The controversy now is that Vertigo is officially a better movie than Citizen Kane. I was surprised too. The British Film Institute’s (BFI) Sight and Sound poll, held once every ten years was, if you’ve been paying any attention to this site at all, released this week, and, to the surprise of many, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo claimed the number one spot. Ever since 1962, the top spot was claimed by Citizen Kane. I was actually rather confident that Citizen Kane would never be dethroned. It seemed to be an unquestioned facet of film criticism. Jean-Luc Godard was responsible for starting the French New Wave, Polanski will always be referred to as “controversial,” and Citizen Kane will always be considered to be The Best Movie of All Time. Heck, I even wrote a Free Film School article all about why Citizen Kane is so important.
Hundreds of critics and filmmakers were polled, however, and we have a new champ out of left field. Well, not entirely out of left field. Vertigo has long been present on such lists, usually lingering around the number six slot. This week’s Free Film School lecture will be about the importance of Vertigo, and will, perhaps more pertinently, be taking a look at the film’s venerable and awesome director, Alfred Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is often called “The Master of Suspense,” even though he worked in several genres. You’ve seen some of his movies, no doubt. Hitchcock is, like Steven Spielberg and Frank Capra, one of those ubiquitous masters whose work has permeated pop culture in an uncanny way. And while his better-known films are staples of the filmmaking world (next to Vertigo are films like Rear Window, Notorious, The Birds, and of course Psycho), and he revolutionized filmmaking in many important ways, Hitchcock is also just as well known for his own public appearances and outsize personality. Like a bitter, wry, and morbid version of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, Hitchcock seemed to take a subtly sadistic delight in appearing to the public as the anti-Santa; a stone-faced fat man who was here to bring you gifts of wicked humor and heavy doses of twisted sex, all wrapped demurely in a skin-tight gray skirt-suit. He was, simply put, the master. No one could wring thrills from a scene like Hitchcock. No one was more interested in tinkering with the film form than Hitchcock (although Scorsese is giving him a run for his money). Few filmmakers have as solid an oeuvre as Hitchcock. And few filmmakers have the reputation of mastery that Hitchcock has.
If you like film books (and you all love film books, right?), you should perhaps check out what is often considered the best film book of them all. It’s called Hitchcock/Truffaut, and it is simply a series of interviews wherein Alfred and François discuss their own movies and each other’s movies at great length and with an insight rarely seem from such famous filmmakers. No film buff should be without this book.
Here’s an important detail about Hitchcock’s life: He is often credited for the actual posting of movie showtimes in newspapers. In the 1950s, films were shown in two-film packages (an “A” film and a low-budget “B” film) and were bookended by cartoons, news reels, and serials. Many people would come to a movie at any old time willy-nilly, sit through to the end, and then wait for the film to repeat so they could see the beginning. Hitchcock, when he made Psycho, felt that films shouldn’t be consumed casually like that, and insisted that audiences come on time. In an ad campaign, he insisted that no one would be admitted after the first few minutes of film. This was not only a great advertising gimmick, bulking up the curiosity of filmgoers, but managed to repurpose films as things that warranted closer attention.
His films were no mere thrillers. They were often complex character dramas disguised as chase films or spy films or horror films. He unlocked a sticky, wicked part of the human brain, all with a note of camp, and a slight smirk. He was simultaneously benevolent and cruel. Cynical and insightful. Fun and scary. The man, in short, knew what the hell he was doing.
It will be hard to delve into Vertigo without explaining a little bit of Hitchcock himself, and his own personal interests. Hitchcock first started making films in England during the silent days (his first film, largely unseen by critics and film students alike, was made in 1922 and was called Number Thirteen). Most of his early films were sweaty, noir-ish potboilers about criminals and other low types. It wouldn’t take long for Hitchcock to find his bearings as a filmmaker, and begin making films that were truly of his voice. For the uninitiated, most Hitchcock films contain the following:
- A male protagonist, falsely accused of a crime, on the run from the police. Hitchcock was, as the anecdote goes, once taken to a prison by his father in order to scare him straight. His father and the cop locked him in a cell, and left him there without a word. He wasn’t sure how long his impromptu stint was to last. Needless to say, by the time he was released, he had a newfound fear of all policemen. You’ll notice that the police are never heroes in his films. His protagonists are, in many cases, innocent men who are being pursued for imagined infractions.
