Wednesday, September 23, 2009

VERTIGO Past Fifty—An Appreciation

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I began this blog-site with a post on re-makes. Among other observations, I made the point that beyond the profit motive at the heart of most studio decisions to produce a new version of an earlier film, re-makes were worth doing under certain circumstances. These included scenarios in which a new actor or actors “born” for the film are capable of making it new or better; and/or technology that could do the same. In effect, any element that could make the resulting film substantially better and refreshed is reason enough to re-make the film. The best ideas are worth re-examining, re-stating. Of course, the definition of my use of “substantial,” is arguable. I mean that the film is both uniquely freshened—not just the same thing with different people—and is seen as a strong candidate for both box-office and later (DVD/Download) success—in other words, it’s “pegged” as one they’ll want to see again and again.

Yet, loyal to their favorites, many would still ask, why? Why not leave well-enough alone? The answer to this is at the heart of the matter: filmed stories have a “cultural shelf-life.” No sooner do they appear but they begin an inevitable aging process moving them from culturally relevant to historical artifact, and this no matter their personal relevancy to us. Who among us has not had the experience of “showing” a favorite older film to someone of a different generation and watching the inevitable look of perplexity or eye-glazed boredom appear on their face? What was a great film for “us” ever since “we” first discovered it is nothing but a “weird old movie” to them.

Once we’ve reached a certain age, most of us have been on both sides of this scenario. Haven’t we all watched a film we were supposed to find profound only to wonder what the big deal was? You may have found this kind of thing happened a lot back in school. Remember those English classes in which we read a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, a play by Shakespeare, or a poem by Homer, and wondered at the weight assigned the work by our instructor? Without the educational background, and without an awareness of the work’s historical context, we were unable to appreciate the work’s innovative and unique accomplishments. So, too, then, never achieved, is our appreciation of such material’s profound worth. Eventually, if we persist, we gain the perspective to begin to value such works. But I question any assertion that we can ever appreciate them to the same degree as their original audiences. Our “zeitgeist” can never be theirs.

In college I recall a year of film history in which I finally saw CITIZEN KANE, a film that is on many lists as the greatest film of all time. But I didn’t see it until I had already covered the birth of film. I’d already seen Porter’s GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON; analyzed Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and von Stroheim’s GREED; covered German Expressionism and appreciated the purely visual comedy of Chaplin, Keaton, and Langdon; studied Renoir’s LA GRANDE ILLUSION and Lubitsch’s MERRY WIDOW. I appreciated where films were when director/screenwriter, Orson Welles, co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewiecz, composer, Bernard Herrmann, cameraman, Gregg Toland, and the actors of Welles’s Mercury Theater rocked Hollywood’s world (the entire media’s, for that matter) with CITIZEN KANE. I knew what had been done to that point, and the effect the film had by its particular employment of so many admittedly previously-used innovations, “employed” there in a wholly fresh, artistically-rigorous, and organically-consistent way. KANE wasn’t so much a ground-breaker as it was perhaps the most visible example of an art form—narrative sound films—emerging out of adolescence.

Without the context I might have regarded CITIZEN KANE in much the same emotional way screenwriting guru Robert McKee has: “a bloated exercise in razzle-dazzle spectacle, populated by stereotypical characters, twisted with manipulative storytelling, stuffed full of self-contradictory Freudian and Pirandellian clichés, made by a heavy-handed showoff out to impress the world...”—STORY. In his otherwise excellent book, Mckee, however, goes on to undermine his argument by elevating CASABLANCA—a film I like, by the way—which had some of those very same traits, traits which once removed from narrative films would probably reduce the field by over 90%. “Razzle-dazzle” alone would disallow nearly all films since STAR WARS. “Stereotypes” are present only in films one doesn’t like. And all media is “manipulative”—it’s a question of whether it is honest and worthwhile manipulation or not. CITIZEN KANE deserves a better quality of analysis than such “bloated…razzle-dazzle” from a “heavy-handed showoff out to impress” his deeply-invested academic flock of wannabes.

