DVD Review Of Vertigo
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/07
Watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock reminds one of the fairy tale of Goldilocks And The Three Bears. Not so much in the actual filmic nature of the art, but in the critical reception accorded the films. As example, some of the films that are labeled masterpieces, like Psycho or The Birds, are just right in their assessment. Other films that are critically neglected are, in fact, among Hitchcock’s better films, such as Rope and Frenzy. Then there are the films that are hailed as masterpieces, but which are profound disappointments. If they are not outright bad films, they certainly are only marginally solid films, and achieve their solidity mainly through technical accomplishments. In this category I would place Rear Window and Vertigo.
It’s not that Vertigo is an awful film, for technically it’s very well made- especially considering that era, but the flaccid and absurd screenplay simply does not hold up a half century on. Add to that the fact that the film is glacially paced, and you have a fairly boring film; one that even Jimmy Stewart’s crotchety presence can barely enliven. However, I have long lauded films that do not place plot ahead of character development, so one might ask why am I asking for a better plot and more briskly paced film? Well, simply put, all of the characters are cardboard cutouts, and plot details are easier to resolve than character depth. If one is going to give mere archetypes (and that’s being generous, the characters are really more stereotypes than archetypes) then the plot better zing and have a good payoff. This one does not. Part of the problem with the screenplay is the utter dependence for the propulsion of the plot upon the Neolithic psychiatric pseudoscience of the era, which too many of Hitchcock’s films are dependent upon, and which leave most of his films in very shallow waters intellectually. This lack of intellectual and emotional depth is part of the reason he is rightly looked down upon when compared to greater masters of film, such as Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, or Martin Scorsese.
Released in 1958, in Technicolor and VistaVision, Vertigo tells a fairly simple tale that has one great twist- although given too early, and a dramatic- nay, melodramatic ending. However, with some added depth, the film could have been close to the masterpiece it’s often hailed as. In some respects, this is the rare film that critics of the day were correct about- it was a critical and financial bomb, which has been unfairly elevated in the decades since. I will assume that the reader has seen the picture, so will not go into chronological plot minutia right now. The basic problem is that there are just too many things that just reek in this film of B moviemaking, such as the casting of the automatonic Kim Novak as the love interest ‘Madeline’/Judy, co-conspirator with the murderous Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), in setting up John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, his old college buddy, as the witness to the ‘suicide’ of the real Madeline Elster, his wife. The idea makes for a great idea, but a ridiculous plot when played out in serious tones.
Yes, films require suspension of disbelief, but this is not horror nor sci fi, and the suspension bar is necessarily lower in realistic films. Yet, this film revolves about the sort of ludicrously convoluted and contrived over the top murder plot that is not only uninvolving intellectually and emotionally, but works only when mocked for their implausibility in comedic farces. This film is a classic case of the ‘dumbest possible action’ propelling the plot, and that’s a death knell for any presumed artistic greatness. For instance, why would Elster, the murderer of his wife, allow his mistress and co-conspirator, Judy, to live, and possibly reveal their plan? He could just kill her and dump her body somewhere and no one would be the wiser. Why would she, when Scottie sees her after a year of muteness in an asylum, allow him to remake her back into the spitting image of her days as Elster’s wife’s look-alike? If you answer that she was in love with him, well- there’s another strike against the film. The love scenes between Scottie and ‘Madeline’ are silly, contrived, and utterly unconvincing- from their visuals to the crescendoing music, and the fact that they have no chemistry. Stewart and Grace Kelly had chemistry in Rear Window. The reason was Kelly could act. Novak cannot. And this lack of talent is glaring when cast opposite a great actor like Stewart, even if this is not a particularly good role. No one, in real life, falls in love that quickly, and one is hard pressed to believe that the fiftysomething Scottie would fall for a vapid twentysomething tart with psychotic problems- as ‘Madeline’ displays, much less spend a year in an asylum with guilt over her supposed suicide from the bell tower at the mission at San Juan Batista. Then there’s the very notion that Elster would need to go to such a ridiculous length to dispose of his wife, considering his vast financial resources. How could he know that Scottie would be so gullible to the claims of supernatural possession, or that his vertigo would be so afflicting when he is lured to the bell tower? How could he rely on his vapid lover to play her part to the hilt, especially if he likely sensed she was falling for Scottie? Also, as we later learn, after Elster threw his already dead wife’s body off the bell tower, he and Judy simply hid up top while the cops came and took away the dead body below. And, I suppose, that the cops never went up to the bell tower to check for evidence at the scene of the crime?
