Sight & Sound List #1: Vertigo (1958)
by Tess McGeer
In the opening sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the crippling fear of our protagonist causes the death of an unnamed police officer. This—along with a few creepy camera tricks—was enough, by my learned professor’s estimation, to earn the film a place in a course on mid-20th century horror. I haven’t nearly the education or experience of the scholar in question, but I still feel compelled to disagree.
Horror films play off our fear, using it as a launching pad for entertainment, exorcising that which goes bump in the night so that it might be swallowed with popcorn and a sense of communal safety. Hitchcock has never been so kind—and Vertigo in particular offers no such catharsis. Rather, Vertigo is about the fear that lives inside of us, that drives us for better or for worse. It’s a film about the anxieties of merely being a person, the enormous fear of loss, the desperate grappling for connection that our mounting panic drives us to.
I’m in my second-to-last semester toward earning a degree in Communication. “Critical Culture Studies,” actually. English major drop-out, actually. I take a lot of film classes and get defensive about thematic lighting and yell at people or get yelled at, actually. Insufferable, unemployable, actually. I don’t hold my academic concentration in the highest esteem, and I feel confident that it will be of little-to-no-use toward my ever having health insurance or a job wherein I don’t have to answer someone else’s phone calls, but it has graciously endowed me with the double-edged delusion that a) my cultural opinions are of more innate value than the average hack with a blog and b) that anyone who thinks their cultural opinions are of more innate value than the average hack with a blog is the absolute worst. I’ve got this—and the understanding that twenty-year-old dudes in flat-brimmed Red Sox hats are universally offended by Thelma & Louise—all for the bargain rate of a stack of student loans that I’ll likely still be paying off from the grave.
I mention all of this only to explain why I tend to find film critics’ lists of the Greatest Movies of All Time, Seriously, The Best And I Know Because I Am Very Cultured And Important, to be mostly drivel.
I mention all of this because there was a time when lists like these, and the films that routinely make them, meant a lot to me, spiritually, maybe; an early-adopter of elitism now in a romantic comedy recovery of sorts.
I mention all of this because peer-reviewing too many masturbatory essays on Rear Window or Taxi Driver has stripped me of the strength to care.
I mention all of this because I think Vertigo is a great film, but I don’t know or care if it’s the greatest, or what greatest even means any more.
Vertigo is about a lost man and the incidental women he mistakes for salvation. The first third of the film shows John ‘Scottie’ Sullivan (Jimmy Stewart) following Certified Hitchcock Blonde Kim Novak all over San Francisco, his watching eyes zooming in tighter at every frantic turn. During this time, Novak is allowed exactly one close-up shot and not a single line.
Stewart is one of the most instantly endearing leading men Hollywood has ever known, a gangly every-man with shining eyes and boyish manners, but in Vertigo, where he’s fifty and grayed, with the awkwardly loose trousers of a grandfather orbiting his waist, and playing a detective pushed into retirement by a debilitating fear of heights, that charm feels part of a distant past. Stewart’s Scottie is a weakened, needy man and there is scarcely a frame of the film that does not produce for me unease over his wild obsession with the young Madeleine. It’s hardly a romance; theirs is not a real love, or a love at all really, not for all the breathless insistence made. The characters here operate at a place far more desperate—more deep and dirty and central to the nasty essence of humanity—than any concept of actual romantic “love.”
One holiday I was given a book with thin pages and bright black typeface that would leave stains on your hands and it held a list of one thousand movies you should see before you die (“you,” the ephemeral plural you.) After days of skimming I became dedicated to the book, to a project, to watching all one thousand films—a project I took to with the determination of someone who didn’t, theoretically, have decades and decades ahead of her for casual film perusal.
The first time I watched Vertigo, for example, I was ten and shy and hungry and curious. I licked my fingertip and turned another page in the heavy book and I ran a pencil through the TV Guide and I made lists and I wrote labels on tape with Magic Marker and applied them onto a shoe box of VHS tapes, laying the new name just barely crookedly across the one that came before it. I made lists, by genre, by length, by repetition of the big stars (I liked Joan Crawford best of anyone.) I kept all of these facts stored in my head and in crooked handwritten columns on yellow legal pads, hoarding my trivia like a little boy memorizes baseball stats, and with the simple devotion of a church congregant murmuring along to the prayers.
The rhythms and patterns of Hollywood filled me with an orderliness I was desperate for, and I focused on them—their ebb and flow, their easy repetition—with the intensity of Franny Glass and her constant prayer, applying my eyes and mind and heart to the same things over and over again, faithfully awaiting a moment of climactic meaningfulness. Of fullness, even.
At ten years old, Vertigo came across as an unimpressive mystery with an odd ending, little more, which is a shame, because there would have been a lot in Hitchcock’s creation for me to connect with, if only I had been ready to find it.
Vertigo itself stands out within the vast Hitchcock canon for its lack of a certain impish macabre, a gleeful nastiness, perhaps, that made the psychological traumas of many of his other works much easier to swallow. Vertigo feels more heady: it sticks to your eyes and your brain and your ribs. It doesn’t smirk or wink in the way a lot of other Hitchcock classics do, and when the final credits roll we’re left not with the feeling of being in on a grand joke but of bearing witness to a perplexing, slow-moving sadness that cannot be stopped, that’s enveloping Scottie and moving the ground beneath him, tricking his eyes, that’s coming, in its way, for everyone. A creeping dread.
Considering this, it makes sense atop the Sight and Sound list. It’s a film critic’s wet dream, swelling gorgeously upon an anxious search for understanding and connection in an unfriendly world. Scottie’s entire experience of deep anguish, his hospitalization for crippling melancholia, the injured state he meets the world in upon his release, all of it stems directly from his inability to deal with his fear of heights, his vertigo, this limitation he has—and with all the emotional hurtles he faces in coping with the death it has inadvertently caused. He is a broken, needy man seeking a stabilizing force, something to hold him together and give him the sense of purpose and identity he once knew as a hearty young detective, and in that flailing search he finds nothing more than a bleary mirage of happiness.
On the one hand, Vertigo is a little too clever for its own good, a little too gleamingly neat, to function as a true thriller. The mystery ties itself up rather neatly right around the two-thirds point in a letter writing scene that Hitchcock almost cut from the theatrical release (and maybe should have), wherein Judy writes to Scottie explaining the deception she played a role in, then quickly changes her mind and rips it up. This conclusion comes as no surprise, perfectly in line with the slick trickery of the first act. For pure thrills, then, Vertigo is middling fare. But the quietly encroaching sense of melancholic tension that Hitchcock manages to build, particularly in the film’s last few narrative miles, is far superior, not only effective in making our pulses rise and skin crawl at a fear we cannot quite name, but also speaking to a human frailty, a weakness or a threat far more worrying than tricks or ruses or murderous husbands.
Vertigo is a film about a man falling victim to the fallacy that pinning his fractured self to another will somehow bring him peace. At the romantic climax of the film, Kim Novak’s character Madeleine (or, rather, Kim Novak’s character Judy pretending to be an invented woman named Madeleine) tells a besotted Scottie, “Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.” Vertigo is not a horror movie, not a thriller, not a love story, but rather a writhing portrait of a wanderer battling against an enemy that no detective will ever capture.
And that enemy is fear.
Tess McGeer would have voted for Clueless, but exactly no one asked her. Therefore, she has a blog.
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