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A Fear of Depths

Kim Novak & James Stewart
Remembrance of Movies Past: In "Vertigo," as in Proust, a Madeleine (Kim Novak) leads a man (James Stewart) into a prior life.

In Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo,' falling in love--with a woman, with a movie--is a plunge into an abyss of obsession

By Richard von Busack

ALFRED HITCHCOCK, explaining his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo to critic and director François Truffaut: "We're telling the story from the point of view of a man who's in an emotional crisis ... to put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who is dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia." That's too plainly stated, really. The meticulously restored Vertigo, which opens tomorrow in selected cities, delivers much more than macabre shudders.

Vertigo stimulates as much discussion as any film of its era. Certainly, its subversive complexity seems to shake apart its own status as a product of the Hollywood studio system. Some critics, David Thomson among them, consider Vertigo a film about film. They think Kim Novak's performance in a dual role--first a siren and then a sacrifice--illustrates the tension between an actress and the mask she wears.

Vertigo mirrors the process of falling for a movie, of breaching its surface, of becoming, in a sense, the characters you're watching on screen. As the most immediate of all forms of art, film urges you to surrender your mind and your heart; Vertigo demands your total immersion.

The usual attitude toward taking this plunge is to treat it as a carefree pleasure, an opportunity to "fall in love" with a movie. Vertigo, however, describes the process not as a gentle descent but as a plummeting to your death from a great height. Vertigo echoes with Thelma Ritter's warning to a peeping James Stewart in 1954's Rear Window, when she tells him, and us: Someday you're going to see something through that window that'll get you into trouble.

So goes the theory, anyway. Some viewers, however, don't consider movies a grave matter. They won't be reading Vertigo as a parable of the viewer and the viewed, but even they might recognize the full force of Hitchcock's talent--used not to build an amusement-park thriller but to examine the fear of love and the terror of death.

Kim Novak & James Stewart

THE FILM tells a story of past-life regression. In the 1850s, Carlotta, mistress of a Nob Hill financier, was impregnated, abandoned and forced to give her child to the rich man and his new wife. The grieving mother ended her life as a mad woman on the streets. Some 100 years later, Carlotta's spirit is apparently claiming the sanity of Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wife of a wealthy San Francisco shipbuilder, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore). To sort the matter out comes that icon of the rational mind, the detective.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), an ex-policeman, suffers from vertigo, an aversion to heights that leaves him sick, sweating and on the verge of collapse. In trailing the cursed wife through the plunging hills and mazelike streets of San Francisco, Ferguson falls under her spell himself. This fatal infatuation pulls him away from his practical, precipice-avoiding girlfriend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who promises a nest for the older man. "Mother's here," she coos, comforting him in a moment of stress.

Despite this offer of a protected life, Scottie is lured out into the streets by the vibrantly sexual, frankly dangerous Madeleine. When Madeleine dies--in a literal plunge from the (matte-painted) bell tower at Mission San Juan Bautista--Scottie retreats into the shell of a nervous breakdown. His "cure" turns out to be an obsessive need to plunge into the past in search of his lost object of desire. And it is at this point, halfway through the film, that Hitchcock starts to twist the knife in earnest.

Vertigo received indifferent reviews upon its release in June 1958. It stank of art, the press thought. "Hollywood's best-known butterball ... has been spread pretty thin," Time magazine opined. The New Yorker wrote, "Alfred Hitchcock ... has never before indulged in such far-fetched nonsense."

True, a slow tempo and some noticeably stagey exposition hamper Vertigo somewhat. Every time I've seen it, and I've seen it about 10 times, I wish that Hitchcock had followed that old rule of showing and not telling; if we could have only seen the mad Carlotta on the streets, in one of Hitchcock's typically intense montages, instead of hearing about her secondhand from the owner of a bookstore.

It wasn't as if the public was unprimed for the film's bizarre scenario. Morey Bernstein's bestseller The Search for Bridey Murphy convinced the country that a Colorado housewife had the ability to recall, under hypnosis, details of her previous life as a turn-of-the-century Irish girl. Even though that case was debunked, fascination with phenomena such as past-life regression has grown steadily, a trend that may have boosted Vertigo's popularity over the years.

Vertigo's survival into the 1990s provides some sort of evidence of reincarnation, at least. At the time of its release, Vertigo was not a success, and the film was withdrawn for public exhibition in the 1970s to satisfy the honor of various lawyers. The film's on-again, off-again legality only helped to increase its reputation as a cinematic treasure. It occupies a regular spot on lists of the top-10 movies of all time in international critic's polls.

