Monday, August 13, 2012

Flick of The Day: Vertigo

The most recent issue of Sight and Sound detailed the results of the venerated magazines once a decade poll of directors and critics to produce a list of the best films of all time. Orson Welles brilliant Citizen Kane has long enjoyed a position atop the pile so it was a surprise then to see it drop to 2nd in the latest poll and perhaps equally surprising was the film which toppled it. Hitchcock's Vertigo was for many years seen as one of the great directors lesser pictures, being as it was box office flop on its original release in 1958. This was if it was seen at all, Hitchcock had purchased the rights for the film so that they be passed on to his daughter in his will and the film was thus largely unavailable for distribution until a new print was issued in 1996. This served to garner the film a reappraisal as a classic.
Opening with a bravura foot chase sequence across the rooftops of San Francisco, this is a film that oozes modernity and it quickly becomes obvious why it was misunderstood on release. Jimmy Stewart plays a police detective, John "Scottie" Ferguson, who due to his sudden bouts of vertigo can no longer do his job and is forced into retirement. He spends his days verbally jousting with his old friend Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes who would go on to fame in the 1980's with TV's Dallas. He is approached by an old friend Gavin Elster who is worried that his wife Madeline has become possessed by the spirit of a deceased relative. Scottie reluctantly agrees to investigate Madeline, played the icy blonde Kim Novak. He follows her around the city in a near wordless montage, captured in gorgeous Technicolour. After saving her from a suicide attempt, he falls in love and gradually becomes obsessed with Madeline's beauty before tragedy strikes. The second half the film then challenges our perceptions about what we thought we saw and of the true nature of the characters involved.
After the failure of the film to shift tickets at the box office, Hitchcock blamed Stewart for being too old to play the interest and they never worked together again despite what had been a rich vein of success up to that point. Whether this was the cause of the film's failure is an arguable point but what can't be argued is that Jimmy is showing his age. Looking all of his 50 years, the age gap with 25 year old Novak is noticeable given the direction of the plot. That said, there is no doubting the quality of Stewart's performance. It is unlike almost anything else in his career and is by the standards of the day, out there. He gradually becomes gripped by the memory of Novak's Madeline and becomes a dangerous wild eyed obsessive. This is not the laconic and verbose Stewart of Rear Window, this is a man on the edge.
In terms of technical prowess, this is equally impressive. Hitchcock pioneered the use of a dolly zoom to create the effect of a perspective shift to the viewers eye. This combined with the hypnotic score of Bernard Herrmann create a film that is at times unsettling, forcing the viewer to be on edge throughout. As regards its depiction of obsession and the dangers therein, there are few films to match it. Stewart's Scottie is a man with a tortured psyche who it becomes clear can not be relied upon.
So then is it the best film of all time? That is a difficult question, it is more compelling then it is enjoyable. It really depends on what you are looking for in determining greatness. I have long believed that it is the technical superiority and ground breaking narrative which have given Citizen Kane such a burnished reputation. For me, it is still the better film. Though neither would rank so high in my rank of favourites.

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