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Essentials #2: VERTIGO (1958)

Jimmy Stewart. Kim Novak. Lust & obsession in San Francisco. Noir’s deathbed. Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest. Arguably the greatest film ever…in glorious TechniColor.

VERTIGO recalls an era in Hollywood when art and mainstream filmmaking were not mutually exclusive. Unless you’re David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, or Quentin Tarantino, rarely will you ever see a movie that’s both artistic and commercial. If you aren’t a powerhouse director, you’re going to need tons of action and/or lots of sex, and attractive people to perform these things on-screen; in the end, it’s a miracle if it’s even called ‘artistic.’

On a superficial level, VERTIGO satisfies it’s commercial audience by being a solid detective story. Scottie (played by Jimmy ‘aw-shucks’ Stewart) is a retired detective who, after a traumatizing incident on the job, has developed an acute fear of heights and experiences vertigo at high level places. One day, an old friend calls Scottie, hoping to hire him to follow his wife Madeline (Novak), who’s recent behavior has led her to believe she has been possessed by the dead. I won’t say more because I hate spoilers in reviews, but if you’re a single, heterosexual male who gets hired to follow a voluptuous blond all day…go figure. You can already guess what happens.

But if you really dig deeper, the film is a somber tale of love, obsession, and the dark parts of humanity that emerge when all sanity and logic disappear.

Hitchcock created the modern-day film grammar while everyone was still learning the alphabet. I must reiterate: all modern films, particularly in the thriller/horror genre, owe some gratitude to cinematic techniques pioneered by Hitch. He wasn’t called the master of suspense for nothing.

If you’ve got time, check out the book Hitchcock-Truffaut. It’s a great read and an absolute must for any aspiring filmmaker wanting to learn the craft from one of cinema’s masters. Hitchcock also breaks down how he approaches scenes visually and how he meticulously plans every shot and edit. It’s very fascinating to hear Hitchcock break down the mechanics of filmmaking to an exact science. Having trained for years directing silent films, he clearly understands the psychological effects that specific lenses, camera angles, and edits will have on the viewer and utilizes these associations to toy with an audience much like a maestro controls his orchestra. Shots are always the correct sizes, edits are never too short or too long, and on a macro scale, you can surely see the director’s auteur print all over the film.

Back to VERTIGO, this is Hitch’s cinematic love letter to movies, appropriately released near the end of Hollywood’s most decadent era, the Golden Age. Like all noir movies, this is one of those pictures that could only be made in the 1940s and 50s (in this case, TechniColor) because if this were made now, it would come off as campy and overtly sentimental.

Cinema Lesson: In a sequence early on, Scottie follows Madeline’s daily routines in order to get to the bottom of her peculiar behavior. So the detective spends the day following the mark. Sounds like we’ve seen this before, right?

Yes, but the brilliance of this sequence is that there are only a few lines of dialogue and the rest of it is just observation…and this sequence lasts 20 minutes!

No. I guarantee it is not boring. It’s actually quite suspenseful yet very elegant with its careful camera placement, tight editing, and a moody soundtrack.

Great cinema is never telling the audience what you are doing; this ain’t a novel. Great cinema is showing it. I’ve went back and studied this sequence many times because it’s the perfect example of telling a story without any dialogue. I enjoy great dialogue as much as the next guy, but 90% of the time, movie characters should never have to explain what they are doing. They should never have to explain their agenda or ideology. Their actions should. You know that famous Hollywood expression, “Cut to the chase?”

It isn’t “cut to ‘the guy talking about’ the chase” for this very same reason. Great filmmakers eliminate this process of information because they know how to engage their audiences visually.

Aside from direction from an old master, the other virtuoso in this movie is the composer, Bernard Herrmann. Before Hans Zimmer’s INCEPTION horn plagued today’s movie soundtracks, Herrmann’s VERTIGO score was one of the first soundtracks to actually serve as an integral part of the film’s narrative. Prior, most film scores were used as film decoration. Notice how the romantic tone of the score (inspired by the Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”) is executed through the eerie use of repetition. It sounds almost like a broken vinyl set that keeps spinning at the same spot. This makes sense. In the film, one of the characters has to relive his fears over and over again and through this score, we are vicariously experiencing his descent into madness.

VERTIGO was recently listed by Sight and Sound (a reputable film magazine) as “the greatest film of all-time.” Is it? Greatest might be a stretch, but it’s certainly a valid contender considering we’re still screening it in theatres and talking about it decades later. Those are good enough reasons alone to go and see this.

Other Highlights:

  • Saul Bass’s legendary ‘Eye’ credit sequence (art hipsters ain’t got shit!)
  • Look for Hitchcock’s cameo at the San Francisco docks before Scottie meets Gavin Elster
  • The classic “trombone” shot overused by film school students everywhere
  • The fine, shapely torso of the enigmatic Kim Novak
  • Jimmy Stewart’s green sweater
  • Coit Tower as a phallic symbol
  • The beauty of the Bay Area in the 1950s
  • The gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor film that emits a nostalgia and longing for a lost place and time only film could replicate
  • Try to watch a film print if you can because it truly is beautiful on the big screen

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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