Another book could be written on the subject of movies that have peeled off Vertigo's script, score or look. 12 Monkeys quoted from Vertigo at length. Phil Joanou's Final Analysis and Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct, both from 1992, ransacked the movie's plot. Brian DePalma's 1976 Obsession, an especially studious homage, sported a score by Bernard Herrmann, Vertigo's celebrated composer.

The American movie that mattered most in the 1980s, David Lynch's Blue Velvet, covered the same ground as Vertigo, evincing a deep, vertiginous unease with, and attraction to, stirring lust, disguised as a detective story, set against bright blue skies and accompanied by wrenchingly romantic music.

THE RESTORATION is the work of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who rebuilt Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady. Thanks to their labors, Vertigo can now be seen in a wide-screen Super VistaVision 70mm DTS digital stereo print. Not only have the visuals been improved, but the audio has been enhanced as well.

Herrmann's score for Vertigo is "not just typical of his films but his best," writes critic Jay Alan Quantrill. The dean of movie composers, Herrmann made crucial contributions to Citizen Kane, Psycho, North by Northwest and Taxi Driver. His music expresses Scottie's downward spiral in the pendulumlike throbbing of strings that engulfs the detective as he loses control of himself; in the swirling and the rattlesnake click of castanets in the extraordinarily vivid nightmare sequence.

This latter piece is set to a habañero rhythm, in honor of Carlotta, who turns up unseen by Scottie and Gavin at the dream-sequence version of the coroner's inquest after Madeleine's death. The same music, roaring in triumph, chases after Ferguson as he wheels into the void.

Like Herrmann's soundtrack, Hitchcock's compositions lead the hero and the viewer to greater heights overlooking a deeper abyss. The plummeting that must be Scottie's fate is suggested most dramatically by Hitchcock's special little invention: tracking backward while zooming forward. Like so many of Hitchcock's ideas, the invention has entered the vocabulary of the movies, but seen in its debut, it still carries the original impact, as do Hitchcock's flashier touches here, including the use of animation and strobing colors.

Stewart's sometimes sinister, sometimes haunted, performance was the finest of his career. Fans of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life know how well Stewart could portray the struggle of hope and despair. Here, Stewart's Yankee skepticism in the face of Latin superstition is overridden by helpless lust and an equally helpless grasping for control. His Scottie is helpless as his case gets away from him, changing from a detective story to an evil fairy tale to the desperate plight of an older man in love with a younger woman.

Hitchcock claimed to have given up sex after age 40. His pronouncement bears the same scent of brimstone that a declaration of atheism would have 100 years ago. But Hitchcock had not given up on love. If Donald Spoto's account, The Dark Side of Genius, is to be trusted, Hitchcock supposedly spent the 1950s and 1960s obsessing over a few of his actresses, pursuing them, manipulating them off screen, knifing them or feeding them to birds of prey on screen.

Yet a Hitchcock movie is, no matter how evil its subject matter, a mannered, formal object, safe as possible against accident or accidental inflection--sealed, as much as possible, against chance. His movies--heavily scripted and story-boarded--were all but finished before the filming began. But rarely has a studio movie been as handmade as Vertigo. As one writer claimed, "The film's address is so intimate, so hushed, that it barely seems possible that the film was made for commercial distribution."

Still, despite its intimacy, Vertigo addresses the highly commercial subject of male terror in the face of desire, and I suspect that this theme has helped its reputation. I also suspect that Vertigo is more popular with men than women, and more popular with middle-aged men than younger men, because it focuses on an older man seeking salvation in a woman's youth.

Hitchcock's study in male terror doesn't make Vertigo all that different from 90 percent of "erotic thrillers" out now. But today's misogynist dramas, with their coy tagline "in the tradition of the Master of Suspense" (the master remains unnamed, but it ain't Paul Verhoeven), could learn from Vertigo, which is not a story of a devil woman sending a man to hell.

In Vertigo, one never knows who is swallowing whom. Both the male and the female bodies plummet at the same rate. The movie says that love is an abyss, for the man and the woman, and you don't know how deep it is until you fall into it.


Vertigo (Unrated; 128 min.), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, photographed by Robert Burks and starring James Stewart and Kim Novak.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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