It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Vertigo means to me as both a film lover and as a filmmaker. As is the
case with all great films, truly great films, no matter how much has been said and written about them, the dialogue about it will always continue. Because any film as great as Vertigo demands more than just a sense of admiration-it demands a personal response. A good place to start is i
ts complete singularity. Vertigo stands alone as a Hitchcock film, as a Hollywood film. In fact, it just stands alone, period. For such a personal work with such a uniquely disturbing vision of the world to come out of the studio system when it did was not just unusual–it was nearly unthinkable. Ve
Vertigo was and continues to be a real example to me and to many of my contemporaries, in the sense that it demonstrates to us that it’s possible to function within a system
and do work that’s deeply personal at the same time. Vertigo is also important to me-essential would be more like it–because it has a hero driven purely by obsession. I’ve always been attracted in my own work to heroes motivated by obsession, and on that level Vertigo strikes a deep chord in me every time I see it. Morality, decency, kindness, intelligence, wisdom–all the qualities that we think heroes are supposed to possess-desert Jimmy Stewart’s character little by little, until he is left alone on that church tower with the bells tolling behind him and nothing to show but his humanity. Whole books could be written about so many individual aspects of Vertigo–its extraordinary visual
precision, which cuts to the soul of its charact
ers like a razor; its many mysteries and moments of subtle poetry; its unsettling and exquisite use of color; its extraordinary performances by Stewart and Kim Novak-whose work is so brave and emotionally immediate–as well as the very underrated work of Barbara Bel Geddes. And that’s not to mention its astonishing title sequence by Saul Bass or its tragically beautiful score by Bernard Herrmann, both absolutely essential to the spirit, the functioning, and the power of Vertigo. Of course, we can now hear Herrmann’s score with a clarity and breadth that it’s never had before, thanks to Bob Harris and Jim Katz, the men who worked on the beautiful, painstaking restoration of Vertigo. I’m happy that the Film Foundation was able to play a part in making this important work possible, and I’d like to thank Universal and Tom Pollock for allowing it to go forward and, of course, I’d like to thank the American Film Institute for their invaluable contributions.
Why does Vertigo affect us so deeply? Why isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller, just com
ing off its third major re-release in four decades, and available in gorgeously restored home-video editions, just another “Hitchcock and bull story,” as Time callously described it upon its initial release? Doesn’t that description better fit the other films Hitchcock created during his last
great period? Why? Because Vertigo, like other films that reach somewhere within us and grab us firmly by the entrails, is not the typical Hitchcock film, even as it represents the highest realization of so many of the director’s career preoccupations. Seen today, Vertigo can seem like the best of films and the worst of films: At moments throughout, its images shimmer with an incandescent beauty that few films in history could pretend to match, even as other moments—awkwardness’s in the script, longueurs in the storytelling—induce discomforts not originally intended by the director or his crew. Vertigo is not the perfect, pure cinema of Rear Window. Yet who is haunted, dogged, pursued by Rear Window? If Hitchcock, as the critic Robin Wood has argued, is the cinema’s Shakespeare, then Vertigo is his Macbeth. Not in theme, plot, or structure, perhaps, but in its status as a flawed gem—whose imperfections somehow make the work all the more effective. Macbeth does not possess the perfect unity and exquisite poetry of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but surely this terrible couple’s anguish moves us far more deeply than the foolish lover’s lament. Vertigo is a classic of the
Vertigo is a classic of the heart-Hitchcock and ours. It is a film that writes directly on our souls. Who knows the consequences ultimately of such art? I don’t feel damaged after watching the film, as Scottie so painfully and permanently is at its conclusion. What I do know is that I’ve seen and felt something painfully true. Those final moments in the tower: Scottie confronting his own illusion, his face leaning out of the shadows as its textures seem to ripple and convulse in deep torment. “Oh, Madeleine, Madeleine, I loved you so-oh, Madeleine.” This quiet moment, following the Sturm und Drang of the famous tower-climbing scene, is the Lear howl of the film. Scottie has loved and lost and loved and lost again. That final, shocking image of Scottie alone in the tower is what seals the heart and our fate-what binds us to the film, brings us back to countless screenings, drags us to the locations to walk their steps like hungry ghosts, what compels the writing of essay after essay and batters us in each new audience with question after unanswerable question. Readers of this book, paradoxically, will have a different kind of surprise in store for them: What many Vertigo aficionados will find perplexing are the systematic, businesslike, matter-of- fact circumstances under which this odd, obsessional, very un-matter-of-fact film was created.This is the nature of nearly all great films: They seem more accident than purposeful creation. As Martin Scorsese notes in his foreword, it is almost astonishing that so idiosyncratic and personal a work could be crafted within the confines of a studio system that, by the late 1950s, had come to seem monolithic, even prehistoric. By nature, Alfred Hitchcock preferred smooth surfaces to rough. He preferred people to believe that his films were the easy, casual exercises of a genius. Yet the truths behind Hitchcock’s glittery storytelling are more complicated. Peering into the written record left behind by Hitchcock, and into the memories of those who worked with him, we come to see a different filmmaker: Not the mad Svengali of Donald Spoto’s biography, but the troubled artist at work as more accurately painted by Patrick McGilligan in his recent
This is the nature of nearly all great films: They seem more accident than purposeful creation. As Martin Scorsese notes in his foreword, it is almost astonishing that so idiosyncratic and personal a work could be crafted within the confines of a studio system that, by the late 1950s, had come to seem monolithic, even prehistoric. By nature, Alfred Hitchcock preferred smooth surfaces to rough. He preferred people to believe that his films were the easy, casual exercises of a genius. Yet the truths behind Hitchcock’s glittery storytelling are more complicated. Peering into the written record left behind by Hitchcock, and into the memories of those who worked with him, we come to see a different filmmaker: Not the mad Svengali of Donald Spoto’s biography, but the troubled artist at work as more accurately painted by Patrick McGilligan in his recent biography.. Was it
Was it coincidence that Hitchcock should choose this more irresolvable of all his stories just as he and his wife had begun to confront their first serious health problems? Would anyone still attempt to argue that the film’s fascination with shaping the image of a woman has nothing to do with Hitchcock’s own failed attempts to re-create Grace Kelly in another actress, or with the idea, so widely discussed at the time, of creating competing blond bombshells the very process that had molded Kim Novak? Yes, there is all of this in Vertigo, and much more. Great works of art are by nature mysterious and provocative. We go back to the Mona Lisa not because she provides answers, but for the questions she provokes.
We can sense on fundamental levels that in Vertigo can be found the sum of Hitchcock’s contradictions-romance and disconnection, the face and the mask, the director and his legend. If we start to pull away the layers that make Vertigo, what is the personality of the filmmaker we find at its heart? The twisted, malevolent creation of Spoto’s biography, the enigma of his official biographer, John Russell Taylor? McGilligan’s portrait of Hitchcock (the biography that I would consider the current standard bearer) provides some answers, but no text can provide the real pulse from which the artist lived. For, surely, what lies beneath the layers of creation that go into the making of any work of art, is a heart–not a force of cold cruelty, but one of passion and unresolved longing. A heart, in other words, like our own.