Skip to main content

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo
(1958)

(SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

Judy: Well… you don’t look very much like Jack the Ripper…

Actually, revisiting Vertigo, I was most conscious throughout of how it has informed Brian De Palma’s career, above and beyond any other Hitchcock film. Obsession (1976) is the obvious example, but more than in mere narrative terms, I’m thinking of the manner in which De Palma favoured meticulously designed, extended and wordless suspense sequences (or just plain sequences). You can see the influence of the early tailing of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in a tauter form in the likes of not dissimilar sequences in the Psycho-inspired Dressed to Kill (the art gallery) and Body Double (the panties pursuit).

Scottie: I’ve always said you were wasting your time in the underwear department.

Geoff Andrews in Time Out called VertigoBrilliant but despicably cynical” and “slow but totally compelling”. I think that’s where I diverge. Not with the slowness, which is fine, but the being totally compelled part. It may sound a little facile, but I don’t find myself caring about any of the characters here, barring the very human Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, later of Dallas). As a consequence, my interest in the story as it unfolds always becomes very detached, clinical. I can only respect Hitchcock’s accomplishment, rather than obsess over it as he would. On the other hand, that’s not to say I remotely relate to Orson Welles’ outspoken criticisms of the film. He didn’t like Rear Window either, it turns out (“Everything is stupid about it” – something you might easily argue of The Other Side of the Wind). But Vertigo, “That’s worse” and “I think he was senile a long time before he died”. Ouch.

Official: But we are not here to pass judgement on Mr Ferguson’s lack of initiative.

One problem with Vertigo is that the murder plot is nonsense, really. Not necessarily an issue with a Hitchcock movie where he keeps up the pace and doesn’t allow you time to reflect (his next picture, for example). Here however, every development invites introspection and interrogation. Even assuming you buy into the train of events planned by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) playing out as they do, you’re left with James Stewart’s Scottie as a curiously distancing protagonist.

Scottie: It’s no dream. You’ve been here before.

I mean, obviously, we’re not supposed to be on board with his insanely consumed desire to reincarnate Madeleine as Judy; Kim Novak plays Judy’s increasing disintegration in the face of Scottie’s grim determination convincingly. It’s more that, the more Hitch doubles down on it, the more absurd the scenario becomes (and this isn’t one of his comedies). On one level, he actually made a very wise decision to (very inelegantly) undercut the suspense plot – and the unfolding of the novel – halfway through by revealing that Judy and Madeleine are one and the same person. It means the logistics of the hows are pushed to one side in favour of the ramifications of all this on Scottie’s psyche. But that in turn requires you to be fully engaged with his fixated path, and to believe in his necrotic fixation.

Scottie: And you know something, doctor? I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all.

I can’t make that leap. Perhaps Hitch was correct to criticise Stewart’s age when the picture fizzled (he considered him too old, which may explain his failure to use him again). Or perhaps he was right that Novak wasn’t quite right. She’s extremely pulchritudinous, but that rather serves to suggest that Scottie’s obsession is, at its root, decidedly un-exotic and rather base in its impulses (notably, when he fishes her out of San Francisco bay, he doesn’t rush to get her medical attention but instead takes her back to his apartment, undresses her and puts her to bed).

Judy: Scottie, what are you doing?
Scottie: I’m trying to buy a suit.

Hitch costumes Novak and photographs her with extraordinary precision, but the result serves to emphasise that the only element between the protagonists – and the director with his female star – is objectification. Which means, even with Scottie projecting on her as part of the plot – albeit, she really does love him, in the kind of development that could only be a movie twistedness twist – we can’t really move beyond there being no spark or chemistry between Stewart and Novak.

Scottie: Judy, please. It can’t matter to you.

Would Vera Miles (who modelled for the painting of Carlotta Valdes and was cast, before her pregnancy nixed plans) have been better? Well, she held her own opposite Henry Fonda in Hitch’s previous film The Wrong Man (1956), so I suspect so. But it would have been a very different picture. The “one-dimensionality” of Scottie’s obsession rather becomes the point with Novak. With Miles, you’d have felt something, so the inevitable bleakness of it all would likely have been less precise, relentless, cruel. But it might also have seemed motivated.

Nun: I heard voices…

There’s so much that dazzles here, though. The trip-tastic opening titles are a masterpiece in themselves (later revisited in Scotty’s fever dream). The opening rooftop chase finds us joining the proceedings mid-plot – later riffed on in the opening of The Matrix (1999) – and is the most action packed the picture gets. Scottie’s character massacre, dealt by Henry Jones’ coroner, is horrifying. The restaurant Scottie visits, first seeing Madeleine there, represents a descent into hell with its infernal décor. Bernard Herrmann’s score is superlative. But overall, I’m cool on Vertigo. It doesn’t make me giddy or reel in a faint.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following (1998) (SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008) (SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanley was well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley , our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“ too syrupy ”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog.  Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has c