Sunday, July 6, 2008

CS Presents: Vertigo

I decided to undertake something only slightly less harrowing and much more enjoyable than studying for the bar exam this summer: watching as many Alfred Hitchcock movies as I could get my hands on via my Blockbuster subscription. I will review the movies after I watch them as a way of actually posting here. I grade each movie simply on how much I liked it in relation to the others. SPOILER ALERT: If you don't want to know what happens in a movie, then don't read my reviews. There will be no SPOILER ALERTs within the reviews.

Vertigo (1958)

I don't even know where to begin.

Vertigo might be the oddest and most enchanting film I have ever seen. For all of its complexity, the plot is relatively simple. The detective going out on one last case and falling in love with the woman he was hired to be watch, etc. The plot could have easily come out of a film noir or a Michael Connelly novel.

I've enjoyed some very good films that I really don't have any desire to see again. Chinatown is an incredible movie, but it's a movie that I only intend to see once a decade or so. It is a deeply uncomfortable movie despite its genius. Anyone who has seen Dylan Baker's performance in Happiness can attest that incredible acting does not necessarily equal a desire to ever see it again. And I'll probably watch North by Northwest at every opportunity, because it is so easy to watch. You can be dropped in at any point and quickly understand it.

I never felt mesmerized watching Vertigo as I did when I watched Rear Window or Lifeboat or even the first half of Rope. There are some movies that you can't get into because the plot is so Byzantine that you give up. And there are others where the actors are sleepwalking through it, so you match their level of effort. Vertigo has neither of those problems, yet it didn't completely suck me in. But that tracks with how Scottie is seeing the world. The notion of a dead woman inhabiting Madeleine is so un-Hitchcockian. One of the reasons I have enjoyed watching his films is that his suspense is borne of reality. He doesn't need the supernatural to create tension -- the real world will suffice. Scottie doesn’t really believe Madeleine, which makes it kind of surprising that he doesn’t see what is happening. We get sucked in the way Scottie gets sucked in: slowly, surely and entirely.

It was not highly critically received at the time of release and it is not hard to see why. The film's name is not only a description of Scottie's condition, but how the audience feels when they leave the theatre. It is a disorienting film that lacks an easy payoff. In the final bell tower scene, the bad guy is in Europe. We have liked Scottie from the beginning, but his obsession with Madeleine/Judy is positively creepy. Our sympathies should transfer to Judy, a woman willing to do anything to be with the man who she yearns for, but her duplicity robs her of that trust. It is one of the few climatic scenes I can remember where everyone really is in shades of gray.

The performances are incredible. Kim Novak has to play the dual role of the cool, dark and beguiling Madeleine Elster and her counterpart, the down-to-earth Judy Barton who knows the truth. In many respects, Novak's portrayal of Madeleine is representative of the film as a whole. Her exterior is a bit cold and it is clear that there is something disturbing about her. But in spite of her problems, there is something underneath that is draws you in. I wish I could write those sentences in a way that pointed to something concrete in the film that makes me want to see it again despite the fact that I am still not sure how much I really liked it. I guess that is the magic of Hitchcock.

Grade: Anywhere from a B to an A+. Ask me in a few months or so when I rent it again.

Up Next: North by Northwest

Rear Window
The Trouble With Harry