“Why does Vertigo affect us so deeply?
Why isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller, just coming off its third major rerelease 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 Mid“summer 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 heart- Hitchcock’s 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 seems 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…
“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.”
vertigo: the making of a Hitchcock classic
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