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April 17, 2016

Vertigo (1958)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Actors: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

V%C3%A9rtigo.jpg (320×180)

Synopsis: A retired and acrophobic detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), is tasked with tailing the wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), of an old friend of his, to see where her strange detours take her.

Review: One of the most interesting facets of Vertigo is how director Alfred Hitchcock shoehorned in one of the most ambitious, complex and dystopian of melodramas from right under the nose of the studios. As another writer put it, Hitchcock was a “grand experimental artist labouring in commercial genre cinema”, and while Vertigo honoured its genre brief as a superficially recognisable psychological thriller with a veneer of romanticism, in truth that front masquerades a much more radical construct: a film totally in thrall to the lure/peril of looking, and filmed almost entirely from the perspective or emotion of the subconscious.

Vertigo is, in a sense, one big elegant metaphor. The immemorial opening credits sequence brilliantly symbolises what’s to come: the enigmatic close-up on a woman’s face acting as a harbinger for Scottie’s story-long misappropriation of (projection onto) a female cipher, and the startling artwork of a thumbprint morphing into a vortex represents not only Scottie’s literal acrophobia but also anticipates his deeper immersion into a mise en abyme. Incidentally, the film features numerous other spiral portents of Scottie’s increasing journey into darkness: Madeleine’s hair knot and flower bouquet, plus the end-game of the spiral staircase at the Mission San Juan Bautista.

Vertigo is a film that succeeds in approximating the aesthetic of a dream, with the radical awakening – which even then, Scottie cannot conscience – occurring when he first spots Judy walking down a San Francisco boulevard. Judy’s (Madeleine’s) ‘reappearance’ is one of the most profoundly powerful sensations I have ever experienced as a watcher of films – the genius being that at this point in the narrative, this presence (apparition?) is devoid of all context. We are forced into the same position as Scottie: to judge this woman’s sudden materialisation entirely from look and intuition. Incidentally, to be hyper-critical, how much more radical would it have been if Hitchcock had withheld the conspiracy and whodunnit element of Judy’s identity until the very end, allowing us to bask in this uncanny, inexplicable, spectral balm a little while longer?

When the revelation about Judy is offered though, the dream dichotomy is unmasked: the first half of the film once Scottie begins his mission is like a subconscious wandering – so many of the scenes are wordless as Scottie becomes subsumed in the blank canvas of the blonde spectre he is following and her seeming psychopathology. There’s the clearly dreamlike, subterranean construct of “Ernie’s Diner” where Scottie first glimpses the phantom-like Madeleine; then there are the hypnotic, unravelling drives around various locales in the Bay Area (some of the journeys are even mise en abymes, taking Scottie back to where his journey started – his home); and there’s the utterly mesmeric Sequoia woodland scene where Madeleine almost literally takes the form of an apparition amid the arboreal darkness. Scottie’s mistake is not to “wake up” when he first sees Judy – he makes the same fundamental error of logic as he had when investigating Madeleine. His fervour and zeal destroy his rational faculties (exactly the same mistake as Donald Sutherland’s grieving father in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now), leading himself and Judy down an almost Faustian path which winds up inevitably at another abyss, another ‘fall’ – the grotesqueness of Scottie’s acts signalled by the Nun’s closing words “God have Mercy!” (April 2016)

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