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Film Quarterly (2008) - Second Time Around: "Vertigo"






The first time — in 1958, during the original release — was not happy. Though the vertigo shot made my head spin deliciously, it furnished my only thrill; the otherwise impenetrable yarn, by turns too slow-moving for my interest or too fast-paced for my understanding, had to be repeatedly explained to me by my mother afterward. I was disappointed at not finding the Hitchcock thriller I already knew, and incapable of appreciating the modernist art film that without warning had stolen its identity. (In this, apparently, I resembled the grown-ups around me; Film Quarterly, which, like Vertigo, first appeared in 1958, did not review it.) Since then, I have sat many times in movie theaters while Vertigo was being projected, have also purchased several versions of the film for my TV, PC, and iPod. Yet despite such various second chances (of which another has just been offered me with Universal’s new Legacy Series edition), I have little better idea of what Vertigo is about now than I did when I was ten years old; my ignorance has merely got stranger, because less explicable in an adult; it must seem, though it does not feel, like a phony trance. Was this first viewing — bored, restive, and uncomprehending — nonetheless so magnetic that it is drawing me still? Does it return, by some mundane memory trigger or mysterious unconscious agency, to repossess me?

There seems to be, in any event, no losing it. For though I now enter the temple called Vertigo with every intention of devotion, I soon start behaving like an ignorant and ill- behaved child made to sit through high mass. Irresistibly, my mind wanders, falls into daydreams or spins off into reminiscences related to the film by only the most finely customized tangents. And when, suddenly and for no good reason, something in the film — a line, a shot, a musical phrase — brings me back from these absent states, I hardly know what I regret more — losing the fiercely vivid pleasure that they afforded, or missing the master key to unlocking Vertigo, which I am convinced must have been proffered on screen just after I went off.

Naturally, I make frequent resolutions to watch Vertigo more responsibly, in a manner better suited to its status as perhaps the greatest film of them all. But even when I most doggedly concentrate on the images before me, I find myself sidetracked — staring at peripheral details, fixated on private, incommunicable nuances, or...

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The author gratefully acknowledges Mr. Jesse Warr, his guide on the Vertigo Tour.

  • D. A. MILLER is John F. Hotchkis Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in San Francisco, on the same street as Madeleine Elster.
  • DVD DATA Vertigo. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. © 1958 Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions Inc./Paramount Pictures Corporation. Publisher: Universal Studios/Universal Legacy Series. $26.98, 2 discs.