Introduction to Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) – Dukes cinema, 7/10/12

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of Hitchcock’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)

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Tonight’s screening is of Vertigo, the 1958 film by British director, Alfred Hitchcock, who was described by French critic and film-maker Francois Truffaut as one of the two great British directors of the twentieth century, the other being Charlie Chaplin. The occasion for tonight’s screening is the latest poll of film-makers, critics, academics, curators and programmers conducted every ten years by the British Film Institute’s journal, Sight and Sound. In the latest poll, Vertigo was ranked as the greatest film ever made, displacing the usual poll winner, Orson Welles’s 1941 debut, Citizen Kane. Such surveys have dubious value, of course, and tell us as much about the values of the individuals surveyed as they do about the films themselves. I think cineastes might also argue endlessly over whether Vertigo is actually a better film than North by Northwest, Rear Window, I Confess, Notorious or The 39 Steps. Nevertheless, any opportunity to rewatch a Hitchcock film is welcome and this film, more than most of Hitchcock’s others, repays repeated viewing due to its ambiguities and subtleties.

Vertigo was adapted from a French novel, From Among the Dead, by Boileau and Narcejac, which the authors had written in the specific hope that they could sell it to Hitchcock. They had previously written the novel that was the basis for the 1955 French thriller, Les Diaboliques, which Hitchcock had wanted to direct, but was beaten to it by Henri-Georges Clouzot. The basic story of Vertigo – familiar from many other films – is that of a detective who becomes obsessed with the woman he is investigating, but what makes Vertigo distinctive is the way in which this familiar narrative is presented to us as it explores the unstable psychology of the protagonist who, ‘To put it plainly’, as Hitchcock says, ’wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead’. The film’s title describes not just the medical condition suffered by the traumatized protagonist, Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart, who starred in four Hitchcock films) but also the way in which he becomes psychologically and emotionally unbalanced, losing all perspective.

Like many of the most interesting directors, Hitchcock was always concerned with the visual qualities of the film, he was a capable draughtsman who drew his own storyboards, and experimented continually with camera movements and visual effects. As a result many of his films have a quite distinct aesthetic appearance – this film looks very different from the harsh black and white of Psycho, released two years later, or the graphically stylized appearance of his early films which were strongly influenced by German expressionist cinema.

Vertigo is not a naturalistic or realist film and this emphasizes the dream-like quality of the narrative, so that the style of the film is determined by the themes it explores. It is shot in vividly coloured Technicolor, which produces a sense of unreality or theatricality, even though the film makes extensive use of real locations. This effect of unreality is emphasized periodically by the use of coloured light and fog filters on the camera lens, which produce a blurred image that suggests that we are looking not at an objectively truthful image but a subjective image, seeing reality through the unreliable eyes of the detective, Scottie. The slightly unreal quality of Technicolor film is emphasized by the symbolic use of colour in sets and costumes throughout the film so that key characters are consistently associated with particular colours.

The cinematography of this film is also striking for its unusual qualities – there is a frequent use of acute high and low angled shots, as if the camera is suffering sympathetically from the spatial disorientation of the main character. The most famous example of what we might call this ‘subjective cinematography’ – indeed, one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema – is a shot looking down a bell tower in which the camera tracks backwards while simultaneously zooming in, which gives the effect of space suddenly expanding. The same camera movement is copied in Spielberg’s Jaws, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine. However, the camera is generally quite static throughout the film and camera movements are infrequent and particularly noticeable, perhaps drawing our attention to the artificiality of what we are watching. The composition of shots throughout is very deliberate too. Pay attention to the way that characters are placed within the frame and within the set. In particular, notice the way that mirrors are used throughout the film as a recurring visual symbol.