A film that has become for some (such as director, Martin Scorcese) a seminal work is Alfred Hitchcock’s film, VERTIGO. I suggest you see it, if you haven't yet, before reading further. But for those who cannot, a description of the first two acts without too many spoilers would go something like this:

Former police detective, Scottie Ferguson suffers from a pathological fear of heights and the resulting vertigo. After being asked to follow a friend’s wife, Madeleine, with a bizarre fixation on a dead woman, he reluctantly begins following her. Eventually he finds her strange behavior culminating in a suicide attempt. He saves her and begins to get to know her. Ultimately, they fall in love.

They visit an old Spanish Mission. But the dead woman haunts her. Distraught, and wrestling with her obsession, she runs to the top of the bell tower, pursued by Scottie, who becomes almost paralyzed by the climb. Before he can get himself to the top, she falls to her death. He’s shattered, having lost her just as they had fallen in love, and he believes that like the cop who died trying to save him, it’s because of his vertigo. He is institutionalized, unable to come to grips with his loss and the guilt. Slowly he recovers, and then re-visits the places they had been, the only way to contend with the loss.

Then, on the street one day, he sees a woman who, despite a different hair color and style of dress, is the living image of the now dead wife. He pursues her, begins a relationship, and finally tries to re-make her into his lost love…

That should be enough to get a sense of the story without giving away too much. Or you could see the Wikipedia synopsis, spoilers and all.

VERTIGO is a film that takes a visual theme Hitchcock had been exploring throughout his career, perception, to a profoundly personal level. The director had, over the course of his career, explored the process of perception in narrative film, both within his characters, and within the audience itself. This was particularly true of ROPE, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, and REAR WINDOW. Earlier in his career, with BLACKMAIL, SABOTAGE, and later SABOTEUR, he investigated and then perfected one feature of perception, visually-based suspense, making it, in effect, a signature Hitchcock trope.

Suspense as a dramatic tool rooted in perception is found in the tension between the perceived and the potentially-perceived. Hitchcock demonstrated this with his famous example of the two people talking at a table. By itself, this is boring. But if a ticking bomb is shown, hidden, taped to the underside of the tabletop, suspense is introduced: will they discover it in time? If, in another scenario such as is found in ROPE, one introduces elements such as sympathetic, initially-innocent protagonists, who go on to commit murder, and one adds to it by making us, the audience, effectively a participant, complicit by our being in the room (no apparent cuts, and all action in real time, as in ROPE), one explores the effect of such undercut sympathies on those doing the perceiving, the audience. Though now regarded as a failure, ROPE was a bold experiment, especially for stodgy old Hollywood.

VERTIGO takes this exploration of perception to its deepest psychological level, desire. And not just desire, but forbidden desire: a man desires a woman, the wife of his friend and whom the friend has hired him to follow. Now, if this is done, as in VERTIGO, by pulling us, the audience, into a parallel desire, making us partner to the protagonist, as with ROPE, we again become complicit. In our case the goal is solving and consummating the mystery and allure of this woman whom our trusted, former-policeman hero pursues, and that through winning her love. Said solution can only resolve through the hero’s downfall, the betrayal of his friend and employer. And some substantial portion of us, those attracted to Kim Novak as Jimmy Stewart’s object of desire, are even more complicit: they are voyeurs, partners in Stewart’s growing forbidden obsession. For many in VERTIGO’s 1958 audience, the film was a haunting and disturbing experience. A film that achieved over the years, repeat-viewing upon repeat-viewing, as its “victims” wrestled with its forbidden mysteries, and its intellectual and emotional rewards.

The problem is, inevitably, the world has passed VERTIGO by. Seen today, the film is, to put it bluntly, clunky in the extreme, today a better idea for, rather than an actual film. For a contemporary audience, it suffers from a quality of artificiality: a static approach to the cinematography with its fixed-position camera, its occasional less-than-real traveling matte, its location-to-studio dis-continuity, its annoying use of fog filters, and its conventional and non-evolving image system, unreflective as it is, of Stewart’s psychological descent toward madness. The dream sequence by Hitchcock consultant, John Ferren, is, unfortunately, laughable. Rather than pulling us in by visually rendering Stewart’s contention with his adulterous and inadequacy-based guilt, his fear of heights, and his desperate obsession, the sequence’s crude technique (particularly with Stewart’s floating head, the flashing colors, the posed tableau, and the Disney-esque animated flowers), sorry to say, not only fails to pull us in, but instead, serves to embarrass us. For today’s audience it ends up looking more like a kind of cynical, Saturday Night Live sketch of a dream, than it does a psychologically-accurate rendering of Scottie’s psychosis.

