Friday, 3 August 2012

The Tramp Reviews: Vertigo

Every decade since 1952, the film magazine Sight and Sound have published the definitive list of the fifty greatest films ever made. Definitive, supposedly, because almost a thousand critics, academics and industry bods are polled in order to construct the list. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane won the number one position in 1962, and has dominated the top spot ever since. Until yesterday, of course, when the 2012 was published, and Citizen Kane was finally toppled from its perch by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Whether Vertigo is the greatest film ever made has been the subject of much debate over the last couple of days, but it is undoubtedly refreshing to finally see a different film at the the top of the list. More to the point, while I question the designation of ‘greatest film ever made’, Hitchcock’s tale of murder, obsession and acrophobia is arguably his fullest and most satisfying work, offering classic Hitchcockian intrigue, mystery and suspense, and is the subject of this week’s Tramp's Review.

Along with Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), 1958's Vertigo is one of Hitchcock's great masterpieces, and in many ways epitomises his greatness as a master director. I would go as far as to say that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most spectacular film, and one of the richest and most visually compelling films ever made. The plot involves John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, played by James Stewart, a police detective who is forced into early retirement due to a severe bout of vertigo which results in the grisly death of one of his colleagues. Scottie’s friend, a wealthy businessman named Gavin Elster, hires him as a private detective to investigate his wife’s strange behaviour, whom he claims is the reincarnation of a woman who died in tragic circumstances. Ferguson is understandably sceptical, but agrees to investigate Elster’s wife, played by Kim Novak, anyway.

Spot the subtext: Vertigo plays with our desire to see the unseen.
What follows is a fascinating and disturbing examination of voyeurism, obsession, and an incredibly rich and complex deconstruction of the inherent fetishistic nature of cinema. After Scottie follows her to the foot of the Golden Gate bridge, Madeleine Elster, apparently in a trance, throws herself into the river. After rescuing her, Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine, engaging in an ill-advised affair with her, leading to a series of violent and surreal discoveries. Up to this point, Scottie has appeared as most of Stewart’s characters: calm, morally upstanding and heroic, but in the scene directly following Madeleine’s rescue this begins to change. When Madeleine wakes up, she finds herself in Scottie’s bed, nude. Presumably he removed her wet clothes before putting her to bed, but what exactly happened after he removed her clothes, or why he did so at all, remains conspicuously unspoken, and Scottie’s almost uncontrollable sexual attraction to Madeleine becomes extremely apparent. Hitchcock’s casting of Stewart here is inspired: Stewart typically played heroic everymen, and so casting him as a lecherous anti-hero both unbalances that sense of typecasting (a trick that Sergio Leone repeated to great effect by casting perennial good guy Henry Fonda as the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West), and for a time obscures the character’s more ignoble traits by manipulating the expectations of an audience familiar with Stewart’s more conventional heroic roles. Brilliantly, on a second viewing, the way that Scottie follows Madeleine before she jumps in to the river offers a far more sinister, predatory perspective on his behaviour, and the intense colours with which Hitchcock fills the frame emphasise Scottie’s dangerous sexual-visual obsession with Madeleine’s appearance.

One of the film’s high points happens before the film proper even begins, in a bravura opening-credits sequence designed by Saul Bass. Bass was the creative genius responsible for many of cinema’s most iconic poster and design campaigns, including the opening credits in Psycho and North by Northwest, and the poster designs for Otto Preminger’s 1955 The Man with the Golden Arm. In extreme close-up, the camera fixes on Kim Novak’s face, moving from her cheek, to her lips, and up to her nose, before settling on one eye, as disorienting music plays. The camera methodically dissects the face on screen, coldly examining each of her features. As we are directed to her eye, patterns swirl up and disorient us, mimicking the effect of vertigo that Stewart’s character experiences in the film. Vertigo’s credits aren’t just a stylish opening to the film: they’re integral to the way that Ferguson’s illness is used as a physical manifestation of his detached voyeurism: spectatorship that has become out of control and without perspective. It’s a triumph of the merging of theme and spectacle.

Indeed, visually, the film is a tour de force, and one of Hitchcock’s most beautiful and spectacularly arresting pictures. Where Psycho uses black and white photography, all sharp edges and stabbing lines, to emphasise its violence, Vertigo saturates the screen in lurid, gratuitous colour. When Scottie first sees Madeleine in a restaurant, her striking green and black dress and blonde hair are contrasted against the wallpaper that floods the screen with deep, violent red, and as the camera focusses on Madeleine, the screen visibly glows with luminescence. Similarly, in a brief dream sequence that rivals the Salvador Dali scene in Spellbound, colour flashes through Ferguson’s mind in a swirling, chaotic spectacle. The intense visuals of Vertigo reflect Scottie’s own obsession with the visual, and his equation of sexual desire with physical appearance. He compulsively fixates on Madeleine, frequently mistaking women with similar hairstyles or clothes for her. Later, when he meets and begins a relationship with Judie Barton, a woman with an unusually striking resemblance to Madeleine, he tries to remodel her in the former’s image. The fetishisation of spectacle is one of the defining elements of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and nowhere is it more apparent, or more fully explored than in Vertigo. Moreover, Vertigo offers a commentary on the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema, and is surely one of the best examples of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘male gaze’, writ large in Jimmy Stewart’s fetishistic obsession with Kim Novak’s Madeleine.

Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, in one of Vertigo's many painterly compositions.
Vertigo is Hitchcock at his most mature and assured. Psycho is undoubtedly a masterpiece in its own right, but as the marketing campaign for that film underlines, there is an almost puerile delight at the violence and perversion taking place on screen. By comparison, Vertigo engages in the same voyeurism and fetishising of violence as Pyscho, but goes further by offering an analysis of the nature of that voyeurism, to the point where it becomes the film’s central concern. Ironically, given the highly stylised, cinematic world of Vertigo, this film offers a far more psychologically nuanced, textured narrative than any other of Hitchcock’s pictures, presenting us with arguably the most complete vision of Hitchcock’s cinema. Hitchcock’s examination of the relationship between sexual desire, violence, and death, are present in most of his other works, but are never richer, even in the sexually rampant Psycho, than they are here. Strangers on a Train offers a vision of perversion and entrapment, The Birds, inexplicable, unknowable violence and panic, and Psycho, sexuality and transgression. But Vertigo presents us with everything Hitchcock could offer as a director and storyteller. It would be reductive to claim that Hitchcock distils everything about his narrative, visual and thematic concerns into one film. I do think, however, that Vertigo is his most thematically complex, and complete, film, offering us a definitive thesis on the nature of film, and securing Hitchcock’s position as one of cinema’s greatest directors.  

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