Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Alfred Hitchcock, "Vertigo" (1958).

Occasionally I am mystified by the consensus of critics. For years I've had a copy of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) on my shelf. I'd been saving it up for the right occasion, as I had heard from a few sources that it is the best film the director ever made. There's no doubt that Hitchcock was a master among the rare class of filmmakers that consistently garner commercial and critical acclaim. I had seen, and been impressed by, Rear Window (1954), The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960), and Rope (1948). I liked Frenzy (1972) and North by Northwest (1959). Surprisingly the only film of his I did not like was The 39 Steps (1935), and that was probably because the public domain copy I had was a bad cut. So I was absolutely sure I was saving a treat by not tearing open Vertigo as soon as I bought it.

Imagine my surprise when I fell asleep the first time I tried to watch it. Extending the benefit of the doubt, I told myself that it was because I was exhausted when I put it in. So the next night I had both the energy and the freedom to watch a full length film, I chose to give it another try. The truth of the matter is that it does start slow. Deliberate pacing is usually no problem for me, so I settled in to soak up the atmosphere of the San Franciscan settings. I liked the sophistication of many of the interior designs, and the look of a major American city before the age of homogenization. The set-up is intricate, as we meet the ex-cop lead (played by Jimmy Stewart), who has had to retire from the force because of psychological trauma from a recent tragic event in the field. We watch him flirt with a female friend (Barbara Bel Geddes) that he once had some intimate involvement with. Then Stewart becomes intertwined in a plot to shadow an ex-acquaintance's attractive wife (Kim Novak).

The plot development in Vertigo introduces uncertainties that lead the viewer to ask just what kind of movie he/she is watching. Is this film noir, romance, a ghost story, a thriller, or a who-done-it? For awhile I felt that worked to its benefit. Hitchcock is in no hurry to let his audience know what is transpiring between the characters. Stewart is not even sure what he is looking for. There are a number of scenes that focus on his tracking of Novak, and they expose the viewer to both stunning locales and increased confusion. But eventually Stewart's hand is forced, and he saves his prey from mad peril. This event leads to a developing romantic dynamic that ensnares both leads. Together the unlikely couple takes to the road in order to determine the nature of Novak's seemingly unconscious wanderings. As they get closer to an explanation, the heat between them increases. And then an accident occurs, resulting in a complete mental breakdown for our hero.

The second half of the movie picks up after Stewart has spent an entire year in some sort of mental hospital. The loyal Geddes has stuck by her friend, who she obviously loves. She seems to be committed to seeing Stewart through a full recovery... but suddenly Hitchcock yanks her out of the movie without any explanation at all. This was the first major problem I had with Vertigo. I had a hard time processing the complete disposability of what had seemed a major player in the story. It was almost as if the director included Geddes just so he (and Stewart) would have someone to treat completely dismissively. Yet we don't get the chance to empathize with her plight. She simply disappears. We have no idea what happens with (or to) her. Perhaps her later scenes simply ended up on the cutting room floor.

As we work our way through the back end, the plot increasingly strains its own credibility. We follow the dazed Stewart (who is barely back on his feet) searching for something that he's not even sure exists. As he latches on to whatever comfort is available, we have the opportunity to feel sorry for him. But somehow he stumbles toward an unlikely revelation. All at once Hitchcock gives up the game, removing any suspenseful tension that might have remained in this unbelievable story. From there on out to the very end of the film, there is no payoff or surprise. In the very last minute, Hitchcock throws in a cheap stunner and we are cast into the credits along with a very shocked Stewart.

After watching the conclusion of Vertigo, I was left with the feeling that I had been abandoned by a bored filmmaker. There are some pleasurable moments in the duration, and an interesting (if dated) hallucinatory dream sequence that could not have possibly failed in getting my attention. But overall I was left wondering how this could have been selected as Hitchcock's masterpiece. Contrary to the conventional belief that it is one of the best films ever made, I thought it was a bit of a mess. Even with its few strengths, it requires a suspension of disbelief that I was not capable of assuming, and presents a strange discontinuity that runs counter to its excellent reputation. In the end, I consider it merely a worthwhile distraction.

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