- A “MacGuffin.” While he did not invent the term, Hitchcock is often cited for being the filmmaker to popularize it. For those who do not know, MacGuffin is the nickname given to any object in a movie that the protagonist (or antagonist) must acquire at all costs. It’s the object that drives the plot. Hitchcock looked at the sought-after treasure with an objective eye, and indicated that what the MacGuffin actually is… is kind of unimportant. You just need something to fill that place so that the plot may get moving.
- An element of bubbling sexuality. Psycho (1960), Rope (1948), and Vertigo (1958) are the most notable in this category. Hitchcock only featured nudity in one of his films (that would be Frenzy), but many of his films were overwhelmingly sexual. Psycho, as you probably know, is a pseudo-incestuous look at a boy’s relationship with his mother, and how sexual feelings trigger poor Norman’s murder response. Rope features a pair of college roommates who commit murder as a thrilling intellectual exercise, and seem to have a definite erotic tension between them. A similar relationship may be seen in the titular Strangers on a Train. Vertigo, it seems to most people, represents Hitchcock’s own personal sexual interests in the form of the tautly-dressed Kim Novak as a haunted wife, trapped in a stylish grey suit, and driven to suicidal melancholy. Later in that film, Jimmy Stewart, playing broadly against type, will be the commanding dom in what is clearly a sub/dom relationship. Most of Hitchcock’s leading ladies tended to be well-coiffed and ultra-prim blondes, bordering on the icy, in impeccable costumes.
- A new film gimmick. Hitchcock wasn’t interested in the carnival gimmicks of William Castle, preferring to exploit the actual filmic form to its fullest. To achieve his desired visuals, Hitchcock would often invent new devices. In Suspicion (1941), he famously put a lamp inside a glass of milk to show that it may be poisoned. In Notorious, there is a rather famous crane shot zooming from a tall staircase all the way down to a woman’s hands. In Spellbound (1945), he hired famed surrealist Salvador Dalí to design a bizarre dream sequence. He tinkered with 3-D in Dial M for Murder (1954). And I don’t need to bring up the editing and plot twists in Psycho, right?
- A fixed vantage point. This may seem elementary, but by limiting the points of view, Hitchcock managed to zero in on his actions in a dizzying and masterful way. Most films take place from the vantage point of several characters. We get to see them operating in their own separate worlds. Most films you encounter will be mostly from the POV of the protagonist, but will often shift the view to another from time to time. By keeping us enclosed around the skull of a single person, Hitchcock allowed the motivations of all the supporting characters to remain queasily oblique. Vertigo, for instance, is all about Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) and his investigations into a mysterious woman (Kim Novak). They fall in love, but we don’t really ever see the love from her side. It’s all obsession and (later) control from Scottie. It’s not until late in the film that we hear from Novak’s character(s) in any capacity. Hitchcock doesn’t just tell stories from one point of view. He only looks through the eyes of his protagonists.
- An element of voyeurism. All films are, in a way, voyeurism. They allow an audience to sort of spy on the lives of others, and remain unseen. It’s the guilty little secret of cinephilia. We, the audience, get to hide in the dark and be peeping toms, while the characters are laid bare for us. It’s rare and daring for a film to address this notion, but Hitchcock did it frequently. This ties in with the “fixed vantage point” from above. Vertigo features many scenes of Scottie driving around merely spying on Kim Novak. Psycho features a scene with an actual peephole. By showing us voyeurs on camera, we’re uncomfortably asked to identify with them, as we share an obsession, they and us. Hitchcock is using a fun, wicked, and slightly sexually perverse notion of spying on another person, and intentionally making the audience complicit. I think this is brilliant. It’s rare for films to so effectively comment on themselves as films, and still be effective as films.
