guard by this film's stubborn, single-minded intensity, and by its uncharacteristic (for Hitchcock) reluctance to please.

The commonplaces about "Vertigo" - that it is Hitchcock at his most obsessive, his most perverse, his most sexual - don't even begin to convey how very haunting this film is, or how bizarre. Nor do they describe the sheer daring with which the director, in this film, defies both logic and audience expectations, working in a much riskier and more passionate style than the coolly controlled one that became his trademark. Another thing these observations don't convey is the degree to which "Vertigo" now looks dated, though its brilliance remains unmistakable. There's nothing else like "Vertigo" in the Hitchcock canon - nothing so urgent, so feverish and also, paradoxically, so contrived.

Surely "Vertigo" is the Hitchcock film that arouses the strongest emotions, both on and off the screen. Those who regard it as Hitchcock's masterpiece will be matched, now that the film has been re-released, by those who find it more dated than the other current reissue, "Rear Window," and less prodigiously charming. Indeed, a segment of this same above-mentioned "Vertigo" audience apparently found the film laughable, joking on the way out of the theater about why neither Kim Novak's shoes nor her eyebrows are lost when, midway through the film, she dives into the San Francisco Bay.

One of the peculiarities of "Vertigo" is the relative primitivism that, from the pre-computer graphic whorls of the titles, to the awkward dream sequence, to the uneasy, faintly Joan Fontaine-ish quality of Miss Novak's performance in her early scenes, keeps the film from coming fully to life. These flaws haven't prevented "Vertigo" from becoming many people's favorite of all Hitchcock films; certainly (along with "Notorious," "Strangers on a Train" and "Psycho") it's one of mine. But they do insure that the film be watched for its fastidious symmetry and its extraordinarily rich subtext, rather than on the simple story level. It was never, after all, one of Hitchcock's most popular entertainments.

The supremely astute essay on "Vertigo" by the critic Robin Wood, in his book "Hitchcock's Films," is essential reading for its thorough thematic analysis. The film's morbidity, its obsession with the past, its parallelisms and its visual style are all explored at great length, although Mr. Wood readily overlooks Miss Novak's performance and other mundane shortcomings. The film's only real flaw, according to Mr. Wood, is a plot point. Who could be sure that a man watching his beloved falling from a bell tower would not remain at the scene of the accident - even a man who suffered, as James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson does, from a dread of falling?

Scottie - who, as Mr. Wood points out, is a man so adrift that not even his name remains consistent throughout the film - develops his vertigo in an opening sequence, which has the startling visual economy characteristic of the rest of the film. A glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, a shot of a criminal running across a rooftop, and the sight of the great James Stewart in hot pursuit establish Mr. Stewart's Scottie as a San Francisco detective. Seconds later, Scottie hangs desperately from the rooftop, and a police colleague dies while trying to save him. How does Scottie get down from the rooftop, then? We never know, but it is at this point that "Vertigo" abandons pure logic, adopting its own dreamlike reasoning.

"Vertigo" is divided in half, with its sections linked to the two women played by Miss Novak, an elegant blonde named Madeleine Elster and a tawdry redhead named Judy Barton. Madeleine's husband hires the now-retired Scottie to follow Madeleine, claiming that his wife has a mysterious and dangerous fascination with a long-dead woman named Carlotta Valdes. During the course of this pursuit, which is presented as a series of silent visits to unnaturally empty San Francisco locales, Scottie falls in love with Madeleine, only to lose her to what Madeleine describes as a preordained fate. This part of the film may seem relatively implausible - the Carlotta Valdes story, especially as described by Miss Novak in her archly aristocratic guise, is never really convincing - but it is subtly and powerfully seductive. By the time Scottie encounters Judy Barton, whom he attempts to remake into his lost Madeleine, his obsession has taken on enormous poignancy. And Miss Novak's Judy, pleading for redemption and a second chance in the film's final moments, becomes such a sympathetic figure that the film's ending is truly heartbreaking.

Hitchcock's most idiosyncratic stroke here, aside, of course, from the intensely sexual, even fetishistic process of letting Scottie dress Judy as Madeleine the way another man might undress his lover, was that of revealing Judy's secret well before the denouement; the book on which the film was loosely based ("D'Entre les Morts," by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) saved this revelation for last. At the cost of considerable suspense, Hitchcock heightened the audience's identification with these characters tremendously, and he turned the film's climax into an agony. The sight of Mr. Stewart, dragging the helpless Miss Novak up the stairs to the same bell tower we have seen before, and insisting he can triumph over the past, is perhaps the most wrenching image Hitchcock ever created. Of all his heroines haunted by the past, from Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca" to Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious," this is the one whose pain is most palpable. And Scottie is Hitchcock's most passionate hero, a man whose obsession is so extreme and unrelenting that the audience cannot help but share it with him.

Even for a Hitchcock film, "Vertigo" is unusually meticulous; today's audiences can watch it as closely for the intricate color scheme (Madeleine, for instance, wears blacks and grays but has an essentially green aura) as for its deeper themes. Hitchcock's absolute control was not lessened by the emotional intensity he brought to this pet project; if anything, it became even more rigorous. Nothing is casual here, not the scene in which Scottie playfully tries to cure his vertigo by advancing up a stepladder (this establishes him as a rationalist, though reason will later fail him), and not even the lighter scenes of Scottie with his pal and ex-girlfriend, Midge. As played so pertly by Barbara Bel Geddes, Midge is nonetheless such a carefully drawn character that she always wears the identical sweater, albeit in different colors. When Midge appears, after a number of scenes in pastels, wearing a red version of her outfit, Hitchcock signals trouble as surely as he might have by sounding an alarm.

If "Rear Window" seemed a pleasant surprise when it re-emerged last fall, "Vertigo" now seems shocking. For those who remember it fondly as Hitchcock's lost masterpiece, there are some surprisingly rough edges; for those to whom it is unfamiliar, it may seem almost unbearably cruel. What is sure to startle anyone is the spectacle of a film, especially so emotionally powerful a film, whose every element is so precisely geared to the larger whole. No director today exerts the kind of unrelenting control that Hitchcock did. And Hitchcock, for all his remarkable powers of reason, never shaped a film as fervently or perversely as he did this one.