The film would have been far better had it not had Scottie tritely fall in love with ‘Madeline’, for then the real criminal elements of the plot could have been worked out in greater detail, with more believability. Besides, Scottie had his ex-fiancée Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a cute blond with brains, to fall back on, and he should have teamed up with her to figure things out. Instead, we get the trite ‘hero falls for dumb blond’ routine, and not just any old dumb blond, but the Hitchcockian platinum blond ice princess. Of course, the film veers off course right away with the title sequence that fetishizes an attractive woman’s face, and the opening rooftop chase scene where Scottie’s prior guilt, acrophobia, and vertigo are established- even if we never find out how Scottie survives his hanging off a frail aluminum gutter. Yet, despite the film’s title, the very concept of vertigo- literally or figuratively, has little truck with the film. Perhaps Obsession or Fetish would have been a better title- although it would have died with the censors, for it’s clear that Scottie is no hero- a rare good point in the film. Once he re-encounters a dowdy and red-haired Judy Barton- a simple girl from Salina, Kansas (although she admits she’s been ‘picked up before’- ooh the 50s naughtiness!), he becomes possessed with sickly and perversely recreating the dead ‘Madeline’.
Yet, here is another huge flaw with the film’s script. Scottie does not recognize that Judy is ‘Madeline’ until he sees that she is wearing a keepsake pin that Gavin gave her, as payment for her silence, one which matches that seen in the portrait of Carlota Valdes, the insane great-grandmother of the real Madeline that ‘Madeline’ is pretending to be possessed by. Even fifty years ago people knew that such perfect doppelgangers do not exist, even if an identical twin; and especially a detective who has spent years on a police force would be clued in, even if recovering from a stupor.
Also, while some critics praise the film’s boldness by revealing the details of the murder plot well before film’s end, it’s not at all difficult to figure out once we get a first glimpse of the redhead Judy, and that she is the same woman that earlier seduced Scottie. Is it not another clue as to what is really going on when Elster does not care that Scottie is with his ‘wife’, in intimate places, so much? In the film’s commentary we find out that Hitchcock wisely wanted to remove the scenes- which are bad not only because they so openly state what an intelligent viewer can guess, but in the hyper-dramatic way it is shot, with blood red; not to mention that if the viewer is not clued in after all that, Hitchcock has Judy write and speak a letter to Scottie that explains the whole scheme. Of course, in melodramatic fashion, she never mails the letter, and rips it up, teary-eyed. This basest form of melodrama also infects a silly dream sequence that Scottie has that is laced with cartoons and is unintentionally hilarious. Here we see why Hitchcock consciously avoided real ‘depth’- he was not good at it. Period.
Some critics contend the giveaway of the murder plot makes Vertigo a ‘character study,’ but Scottie is such an unlikable and sexist character, and Judy such a vapid male fantasy of the big-breasted blond who’d do anything to please her man that, at film’s end, when Judy is scared off the bell tower by a nun appearing from the shadows- yes, the nun so resembles Elster, the viewer only wishes that Scottie would dive after her, like he did when he saved her in San Francisco Bay. No, having an unlikable lead character, in such a formulaic Hollywood film is not good. In a Bergman psychodrama it’s fine, but not in a film like Vertigo. And no, Hitchcock is not making some deep comment on the male obsession with physical beauty because, frankly, Barbara Bel Geddes is just as good looking, if not more so than Kim Novak. And, even if he was, that sort of observation makes for a good bumper sticker, not the basis for a murder mystery; at least not this one.
The DVD, part of The Alfred Hitchcock Collection, is of the 1996 restoration version by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and runs two hours and nine minutes- at least thirty to forty minutes too long (especially in the first half’s exposition), and is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It comes with the original theatrical trailer and the restored version’s, as well as many drawings for the sets, a documentary on the film called Obsessed With Vertigo: New Life For Hitchcock’s Masterpiece, which deals with the film and the restoration process, as well as a film commentary by the film’s real producer (not Hitchcock as billed) Herbert Coleman, and the film’s restorers: Harris and Katz, and a few other participants in the film’s production. The commentary is filled with mostly minutia, although there is a good catch of a filmic faux pas, when Scottie and Elster are drinking at a club and one shot shows their drinks have ice cubes in them and the next, from a different angle, shows no cubes.
The best extra feature, however, is a minute and a half foreign censorship ending, which Hitchcock wisely cut for, as melodramatic as Novak’s fall off the tower at film’s end is, the sight of Stewart looking downward is potent, as he is now cured of his vertigo and acrophobia. This ending is not. In Midge’s apartment she hears a radio announcement that Gavin Elster was living in Switzerland, but should be extradited. Midge hears footsteps and Scottie enters. Midge stands, she is wearing a robe, and pours a drink for them both. She hands him the drink, sits down, they look at each other, and it ends. The implication is that Scottie returns to the ‘good girl’ in the end, even though we know it was she who broke their prior engagement. It also points out the utter triteness and superfluity of her character. She could have been a good character and a great help to Scottie had the film been written and directed more intelligently, but after we see her mooning for Scottie at the asylum, she is discarded. Her character is not even a stand-in for the audience, thus serves only as the right moral choice Scottie should have made. Ah, to be a woman in the 1950s, and reduced to such an elemental status. Furthermore, it is ludicrous to believe Elster would have been charged with murder on Scottie’s say so. First, DNA evidence did not exist fifty years ago. Secondly, the dead Judy would point more to Scottie’s mental instability than to Elster’s culpability. Third, Scottie’s credibility was already destroyed at the police hearing over his conduct in letting ‘Madeline’ die. And, finally, who would really believe such a comic book scheme would work, given that the rest of the world would not necessarily be as dim-witted as Scottie? Another point to ponder is that the viewer only has Judy’s claim as to what really happened, so Elster could be innocent, and she a schemer who killed the wife. It’s just as plausible to think that there was some other scheme afoot, one where circumstances were strained, but not anymore so than the version of things that Judy claims.