And while his films can be arch or odd (Vertigo is admittedly oblique), Hitchcock was one of the most successful studio directors of all time. His films always managed to land high-profile actors, audiences saw them in the millions, and they made gobs of money. If you’re looking to emulate any filmmaker, go with Hitchcock. Make crime stories that are simultaneously universally appealing, wickedly dark, often fun, and still daring and personal.
But to Vertigo. This is a film, shot in sumptuous color, and meticulously framed, that tells a story of sexual obsession and aching romantic longing, all surrounded by a crime plot about murder and double-crosses. James Stewart plays Scottie, an ex-cop who suffers from acute acrophobia. When he looks down, the ground seems to stretch away from him (an awesome effect Hitchcock achieved by building a horizontal set, and zooming in on it while the camera moved away). He is loved by his nerdy secretary (Barbara Bel Geddes), but he sees her more as a Gal Friday. Scottie is hired by an old friend to follow his wife, Madeleine (Novak), whom he thinks is behaving oddly. Evidently, Madeleine is convinced she is the reincarnation of a long-dead tragic heroine who died many years ago. Scottie watches Madeleine visit graveyards, look at mysterious paintings, and eventually watches her attempt suicide by throwing herself into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her, and the two of them enter into a kind of dreamy emotional affair that flirts with the sexual, but seems to be more about mutual admiration and desperation. Eventually, Madeleine’s visions of death become so strong that she attempts suicide again, this time in the exact style of her reincarnated soul, and succeeds! Scottie is thrown into a depression. That is until he finds a woman named Judy (also Novak) whom he also begins to follow obsessively.
I don’t want to give way any other plot details, suffice to say there are further developments and twists to keep you enthralled, and to add several new dimensions to the film.
Vertigo is intense and stifling. It really does leave you feeling a little dizzy. Much of the film strikes a bizarre, almost artificial tone that makes the entire flick seem like the wonky fever dream you would have after three packages of marshmallows and a Douglas Sirk marathon. It’s a psychosexual drama of the first order. Is it the best film of all time? I’m not sure if it would ever make my own personal list, but I would never call it anything less than truly excellent.
Vertigo also possesses a notable visual style. The use of color is rarely exploited to such a great degree. Passion is blood red. Greens flash across the screen in great rainbow swaths. Novak famously wears a fetishistically tight grey suit to offset her nearly-white blonde hair. Blondes, in 1958, never wore grey. The look is supposed to be sexy, but also a little odd. What’s more, Vertigo playfully violates the famous “rule of thirds,” wherein most action in movies if framed slightly to the left or to the right. In Vertigo, every damn thing is dead center. We’re gonna be looking at every damn thing, thank you very much.
Vertigo is a hard sell for the newbie. It can feel long and impenetrable. I just used the word “stifling.” The first time I saw it (at age 18 in college), I found myself sweating and cross-eyed at all the weird plot twists and overly forward visuals. I have shown it to peers, and they reacted similarly. As a result, few bother to revisit the film, citing it as a little too arch for its own good. Luckily for me, I was still oddly drawn back into the film – perhaps the same way Scottie is drawn to Madeleine – and I saw it again a day later. Then it began to take shape, and all the complexities began to reveal themselves. For film students, Vertigo may be swallowable the first time. For the neophyte, you may need a few more viewings. I would recommend to anyone who has only seen the film once to go back. It really will be better the second time, even if you weren’t so keen the first time.
Hitchcock made over 100 films in his career. He masterminded one of the greatest TV shows of all time (that’d be Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and exploited film in new ways that other filmmakers were never daring enough to do. He was a morbid imp, a master craftsman, and a true auteur. You know him. Get to know him better.
Homework for the Week:
Simple assignment this week: Watch Vertigo. A second time if you have to. What did you think? Write your response below.