The Vertigo Effect

by Tom George Hammond

Sight and Sound’s “One-Hundred Greatest Films” poll has to reckon with the performative nature of list-making.  When they survey a mass of critics and creatives, they are aware that what is lobbed back is a series of cultivated images of taste.  A filmmaker who is racked with the question of their ten favourite films will want to spell out something individual as well as faintly autobiographical; here I am, they might say, and here is an explanation of my work.  The magazine has also to reckon with the “list” as a form of criticism that now feels cheap.  “Lists are for laundry”, as Elena Gorfinkle wrote, and the magazine apologetically quotes back.  But this self-aware coverage cannot detract from the pride taken in the list itself.  And – as Barry Norman never said – why not? In its scientific rigour, it’s found a new way to tell a story of film.  Part of the poll’s appeal is its obvious impermanence, and the notion that there will be no definitive answer to its leading question.  Instead it is a calibration of taste as a voyage, in which a flickering torch can come to stand tall as a lighthouse.  And this is the story of Vertigo (1958), the pitch-black noir tragedy that, from inauspicious beginnings, went on to launch a thousand ships.  

Vertigo’s reputation is fed partially from what it represents, that being a precursor to the bridging of pulp noir to avant-garde aestheticism.  It recognises that the purpose of noir as a genre is to pose interesting questions, rather than thrilling answers; essentially, give the audience a hook and then do as you please.  Scorcese said of Hitchock’s film: “The plot is just a line you can hang things on”, and noir’s gumshoe mysteries tend to provide the sturdiest of lines.  Many films carry the scent of Vertigo.  Brian De Palma remade it twice, once with Paul Schrader’s Oedipal nightmare Obsession (1976), and then as the erotically charged Body Double (1984).  But there are a greater number of quasi-remakes or sly imitators, films that present a mystery then find a greater clarity in the moments between reveals; Blow-Up, Night Moves, Burning, Mulholland Drive, Tell No One, Decision To Leave; behind all these sits Vertigo and all its bizarre, lurid magic.  

It also – more specifically – seems to mark Hitchock’s own influence on the collective of Cahiers Du Cinéma.  The early outings of the French New Wave were all shaped by a reaction to the director’s supremely confident, populist style.  Vertigo, with its high-charged blend of the populist and the personal, stands as a forebear to Truffaut, Chabrol and Goddard’s modernist sensibilities, absorbing traditional narratives and, from them, fashioning something shocking and unrecognizable.  

But all this wider mythology does not speak to the quality of the film itself, in fact it risks suggesting that the greatest appeals to Vertigo lie outside of the piece.  And this is an argument that still afflicts the film and lends it a still slippery reputation, despite it having once reigned for ten years as the world’s “Greatest Film” after topping the Sight and Sound poll in 2012.  There is a quarrel against Vertigo that it is a “critics film”, whose reputation is garnered because it is more interesting than it is watchable.  And a lot about the film is interesting;

  1. That it was first derided and ignored by prominent critics in the Anglo-sphere, and barely made a profit – and, just as the most devoted music fans will often champion the black sheep experimental album, it follows that a modern cinephile will want to ally themselves with a great director’s most controversial work.
  2. That the film begins in a fashion glaringly similar to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954); James Stewart is struck down with an affliction, has a screwball flirtation going on with an attractive younger woman (Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge, in place of Grace Kelly), and is then plunged into solving a domestic drama that he must undertake from a distance.  The fact that what comes after is not a straightforward, rollicking thriller, but a grueling tale of obsession and perversion, still plays to Hitchcock fans like an enjoyably nasty trick.  It is like watching a chef lay out all the ingredients for a family favourite pulled pork and mac’n’cheese, before serving up a plate of whole turbot on the bone.
  3. That Jimmy Stewart uses his handsome, greying everyman charm to surprise us; his starpower comes with a deep pocket of gentle, unblinking decency, so at first we do not realize – or, perhaps, don’t believe – that this man, our hero, is becoming so thoroughly indecent, so nasty, so unlike himself.
  4. That the director is unmaking the object of his own obsession, the “Hitchcock Blonde”.  From its first frame, an intensely close-angled portrait of Kim Novak’s face, the film builds and then destroys a male fantasy of womanhood.  Novak’s Madeleine is radiant, studied, mysterious, and constantly in need of being rescued, and, after said rescue, to be kissed.  But she isn’t real, and she only ever existed in the mind of the man stalking her.
  5. That Veritgo disregards its leading mystery three-quarters of the way through the film’s runtime, in one quick flashback, as if to say “not that you care, but here’s what happened”.  The nominal villain departs, his quite insane plan having worked without a hitch, and the loyal, dependable Midge likewise takes her leave, her broken proposal to Stewart’s Scottie being permanently suspended in a kind of narrative purgatory.