Of course, none of this is really Hitchcock’s fault. VERTIGO is a product of its time: the artistic atrophy that was the studio system, and the level of film technology, circa 1958. This was before the advent of the Steadicam™, lightweight cameras, and faster film stocks, not to mention the cutting and overall mise en scéne seen in films today as the result of the influence of the French New Wave and international cinema. It was at a time when symbolism was all the rage, and Freudian thinking still dominated psychoanalysis and so, the culture’s grasp of it. In truth, it’s a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s skill as a director that VERTIGO still resonates with some portion of its audience at all!

Many, most notably screenwriter, William Goldman, have attacked the film for its use of Kim Novak, complaining that her lack of acting ability hurt the film. It is true that Novak’s career never demonstrated great acting. And it’s true that her physical features were somewhat more “substantial” and “voluptuous” than is thought acceptable for actresses today—Alma Hitchcock even commented on it during editing, back in 1958. But, such observations have also been made for Novak’s contemporaries, such as Marilyn Monroe and even Sophia Loren. Few will deny that Monroe was, nevertheless, perfect for SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, among others. Like it or not, acting is only part of the package. There’s also presence, and Novak, with those shining-moon eyes, like mad pools, inviting us in, had it.

Despite her “pulchritude,” Novak floated through her role as Madeleine with just the right touch of ghostly, ethereal mystery. She delivered her more important lines (such as “If I were mad, that would explain it.”) with sufficient restraint to avoid the greater danger of over-acting. In fact, her entire performance, light as gossamer, was admirably and appropriately under-stated. And her physicality, despite Hitchcock’s famous Rawhide-inspired direction (“actors should be treated like cattle”), was never as stiff as it might have been, given her character’s motivation: “you believe yourself to be a ghost!” Her movements are quite at ease, in fact. So, I’m afraid, her negative reviews for VERTIGO, come encumbered by her other (and even later, hindsight-based) work, rather than her efforts on the Hitchcock film, wherein she rose to the film’s demands.

Unlike its source story, the French novel, Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts (“Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead”), by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Hitchcock’s film of (hardly) Alec Coppel’s and (mainly) Samuel Taylor’s screenplay for VERTIGO, understood something not even the novel’s authors had, chained as they were, to the page and its non-visual written medium. The story was about voyeurism, obsession, and madness, visual and emotion-laden elements well-suited to film. Stewart (as Scottie) was drawn by a developing love (and then, in his efforts to re-make her, an almost ravening obsession) rooted in, and enhanced by Novak’s (as Madeleine) mystery. The audience was drawn by both her mystery and a voyeuristic desire to see Scottie regain his (and, as our surrogate, our own) love. Therefore, in our stead, he would have to take the fall--pun intended. So we are given a gift, that of knowing what Scottie is yet to learn, that Madeleine is lying, partner, in fact, to murder, and though she has, in turn, fallen in love with him, it is now a love of the damned.

Here is the Hitchcock touch in action. These parallel needs allowed the director to orchestrate his dénouement such that while the character of Scottie must, of necessity, descend perhaps to the point of no return, the audience need go only so far into the mystery, and no further, before they then, unlike Scottie, are allowed to know the truth. There, they regain their footing sufficiently to appreciate the danger and the madness awaiting. Hitchcock likened it to the difference between mystery and suspense. In mystery (as it was in the novel) the truth emerges at the end, a shock of mere seconds. In suspense, the truth emerges for the audience in advance of the end, and only later for the protagonist. This yields deliciously-long minutes of anticipation and suspense, as the audience watches breathlessly to see the protagonist uncover it, and then what he does about it. Screenwriter, Taylor claims to have arrived at this pivotal revision of the novel’s story himself, and when he suggested it to the director, recognizing the signature technique for what it was, he even called it “Hitchcockian.” Of course, Hitchcock claims he alone thought of it. Whatever, this was a sublime narrative insight, exponentially empowering the story, here told on film. Who among us has not wanted desperately for that second chance? Here, for Scottie, and for us, it awaited.

