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Financial Times (16/Aug/2008) - Heights and depths: Vertigo

(c) Financial Times (16/Aug/2008)

Heights and depths

The 50th anniversary of Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' inspires Nigel Andrews to ponder cinema's most dizzying motif

See it run across the rooftops of the world. See it leap the divides of years and decades. See it pursue the ruthless, swift-heeled mastermind known as "Citizen" Kane. See it slip and tumble - it takes only a careless moment - and cling to the high guttering while the downward view seems to concertina beneath. See it survive, recover and live to continue the chase.

"It" - what else? - is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The cinema's greatest romantic thriller is 50 years old this summer. Many happy returns to a masterpiece, and there surely will be. Vertigo is now a perennial, number two in almost every critics' poll of great all-time movies and hotly pursuing Kane for the top spot.

Vertigo received a birthday present this summer that richly honoured its memory and re-evoked its wonders. Man on Wire might be a mirror image of the 1958 film's younger self. Watching James Marsh's documentary, a homage to the joy and terror of heights, I wondered if Hitchcock didn't discover - and this film about a Frenchman's wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center rediscover - a truth about cinema. At its best, isn't movie-watching comparable to the giddy elation, enriched with trepidation, of getting (literally) high?

What happens in those physical highs? We climb or fly, or are uplifted at a fairground, or are elevated to a skyscraper's roof or eyrie, and perspective is dashed from our senses. We see everything in an expanded vista. With the new omniscience comes a new, if momentary, anxiety. The destabilising of viewpoint, the giddying of sense and the senses. Yet, after a few discomposed moments, doesn't that destabilising also excite and inspire us - and accelerate our minds' receptors?

The viewpoint of a film - changing angles, concertina-ing between far and near, high and low - offers the same volatility. It sharpens our faculties even while displacing and disconcerting them. Hitchcock caught this rhyme between art and physical sensation so powerfully in Vertigo - that dizzying that also deepens - that it seems as much a movie about movies as about life and death. (He adds a third parallel motif, perhaps the most important of all, which we'll come to.)

We are yoyo'd between heaven and earth from the start of Vertigo : a rooftop chase between cops and a criminal that climaxes with detective James Stewart's elastic vision of the death-fall beneath him - that concertina shot that returns and recurs - as he slips, slides over a roof-edge and clings to the guttering.

Ceaselessly after that, in this movie about a man's passion for a seemingly married woman (who also seemingly dies), the story toys with heights and depths. From Spanish mission towers to suicide plunges; from soaring redwood forests to the drowning depths of a bay. Human life and wisdom, when a person opens himself to both (as to cinema), is a rollercoaster ride rather than a straight road: an image amplified by the San Francisco setting with the scenic highs and lows of its city streets.

By coincidence or kismet, Man on Wire, like the Hitchcock movie for which we called it the perfect birthday present, is an English-speaking film by a British director based on a French "original". The source material of James Marsh's film was a French high-wire artist's boldest show, performed in New York. Hitchcock's film is based on a French murder novel - D'Entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac - transposed to America.

"Anglo-French-American" is a rich triangulation. America brings gloss and pzazz, Britain imaginative pragmatism, France profundity and romance. Both Vertigo and Man on Wire are about men infatuated by death, or by the acts of danger that sweeten life by imperilling it. Hitchcock's film is about forbidden, or doomed, love. Marsh's film is about a funambule - a high-wire artist - who tempts fate to the ultimate.

Throughout cinema, the physical expression of emotional or spiritual vertigo has been literal vertigo. A man and woman meet atop the Empire State Building, in a union of giddy rapture that concludes a film in which accidents have kept them separate and grounded (Sleepless in Seattle). A pair of hero-outlaws jump off a high cliff into water to celebrate with a dare and a cheer their vertiginous new liberty of spirit (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). A man pursued for a murder he didn't commit teeters on scary heights, as if peering down at his baying, encroaching doom (Cary Grant on North by Northwest's Mount Rushmore). Another man, decades later (Harrison Ford in The Fugitive), takes a death-risking plunge from the top of a dam, as if to prove his innocence or to put to a final test his right to survive.

In some films, heights become places from which to survey and judge life on earth. Angels or devils look down, depending on whether the film is Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire (two mortal-immortal messengers perched atop Berlin's victory monument) or Carol Reed's The Third Man. Who forgets, once seen, Orson Welles as Harry Lime peering down from the Ferris wheel at the tiny humans below and asking Joseph Cotten: "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving?..." Moral vertigo. These are the moments when, giddied by the beguilements of elevation, we sit at God's cloudy desk and presume to do his paperwork.

Most of the great "highs" in cinema, though, are about the Everyman or Everywoman in us, disoriented by the abduction of terra firma. Where did it go? What happened? Is it ever a good idea to change heights or levels? Even stairs can be scary on screen. Something spooky is at the bottom if they lead to a cellar. Something spooky is at the top if we must climb through unknown shadows, like Dorothy Maguire in The Spiral Staircase or Martin Balsam in Psycho, to the lurking, murdering shadow above.

But it is the more spectacular seesaw-ings in space and air that involve us here. What exactly is the sensation caused by height, whether thrilling for the high-wire artist and excitement seeker or dreadful for the vertigo sufferer? Isn't it a kind of out-of-body experience?

The mind and senses find themselves a mile high while the earth-loving body remains, on some felt level of belief if not reality, at ground zero. Return to Vertigo. Hitchcock's film, which some transported critics see as cinema's answer to Tristan und Isolde, is all about the joys and punishments of romantic passion. That third motif we mentioned - that extra dimension that makes a trio of connecting rhymes (with vertigo and cinema itself) between the dizziness of disorientation and the epiphanies that accompany it - is love.

Falling in love. For the living it is the ultimate out-of-body experience. The mind and senses leave solid ground to fly out and fasten on the love object, while part of us remains - the observer? the earthling? the artist? - to look on and wonder. The fact that this highest "high" we know has an ancestral closeness to the darkest deep we know, the final out-of-body valediction called death, explains the liebestod hauntings of Hitchcock's movie, as of Wagner's opera. Love and death. Eros and Thanatos. Two strangers who never need an introduction.

The same hauntings are present in Man on Wire. That film records a walk on air that celebrated the giddy rapture of a life lived high and dangerous and in intimate defiance of - or amorous flirtation with - death.

Twenty-seven years after Philippe Petit's coup d'altitude the World Trade Center, of course, experienced its tragic downfall. Yet that too, in its inconsolable immensity, was a liebestod. As the towers fell on 9/11, the vastness of that collective destroying startled - like birds scattering at an explosion - a dozen, a hundred, or was it a thousand, messages. The mobile phones spoke even as the stone-and-glass Behemoths, from their giddy heights, began to tumble their occupants into the last, eternal dumbness. "I love you," said the messages home. "I love you." "I love you." "I love you..."