All of the above make Vertigo interesting.  But Hitchcock was not a purveyor of the merely interesting.  No one would feel at risk showing Rear Window or North by Northwest (1959) to someone entirely uninitiated with the director’s work, or panic that they would not have the requisite context to who James Stewart is, or who Cary Grant is, or the hideous facts of Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hendren.  These are compact films that work on an elemental level; they are quick, witty, and propulsive.  Each carries a signature sequence that encapsulates the director’s métier.  When Roger Thornwill is chased by the crop-duster in North by Northwest, we see a perfect distillation of a man with limited powers, out of his depth and up against a dangerous machine; a neat synecdoche of the whole picture.  And when Lisa Fremont climbs the ladder to the murderer’s apartment in Rear Window, we, the audience, are forced to watch helplessly from a distance.  We, like Stewart’s Jefferies, want to cry “get out of there”, and that’s before we see the killer ascend the stairs, and feel – not just afraid for her – but helpless in ourselves that we cannot alert her to the coming danger.  It’s a very clever bit of immersion.

It’s in moments like these where cinema becomes an adjective.  Hitchcock made thrillers because they abetted sequences that can grab an audience by the throat, and put them squarely amongst the jeopardy.  This was the talent that made him a circus-master for Hollywood noir, and as a flag-bearer for populist filmmaking for the French New Wave.  As Richard Brody observed of Hitchcock’s admirers; “the images in New Wave’s directors’ films have a distinctive tone – not as in mood or texture but as in muscle tone, a constant tension that sustains and reveals the images’ interior architecture”.  They did not appraise Hitchcock as an artist because he smuggled art into a populist form, his art was populism itself.  And does Vertigo, for all its interesting context, not fall short amongst Hitchcock’s tighter mysteries, in terms of pure, unadulterated cinematic thrills?

The short answer is, frankly, “no”.  The thrill of Vertigo is how it slowly grabs you and then will not let go.  Its tragedy is unshakeable.  All of this stems from an extraordinary Kim Novak, who saw the film as a commentary on her own experience of stardom.  As the seemingly possessed Madeleine, there is clearly something wrong with her; not in the obvious sense, as a woman ‘haunted’ by a ghost story she does not know, but in that her whole manner is too earnest, too rehearsed; she runs like she expects to be chased – which, of course, is the whole point.  Watching Scottie follow Madeleine is like being slowly trotted out on horseback into a sand-storm.  And the twist of the other woman, of Judy Barton, who is not as poised or as bewitching, but is abundantly real, leads to a triumphant moment of all of narrative cinema; a back-half of a film that sardonically replays, and even satirizes what came before.  Did you find the romance off-putting? – it asks.  Well good, you were supposed to.  Novak’s Madeleine will glance occasionally over her shoulder to almost catch her stalker in the act – but really she knows she is being watched by Scottie, and is putting on a little show.  When Judy and Scottie start their hideous courtship, the reverse happens; she is looking right at him but he cannot see her at all.  So her half-glances go to the audience instead, for we can share in her dilemma.  

Judy’s dilemma – her guilt and her love for Scottie – leads her to be debased and then, later, killed.  She is trussed up to look like a corpse and then takes its place.  This is fertile ground for Hitchcock, champion of the ghost story that is absent of ghosts, and as with Rebecca (1940) and Psycho (1960), all that is needed for a good haunting is a dressing up box.  Stewart chills in the way he so brusquely begins to mold his new lover to his own specifications.  There is something strangling to the way he insists that he is being reasonable, that it should not matter to her if she changes her clothes or her hair.  But the power of the tragedy rests with Novak, with her helpless wish that, by playing along with Scottie’s demands, she will somehow win out.  To quote Anne Bilson; “was there ever a line as heartbreaking as: ‘If I do what you tell me, will you love me?’”

To the ending, then, of Judy’s own fall from the tower; the sequence that cements all arguments against the film’s status as a classic, feeling rushed and even inelegant (fair is fair, there aren’t that many tragedies gilded by the sudden appearance of a nun).  Admittedly the final minute does remind a little of a poisoned Bible in a Webster play.  But what of Stewart and Novak as they ascend the stairs of the Mission San Juan Bautista? No filmmaker has since answered that scene, which still, after countless re-watches, lands like a cleaver to the chest.  Part of it lies with the crazed outpourings of Jimmy Stewart, part of it with the heartbroken anguish of Kim Novak, but the perverse thrill lies with the fact that it is a chase sequence with no pursuer.  There is no Raymond Burr about to come home, or a crop duster dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.  There are just two people caught in a cycle of obsession, swirling around a plughole before being sucked into the void.  Hitchcock makes the scene throb with disaster because his prime skill is reaction.  If his character is scared, then so are we.  He does not need a literal propeller to propel us, just show us one person on the edge of madness, and he can make it seem like the world is falling apart.  

Because there is no greater machine to Vertigo.  It is a quartet of Stewart, Novak, Hitchcock, and Bernard Herrman’s score (although this sonata plays out in a sun-dappled San Francisco, which is an added advantage).  Many films have the scent of Vertigo, but there is nothing else like it; with its big, silly plot, Hitchcock crafted a vessel that could carry any viewer – cinephile or ingénue – like Orpheus down to the River Styx.