Yet this grand silliness is all in perfect tune with the outmoded and shallow psychologizing in the whole film. In this film’s 1950s universe most problems are solved by taking a swig of alcohol, preferably brandy. Failing that solution, there are quacks who provide the most inane diagnoses possible. When Midge is done visiting the mute Scottie in the asylum, she stops in at his doctor’s office, to see what her ex’s condition is. Is she told anything profound? No, the diagnosis is the manifest sort that any thinking person over the age of twelve could reasonably give. The doctor informs her that Scottie is suffering from that pseudoscientific catchall, melancholia, as well as a guilt complex. Wow, Doc. It took how many years in college to come up with this sort of insight? Then, when Midge tells the doctor that Scottie was also in love with the woman that ‘died’, the doctor’s profound retort is that such a fact ‘complicates the problem.’ I guess he never spoke with his patient, nor even looked into any of the facts surrounding his case? Yet, even a critic as renowned as Roger Ebert wholly misses this huge and fatal flaw in the film, instead rhapsodizing like this:
There is another element, rarely commented on, that makes Vertigo a great film. From the moment we are let in on the secret, the movie is equally about Judy: her pain, her loss, the trap she’s in. Hitchcock so cleverly manipulates the story that when the two characters climb up that mission tower, we identify with both of them, and fear for both of them, and in a way Judy is less guilty than Scottie.
Uh….no. Absolutely not. This is like the BS that some critics spew that this film was somehow ‘confessional’, and that Hitchcock was deconstructing his own real or imagined misogyny. Had the audience been left guessing about whether or not Judy was ‘Madeline’, it would have been far more effective. This would have truly pulled the viewer into Scottie’s world- much more so than the visual razzle-dazzle Hitchcock uses to show Scottie recalling ‘Madeline’ when he kisses Judy. Of course, this is assuming we do suspend the disbelief that Judy could ever be such a perfect doppelganger for ‘Madeline’, without actually being her. Once the audience knows that Scottie knows what we do, that he is correct about Judy’s role in his fate, there is no dramatic tension, in the thriller sense, and we can only be left to guess how Judy will get her comeuppance- be it by death or the law.
A film like this points out the fact that Hitchcock not only was not a ‘deep’ director, but could not have been, for by sacrificing what he did best- manipulation, suspense, and twists of plot, all he did was sacrifice what he did best. He had no Bergmanian depths to plumb. Is it really believable that Scotty would become a deaf-mute for a year over his supposed guilt in ‘Madeline’s’ suicide? Stewart projects far too much sanity in this role, and as a filmic persona. When Midge is fussing over him he does not look remotely catatonic, merely sleepy. There were plenty of other downright bad moments in the film, of course, such as where Scottie is standing on a chair, looks out Midge’s window, and faints gently into her arms. Now, he dwarfs her in size, and falling from several feet, he would not waft into her arms, but thud, and probably hurt both of them. This scene is set up only to show that Midge will always be there for Scottie, despite whatever convolutions their relationship has had. But, we get this from every moment they are together. There are many, many other screenplay moments that fail, and this surprises, for the co-screenwriters, Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel, based the film upon the novel D’Entre Les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also wrote the story for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s great thriller Diabolique, a tale that Hitchcock tried to get the rights to, but failed. Given Diabolique’s greatness one can only assume that the screenwriters, in concert with Hitchcock, ruined what was probably a great story.
If the script and direction is weak, however, the best parts of the film are the score, provided by Bernard Herrmann, and the camera work. The music directs the viewer, but does not lead nor overwhelm, save for the trite and sappy love scenes, which are bad all around. Even better than the film’s soundtrack is the cinematography by Hitchcock’s long time cinematographer Robert Burks. The palette is lush with reds, greens, and browns, as the shots of the sequoias, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the art museum are gorgeous, making the most of the now outdated Technicolor technology. There is also a brief scene which features Ellen Corby, who would later go on to fame as the crotchety grandmother in the television series The Waltons, that is humorous. For those interested in Hitchcock’s cameo, it comes about eleven minutes into the film, in a throwaway shot designed only for the cameo, where we see him crossing a street before we get to the interior of Gavin Elster’s office.
Yet, even more so than the implausibilities, bad screenplay, and sexism, that damn the film is the fact that Vertigo is simply dull. Add that to a lead character who is a creep with problems, its love story pathetic, and its ‘mystery’ being rather pallid and given away too soon, and the claim that Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s most overrated films is a good one. At best, it is merely a mediocre film. And, as Goldilocks might claim, that sort of assessment is ‘just right.’
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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