Movie Review: Vertigo
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Reviewed: 19 May 2012
jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)
Vertigo represents the pinnacle of cinema for me, the exciting astonishment of everything that film can offer. Personally, to prepare for this essay, I reviewed my impressions from March of 1996 when I first studied the film in Dave Wetta's Composition, Literature, & Film class at York High School. As a seventeen year old, I loved Bernard Hermann's hypnotic, operatic score, queried Kim Novak's uneven (to me) performance, questioned some of the plot threads (How did Madeleine disappear from the McKittreck Hotel early in the film?), and fell for the final shot, a despairing Jimmy Stewart as Scottie, hands open at his side, about to enter the abyss. My favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, states, "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" (Ebert 1). Self-deception, dreams versus reality, and self-destruction are central to unlocking this film. And, I am humble enough to state, I am going to continue to wrestle with this film and its greatness for many, many more years. I may never fully unlock this film.
Now in 2012, as I rewatched Vertigo twice this week in teaching it to my own AP Literature students who are approximately the same age that I was when Mr. Wetta showed it to me, I became overcome with emotion as I watched the film, tearing up at the shocking last two minutes because of the fierce urgency in Stewart's voice, the shift in the central relationship that occurs at the top of the bell tower, as well as the shocking denouement and chilling final shot. Watching students watch this ending for the first time, mouths agape, stunned by Hitchcock's swift, sure hand, I realized that Hitchcock's work as a director stands the test of time. Students were whispering to each other, trying to explain who was who, what happened, what the final image means.
Vertigo, a 1958 film where flowers cost fifty cents and over-the-top kisses can seem laughable to a more modern audience, was constructed by Alfred Hitchcock in such a meticulous way to play on the audience's anticipation of a supposed ghost story with the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, the slow chase through the spiraling streets of gorgeous San Francisco as Scottie circles and circles lower and lower into his own obsession, the thrill of revelation (midway through the film!) followed by a slow-burn confrontation, the horror of realizing what Scottie's final drive to the tower with Madeleine/Judy means, as well as the darkness of exploitative relationships. "It can't matter to you," Scottie tells Judy as he remakes her in Madeleine's image, according to his needs; "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?" Judy implores Scottie, offering a nakedly raw and utterly human craving for approval and love that is heart-breaking.
For me, the central moment in the film occurs before Madeleine runs to the tower for the first time, midway through the film. Madeline knows that she must complete her role in suavely sinister Gavin Elster's elaborate plot, yet she struggles visibly, physically, and in the registers of Novak's voice control, to free herself of Scottie's love. "Let me go!" she repeats, squirming out of Scottie's arm in a voice that clearly is her own, Judy's, betraying her double-personality, words dripping with double meanings. She loves Scottie, stating "It wasn't supposed to be like this!" She sounds like Judy for the first time in the film; she is not Madeleine. Novak's subtle work (which I misread as uneven as a high school senior) here and throughout the entire film is masterful; her striking image is the dominant one of the film, and we, through our surrogate of Scottie, are happy to follow her, to wander with her and after her, to pursue her in slow motion, touching upon her vertiginous spiral of a hairstyle, her hand clutching her heart, her "phony trances," and her eyes which show both terror and longing. Hitchcock's steady, confident hand allows us to understand Judy's vertigo (or simply disorientation) as well as Scottie's. In my phone call this week with my film teacher, Mr. Wetta and I both agreed on the power of Novak in this film.
Czech writer Milan Kundera describes vertigo in his acclaimed novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being as such: "Vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves" (Kundera 60). The first line in the film is a plea offered by a policeman who tries and fails to pull Scottie from the abyss: "Give me your hand. Give me your hand." This line is offered before the policeman topples off of the roof (stylistically linked to the bell tower at the end), powerless to pull himself up or maintain a grip. No hand offered by anyone can save Scottie Ferguson from joining his beloved Madeleine's leap into the darkness, into the abyss; nothing can defend him from the desire to fall. Nothing and no one is left to defend him against this impulse. His suicidal leap is preordained in his garish nightmare.
He falls. And we fall with him. Thanks, Hitch. Thanks, Mr. Wetta. Thanks, AP Lit students.
Ebert, Roger. "Movie Review: Vertigo." Web: Chicago Sun-Times, 13 October 1996.
Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.
Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Universal, 1958. DVD.