Sunday, April 4, 2010
* * *
There's no avoiding it. This wouldn't be necessary if I wasn't dealing with one of the most revered films in the canon, one of those sacred cows that have a permanent spot on many critic's all-time top ten list. Usually I'd simply give out my three stars - plenty good, but not all-time great - and be on my way. But not this time . . .I've got a confession to make: I have yet to fully 'get' Alfred Hitchcock, and this extends to what most consider to be his masterwork, Vertigo.
Which is to say, I recognize and celebrate the artistry in his films - the masterful composition, in the often-mesmerizing editing, in the psychological layering - but it is an artistry that doesn't quite reach me on a gut level. Hitch has been accused of misogyny, but what I come away with after a Hitchcock film is the director's contempt for almost all of his characters - poor crazy Norman Bates (Psycho)and Claude Raines' Nazi mama's boy (Notorious) may get the most unadulterated measures of the director's sympathy. Hitchcock seems to me a particularly cold fish, one who has better earned the technical master/misanthrope tag that gets pasted onto Stanley Kubrick and the Coens.
Beyond this philosophical quibble, however, lies a dirtier little secret I'll confess. In most of his most revered films (Notorious is an exception), Hitch throws in one or two serious howlers - stylized moments, often utilizing special effects, that are so off-base, so downright cheesy, that to me, they stop the movie cold. These moments - Rear Window's Jimmy Stewart blinding his assailant with his camera flash (red filters hoorah!) that whole North by Northwest Mount Rushmore set-piece, and the dippy-trippy, electric kool-aide nightmare sequence from Vertigo, to name three examples - yank you right out of the moment. Worse, all three of these occur precisely when the suspense should be at its height.
One could argue that my reaction is a sad commentary on my CGI-generation; Star Wars kids so indoctrinated to the more seamless effects of today that they are numbed to the more impressionistic visual delights of yesteryear, but I don't buy that. I was bored stiff by the twisters in Twister, for example, but that Wizard of Oz windsock is still a dark thrill (to say nothing of those flying hell-monkeys), and even Vertigo's opening set piece, in which a deadly fall is shown in horizontal, not vertical space, is genuinely terrifying. In other words, impressionistic effects still get to me - when they're well-done. I just think Hitchcock has a tendency to make bad choices in this area.
Okay, that's off my chest. I feel better. Now I can get back to my review of what remains, despite my reservations, a very tense, meticulously calibrated thriller about the fine differences between love and obsession, and which contains what is almost certainly Stewart's finest hour as an actor.
In his later career, Jimmy Stewart underwent a pretty nifty image transformation, and Hitchcock played a big part in that. His on-screen persona - wholesome, trusty, smart, and more than a little square - had been well-defined in hits like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and A Philadelphia Story. It may have been shocking for America to watch him morph, as he does here, from a folksy American whimsy-muffin into an obsessive, sadistic misogynist. That's simplifying things a bit, but the Stewart on display in Hitchcock joints such as Rope or Rear Window is a more shadowy creature by far, and in Vertigo the transformation is all the more striking because it actually occurs during the film's running time. Stewart's detective, John "Scotty" Ferguson, starts the movie so golly-gosh-gee-aw-shucks that the corn-fed goodness approaches parody. His slow transformation, therefore, from stalwart emblem of the normal into full-on psychosexual creepshow lends the second act a shocking undertow that transcends the plot.
The less said about the plot the better. Not because it is a bad one, but because unspoiled is the best way to view any film. The basics: Scotty is a San Fran detective retired after a traumatic incident involving heights, shown in a very brief establishing scene, furnishes him with crippling acrophobia. He is contacted by a rich schoolchum, who suspects that there is something quite wrong with his wife, Madeline (a magnificent Kim Novak). As a favor, Scottie agrees to investigate and is drawn into a mystery involving . . .
Well. Like I said, it's best to leave the plot alone. You either already know already or else you shouldn't be told under any circumstances. What is great about this film (as with most films with aspects of greatness) goes beyond the what-who-where. It is in the way the establishing sequence leaves Scotty hanging over the maw, the way we never discover how he escaped (he's always hanging on by his fingers, just about to plummet). The greatness is found in Hitch's eerie and deserted San Francisco, in the long expanses of silence, the fevered colors, the way the camera always seems to see Scotty looking down, never up. Vertigo holds the same inchoate menace that curls through the best noir - everything seems a little off in ways that are hard to catalogue, much like dreams are just before they become nightmares. By the end, as events loop back upon itself, Scotty has been tricked into becoming a demon, making his love into no more than the object of his obsession. "It can't possibly matter to you," he says to Novak - one of the cruelest lines of dialogue ever written - as he makes her over into the image of his desires. She has become his own little voodoo Barbie doll, allowing Scottie to purge his fears by bringing his demons right into his own psychic kitchen - he 'cures' himself by causing the tragedy which, at a different time, he was helpless to prevent.
But again, I return to my quibbles. The plot contrivance that brings the characters to this juncture - one character puts on an accessory that is a dead give-away - is just too transparent, too easy, and too unbelievable. Ever so briefly, the curtain of dread is lifted and we see the gears running the machine.
Great. The hairs on my neck are standing up, the static electricity that comes just before a lightning strike. The gods of cinema are about to strike me dead. I can feel it.