When Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo won last year’s Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, replacing Citizen Kane (which had held the top place since 1962), it seemed to represent the triumph of a fundamentally different idea of cinema. Kane is Orson Welles’ most classically “perfect” film – naturally, one might assess its qualities higher or lower than those of other pictures, but I don’t think there’d be a lot of disagreement about the essential nature of those qualities: its technical mastery, formal innovation, crackerjack dialogue and so forth. Although the film wasn’t universally acclaimed when it came out in 1941, some people at the time instantly noted it as a new milestone in cinema, and it was nominated for many Oscars (it only won for its screenplay though). Even those who don’t venerate Welles as a director might concede Kane draws additional eerie power from the way it seems to diagnose its maker’s future trajectory (as has been told over and over, not always in a way that’s very fair to Welles subsequent achievements, he was twenty-six when he made it, and his stature in Hollywood almost immediately started to slip). Kane remains a film one bows to, and it remained at number two in the voting.
On the other hand, when Vertigo came out in 1958, at the height of Hitchcock’s fame and popular success, it was regarded as a disappointment, if not a complete flop, and received only a couple of minor Oscar nominations. When I was getting into movies in the early 80’s, it had many passionate followers, but lagged far behind Psycho and others of his films in mainstream awareness and acceptance. Actually, for a long while, you couldn’t even see Vertigo unless you had some privileged kind of access to it – it was withdrawn from release for over ten years, reappearing in 1984. It first appeared on the Sight and Sound top ten in 1982 (all the more impressively for being generally unavailable), climbing since then from seventh to fourth to second to first, like a rolling stone gathering converts. But I also recall seeing it with an audience – I think it was at the Cinematheque Ontario – where people laughed at it in various places, and I don’t mean the kind of boorish, self-indulgent laughter that makes you want to get up and hit them: I mean they outright didn’t get it, and thought it was corny.
I guess I’ve never fallen entirely under the film’s spell myself, because until I thought to revisit it in the wake of the poll, I hadn’t seen it for almost a decade. I can still imagine many viewers, coming to the movie cold, being mystified about the source of its stature. The plot (I don’t think it’s relevant to worry about “spoilers” in discussing such a famous work) follows Scottie (James Stewart), an ex-policeman with acrophobia, engaged by an old acquaintance to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), whom the husband suspects of being under some quasi-supernatural influence. Scottie falls in love with her, but then takes the moral blame for her death when she commits suicide by jumping off a bell tower, after his vertigo prevents him from running up after her.
Madeleine and Judy
Later on, wandering through his life like a ghost, he meets another woman, Judy, who closely resembles Madeleine, and fixates on remaking her, to embody his lost love exactly. In fact, Judy is the Madeleine he knew – the real wife was killed by her husband and thrown off the tower, with Scottie manipulated into providing perfect cover. When he realizes this at the end, it seems to mark the end of Scottie’s trauma, and to allow the start of a fully aware new love with Judy, but then a tragic accident takes her from him as well.
It’s hopelessly easy not just to criticize aspects of this basic plot, but also to list numerous gauche or unsubtle aspects of its execution. The impact of Vertigo, I think, is as the supreme example of the medium’s capacity to create a whole that’s greater than the apparent sum of its parts: it’s raw and needy and troubling to an extent that defies rational explanation. It’s common to cite it as a kind of commentary on watching films – Scottie loses himself in the illusion that’s created for him, and then all but goes mad trying to create it. But I think Peter Bradshaw is right when he says such readings “cannot account for a delirious excess that paradoxically borders on abstraction.” The film is very specifically set in San Francisco, in real locations, and is highly tangible in its details – it starts with a close-up of a hand on a rail, and demands that we focus on aspects of jewellery, hairstyles, costumes. Yet at the same time, almost nothing about it is firmly of this world – it seems to posit a state beyond the physical, of pure watching and dreaming and of movement untethered to a mundane purpose, but then almost everything it presents is based either in misapprehension or in a lie. It becomes almost religiously ritualistic, a note emphasized in its final scene, but without any simple doctrinal pay-offs or compensations. The film’s images – often so carefully composed that you can almost feel the movement deconstructing into a string of photographs - have an unusual gravity, an unnerving sense that they had to exist in this precise form, and that we might find greater self-definition in losing ourselves within them.
The greatest film?
Although the plot has an inherently erotic aspect to it, Scottie is desexualized, almost infantilized at times; he seems unaware of the extent of his friend Midge’s interest in him, and later insists to Judy that he doesn’t want anything more from her than to spend lots of time together (which she describes as “not very complimentary”). Hitchcock in retrospect thought it a flaw that Stewart and Novak were so far apart in age (some twenty-five years), but it just serves to underscore the tragic impossibility of the whole thing. Stewart seems at times as broken and vulnerable a man as you’ve ever seen on the screen, which helps to position Vertigo as a film for broken and vulnerable times, even as Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score – one of the most striking in all of cinema – suggests the possibility of world-changing revelation.
Does that amount to the greatest film ever made? I don’t think I would be tempted to put it on my own top ten list, nor any Hitchcock film (although I haven’t thought about it carefully, Psycho may actually be my favourite of them). But it may indeed be the picture that best represents the current state of greatness in cinema, where mainstream films are mostly cold-minded commercial products, and the films that matter dwell in the margins, where technology and web communication allows localized obsessions to find nurturing and reinforcement, and to flourish, while those not in the know would merely yawn or laugh or them.