This is the potential of film, the power of VERTIGO. The key to understanding VERTIGO’s lasting appeal (for those of us who feel it) is that it be seen as a promise to the heart about getting a second chance at our deepest, thought-lost desires. This is a universal human yearning. It resonates at our very core. Kim Novak embodies a kind of “woman unknowable,” an impossible, inscrutable, unreachable, yet somehow irresistible Everest-like thunderhead of challenge and enigma. We’ve been seduced, become voyeurs, complicit in the fall of our hero, so that we may have, if only for a moment, that second chance. We watch again and again, not to find out what happens in the film, but to find out what happens in us.

Despite its age, over half a century, now, the fact remains that VERTIGO has a powerful and compelling premise. Forbidden desire, as a resonant theme, will never go away. The mystery evoked by Kim Novak’s ethereal and haunting Madeleine still draws us in. I believe the same could not have been said had Hitchcock’s first choice for the role, Vera Miles, instead played Madeleine. There was something in Novak’s physicality, something in her eyes, in her body language, that was beyond the power of an actress like Vera Miles. There’s a widely-held belief in Hollywood that great films are made in the casting, and with VERTIGO, William Goldman’s opinion of Novak notwithstanding, this is borne out. Jimmy Stewart’s vulnerability, the sympathy he engenders in us as his character, Scottie, loses his grip while retaining enough to see through her betrayal and deception at the end, is beyond the capability of any other Hitchcock leading man, especially Cary Grant. Barbara Bel Geddes even manages to make us believe. But the idea behind VERTIGO is the real strength of the film. With the death of Madeleine, it has the power to evoke in us a quality of loss and a desperation to get her back that rings true for everyone who has ever really loved and then lost. What film fan would not sell his soul to see VERTIGO done with current cinematic technology and sensibilities, by a Hitchcock in his prime, today?

Re-making VERTIGO would present nearly impossible challenges. The film would need an actress as rarified and antiseptically haunting as Novak, an actor as smart, vulnerable, and attuned to the less-is-more maxim as Stewart, and a director with the visual potency and astute narrative cinematic instincts as Hitchcock, to pull it off. It would need a fluidity of camera and editing, and an image system that evolved from objective normalcy to subjective instability. It would need a musical score as evocative of Madeleine’s mystery and Scottie’s tragic loss as the one composed by Bernard Herrmann. Echoing our notion about second chances, Martin Scorsese said about the score:

"Hitchcock's film is about obsession, which means that it's about circling back to the same moment, again and again ... And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair. Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”

Finally, it would need a contemporary sensibility, an approach that brings it up to the state of culture and films today. Perhaps lightning cannot strike twice. The re-make of SABRINA failed for me, but only in the casting. On all other fronts, it was a worthy effort. (Interestingly, Samuel Taylor also wrote the original SABRINA.) Re-making VERTIGO would demand that that failing of the casting also be overcome. But, if achieved, it would restore the original’s power for new generations.

So, risking “blasphemy,” I believe there is room today for a new approach to the story in VERTIGO. I don’t mean a variant such as Brian De Palma’s film of Paul Schrader’s script for OBSESSION, a film many derided as a poor copy of the Hitchcock film. And I don’t mean a PSYCHO-like re-shooting of the original script with “any old” new actors. I mean a film that is faithful and true to the original’s haunting tale of loss, a film that has the production “chops” to match and then transcend its predecessor, and a film that echoes and re-echoes for today’s audience. Just as Scottie needed that second chance to restore his lost love, so, by regaining VERTIGO, do I.#


Lee A. Matthias

Get Dan Auiler's excellent book on the making of VERTIGO here.

There are some interesting blogs on VERTIGO here and here.

1 comment:

  1. A more than excellent essay.

    I agree that Vertigo can be remade today - should the film be remade or the source novel be adapted. Are both options the same thing.

    The premise of the story - obsession - is strong enough to translate to contemporary issues of stalking. Which basically is what Scottie does. All it would take is a major star and an unknown and the public would buy into the female's acquiesense.

    You're right about casting.