If there is one thing I like, it is Alfred Hitchcock films. There are few other thrillers that I’ve seen that are so masterfully executed in every angle from which they’re approached.
Sure, tonnes of thrillers have you on the edge of your seat – they wouldn’t be worth it if they didn’t – but Hitchcock was a real leader in touching his audience on a deeper level psychologically. For example, in Strangers on a Train, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) doesn’t just get followed, he gets stalked by someone so creepy that he defies belief. Or what about Vertigo, where John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is mercilessly used to disguise a murder and becomes so obsessed with the murderer’s accomplice to the point where he takes control of her very personality – and the audience still manages to find sympathy for this guy, over her. And in The Birds, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is a socialite who drives a convertible; but not just any old convertible – it was an Aston Martin DB2/4. This and her social status place her in the suspicions of some people in the town that comes under an attack of the avian variety.
It’s this sort of attention to characterisation that, I think, marks Hitchcock out amongst other directors of thrillers. The development never seems forced, and the nuances of each individual are subtly shown. You don’t really notice until after the film has ended just what qualities have been established for each character; even though, out of context as above, those qualities are totally unsubtle.
Recently, I re-watched Vertigo. It was the second time I’d ever seen it, the first being when I was about twelve, and my father had just discovered the Classic Movie section at our local video shop. It was the Christmas holidays, we had daily free rentals and a new DVD player, and it was too hot to do little else than sit around. So, we had a retrospective of whichever Hitchcock films the place had. I remember Vertigo being particularly striking.
This is a film that, at base level, is about the problems that arise when we strive for absolute perfection, garnered from memories in the past and separate from the reality of the present. I’m not sure what it is about the film that caused me to hold it above the other ones we saw at the time; I do remember taking an immediate liking to Jimmy Stewart. He plays an everyman so well, it’s impossible not to like his characters. Certainly the film bore a second watch now that I’m older and can actually view the film on a more “grown-up” level.
I’m no student of the cinematic art, but when I watched Vertigo, it was so very close to what I would consider the perfect film. It is absolutely beautifully filmed. Full advantage is taken of San Francisco’s great landmarks – the Golden Gate Bridge, naturally, and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (an art museum, pictured below in a particularly good shot that takes advantage both the beauty of the gallery and that of its natural surrounds.)
This sort of cinematography – there are some other shots in the film that are quite unconventional – also serve to set the Hitchcock films of this particular era apart. Oscar winner Robert Burks was Hitchcock’s cinematographer for 12 films, including Vertigo, and they just look so good. That the film looks as good as it does is also a credit to those who did the 1996 film restoration, which is the print still generally available today. A common issue in films before computerised blue-screen effects was extremely obvious back projection footage. Not so in Vertigo – it is almost un-noticeable.
The plot of the film is quite complex. Because analysis of meaning was never a strong suit of mine, I won’t delve too deeply. What I can see, though, is a film whose technical aspects mirror what is going on plot-wise. The idyllic nature of Scottie’s imagined version of Madeleine sees her framed in bright colours and soft lighting, with smooth camera movements and angles that flatter her attractiveness. We see her in the art gallery, at the Golden Gate Bridge, wearing her quiet tones of grey and black, and she’s pretty cool. It’s only when she goes to a run-down little flophouse that she starts to seem more than a little off, and the lighting and surrounding brown and grey hues reflect this.
In contrast, Scottie’s only real friend, his ex-fiancee Midge, lives in a flat downtown. She’s an advertising artist, in a messy, utilitarian setting that has a real homely nature to it. Through her window is the harsh reality of San Francisco – miles and miles of suburbia, a smoggy sky, and just real life generally. Nothing idyllic about this setting! Poor Midge – she is friend zoned both by Scottie and by the filmmakers. This contrast between what Scottie has and what he desires couldn’t be more apparent, and interestingly, whilst Midge is one of my favourite characters, it is with her that the film has its most striking problem.
Vertigo is not without its flaws. It’s probably a fraction too long, though it would take a better man than I to decide what to cut. Indeed, I almost wish the third and final act was longer so that the character of Judy, who is only introduced at the beginning of said act, could be fleshed out further. It’s this final act where the film does fall down. Midge’s absence from this act sticks out like a sore thumb that has suddenly vanished. Where did she go? Why did go? Why, Hitch, why? Perhaps her absence for us is the same for Scottie – with her gone, he loses the only thing still pulling him back into the real world, and this means he can cash in on his post-breakdown obsession with Judy.
I am always reticent to end my writings on a negative, so I’ll round off with a positive – Bernard Hermann’s absolutely magnificent score. I’m listening to a re-recording of the entire score by the Paris Opera Orchestra as I write this, and not only is it a wonderful recording, what they are actually playing is one of the finest soundtracks I have ever heard. It ticks every box. Hitchcock may have been the Master of Suspense, but Hermann was certainly a master of adding to it! Bernard Hermann wrote music for a number of Hitchcock films, but this one stands out in that it is, thematically, so highly developed. His instrumentation is unsettling – high romantic strings against low, conspiratorial clarinets in one scene, screeching brass and woodwinds in another. There are moments in the score which have to have inspired future composers – notably Danny Elfman for Batman and David Arnold for The World Is Not Enough. In Vertigo, Hermann proves once again why he is so highly regarded in the world of cinema composition, weaving at least three themes in and out of each other throughout the film. The final cue, appropriately titled “Finale”, is, like so much of the film, a contrast. A major key against major drama is just another way the film leaves you feeling off-centre about its happenings.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo is truly a marvellous film. Indeed, it has been named this year in the highly respected every-ten-years Sight and Sound “Best Film of All Time” critic’s poll as THE best film ever made, replacing Citizen Kane – “good,” I said, but that’s a debate for another time. For an experience of suspense, complexity and just a little bit of psychological unsettlement, look no further than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.