The pace at which the narrative unfolds is quite slow compared with some of Hitchcock’s dynamic thrillers. Vertigo has quite a steady pace, an effect that is emphasized by relatively undynamic editing and lots of repeated shots – there must be more shots of actors behind the wheel than in any other Hitchcock film. This rather steady quality is reinforced by the lead actors’ performances, which are also notably inexpressive. Hitchcock is famous for his apparent contempt for actors, declaring in a TV interview that he thought they should be treated like cattle, but there is a reason behind this, which is not just the result of spite or frustration at a career spent dealing with overpaid narcissists. Rather, like many directors, Hitchcock felt that an expressive performance by an actor interfered with what he was trying to achieve in the film and he preferred an actor to be neutral – if an actor gives a consistently flat performance in take after take it is much easier to edit various takes together into a smooth, continuous sequence in post-production. From Hitchcock’s perspective, the role of the actor is to provide the film-maker with raw material than can later be assembled into a complete cinematic performance:

‘When a film has been properly staged, it isn’t necessary to rely upon the actor’s virtuosity or personality for tension and dramatic effects. In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds. He should be willing to be utilized and wholly integrated into the picture by the director and the camera. He must allow the camera to determine the proper emphasis and the most effective dramatic highlights.’

The actor, for Hitchcock, is just one element of the overall design of the film. Hitchcock complained that Kim Novak, who plays Madeleine, arrived on set with all sorts of preconceived notions of how to play the role, and how her character should look and dress.  By contrast, James Stewart’s performance style is often characterized by underplaying, making him an ideal actor from Hitchcock’s perspective. As Francois Truffaut observed of James Stewart in this film, he doesn’t emote, all he does is look – hundreds of times.

Another notable stylistic feature of this film is the music. The score is by Bernard Herrmann whose first score was Citizen Kane, and whose last was Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but who is probably best known for his score for Psycho. By contrast with the sparing use of music in Psycho, however, the incidental music in Vertigo is very insistent running across an hour and a quarter of the two-hour film. The score reinforces powerfully the sense of queasiness and unease that pervades the story.

There has been a huge amount of academic writing on Hitchcock’s films, and a great deal has been written about Vertigo in particular. One of the reasons for this is that Vertigo has been seen by many critics as a film that is, on one level, a film about cinema, a film about watching films. Hitchcock was very interested in the questions of identity, unconscious desire, compulsive behaviour, and repression explored by psychoanalysis, the ideas of which were very influential upon many European and American directors from the 1920s onwards. This is particularly evident in his 1945 film, Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, which is about a psychiatrist whose colleague has amnesia but thinks he may have murdered someone and undergoes psychoanalysis in order to determine what actually happened. Hitchcock later dismissed Spellbound as ‘just another man-hunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis’, but similar issues are examined in many of his films in more or less direct ways, and Hitchcock proposed that Vertigo is essentially a film about fetishism. Academics have suggested that this story of the voyeuristic observer who is fatally seduced by an image, can be seen as a metaphor for the audience’s love of cinema, the way we are moved and overwhelmed by spectacular images that we study from a distance. In this respect, it has a complexity that is not present in many detective films.

The opening titles, which were designed by graphic designer Saul Bass, emphasize this thematic focus – they begin by showing us an extreme close-up of a woman’s eye – before showing us a series of hypnotically rotating spiral patterns, zooming slowly in and out, which symbolize both the circular, repetitive nature of the narrative and also the dizzying disorientation experienced by Scottie. This is a film, the opening titles announce, about looking.

Another related feature of Hitchcock’s films in general, and Vertigo in particular, that has interested critics is the way that femininity is represented in this film. The detective’s fetishistic love is a love for an idealized, impossible image of femininity rather than for a real woman. Ironically and sadly, in his fixation upon this idealized figure, the protagonist Scottie consistently ignores and misreads the attentions of his loyal, tomboyish female friend, Midge. As well as being a film about watching films, Vertigo is also a film about the way that men look at women, and, in particular, it is a film about the way women on film are looked at.

Although the film retains the 2-part structure of the source novel, Hitchcock and a succession of screenwriters altered the story in adapting it for the screen, removing the surprise twist that the book depended upon and replacing it with a story in which, from the middle of the film onwards, the audience knows more than the protagonist about what is going on. The decision was made to ensure that the narrative was suspenseful, and Hitchcock explained his approach to writing the screenplay in the following way: ‘I put myself in the position of a child whose mother is telling him a story. When there’s a pause in her narration, the child always says, “What comes next, Mommy?”’.

Vertigo was not one of Hitchcock’s most commercially successful films, although it was one of his favourites. He said of the film that ‘the story was of less importance than the overall visual impact on the screen once the picture was completed’, but nevertheless, he remained troubled by what he saw as a gaping flaw in the story. I’ll leave you to decide what that is and whether it is a problem.

Reference:

Francois Truffaut (1986). Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster