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Lessons In Vertigo (Hitchcock’s Vertigo, That Is!)

By , 22 September, 2009, 3 Comments

Vertigo (1958), with James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is another “classic film” you may have heard so much about that you’ve possibly avoided it — but that’s not its only problem.

Now 51 years old, Vertigo is a film which has long been playing on late night on television — a position that puts films into the easily dismissed pile, not only for its too-frequent showings, but an air time left to insomniacs and after-bar munchies-eating persons who turn TV on for some noise once back in a too-quiet house. The results are that a film that most people know is a called a classic is now either too old and junky to watch or a film they’ve seen bits & pieces of and were unimpressed.

Sadly, my previous viewings of Vertigo were of the post-bar & trying to fall asleep variety and so were admittedly hampered. While I knew I wasn’t giving the film a proper viewing, I was very bored. For this reason, when my movie club suggested Vertigo, I wrinkled my nose — but once it was suggested as a Classic Schmassic, I had no way out.

Vertigo Film Poster

Vertigo Film Poster

Vertigo is a rather stylish movie, but it moves slowly…

One one hand, you have lovely details — both for fans of vintage and character points for story lovers. (Early on I was most in love with Bel Geddes who, despite her often poorly written lines, earnestly tugs are your heartstrings; the lack of sexual tension made utterly clear as Stewart takes a look at lingerie artist/designer Bel Geddes’ work.)

Stewart Doesn't Seem To Care About Bel Geddes' Bra

Stewart Doesn't Seem To Care About Bel Geddes' Bra

But on the other, you can’t help but feel a bit impatient for the famous Hitchcock to get going. And even when Hitchcock does get going there are problems.

Novak Clutching Stewart in Vertigo

Novak Clutching Stewart in Vertigo

First, there was the fact that I knew we, as an audience, have become much more sophisticated in our mystery-suspense movie watching. No, it’s not that we wanted more special effects and higher body counts (as if!), but I figured even my 9 year old would figure out the secret identity switcher-roo and basic plot premise. I’m not boasting that my children are gifted; simply too experienced with (and perhaps even jaded by) mystery and suspense films (and books) today to not guess the plot. Maybe audiences back then were too, maybe this was Hitchcock’s intent; I don’t know and I leave such matters to film critics and the like. But I do know that once I got my kids past the slowly unfolding story to a plot they could easily guess, they’d be bored.

This leads us to the second problem.

After the slow-moving pace and the spoon-fed clues, Hitchcock suddenly jerks us like a fish in a line. Stewart is in the mental ward; then he’s out of it. Me and my film-watching friends asked, “Is he dreaming this?” “Is he out?” “Is he out of the ward or out of his mind?”

Stewart is both.

Out of the hospital and out of his mind, Stewart can’t stop looking for the girl he believes is dead, finding Novak’s face and figure in nearly every woman he sees. When he finds her, he doesn’t seem any less crazy because while we know it’s Novak he doesn’t — yet he forces this woman to dress and look like the doomed lady he loves.

Key Players In Vertigo: Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak Times-Two

Key Players In Vertigo: Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak Times-Two

As a woman, these scenes are very uncomfortable to watch and Stewart goes from poor dupe to manipulative, controlling, and abusive boyfriend.

Like how Bel Geddes was just dropped from the film, it may all be done to swing audience favor from Stewart to Novak; but it’s not pretty. Watching Novak be transformed is not a blossoming; it is not movie magic reuniting lovers; it is disturbing and creepy and misogynistic.

And then, when Stewart realizes how he’s been duped, he doesn’t feel pity towards Novak. His anger, aggression and abuse may be the catalyst for curring the very acrophobia which led to his victimization, but it’s not healing; this too is ugly.

Perhaps Stewart would have come around, could have come around (as we the audience would have if we were clued in on a few things, such as the plot holes), but what happens next left all of us sputtering. It wasn’t mere surprise at a (finally) unexpected film twist — it just didn’t seem to make any sense.

“Did his film budget run out?”
“Did we miss something in the back story — all those spoon-fed bread-crumbs?”
“Are we dumb?”

A serious WTF? movie moment — and then the film ends.

My first thought whilst writing a review of Vertigo in my head was, “Watch it and be surprised!” but while actually writing this review, I find myself feeling cheated. And angry. Should a sudden and inexplicable WTF? ending equate to a good mystery and/or suspense? Can you call a film “classic” when the mystery and suspense are so out of character and random that it feels slapped-together?

When the film was originally released, theatre goers didn’t care for Hitchcock’s Vertigo; but since then, film critics have lauded the film classic status, placing it on Top 100 and even Top 10 lists. These film critics have said that audiences didn’t understand the film, didn’t appreciate Hitchcock’s work. But I think the original audiences had it right and that the film critics wrap Hitchcock’s status around the film and make it something it’s not.

Bel Geddes Tries To Make Herself Something She's Not

Bel Geddes Tries To Make Herself Something She's Not

Stewart did a fine job of making himself unlikable (no easy task); Novak may never have done such fine dramatic work as she beautifully did in her two complicated roles; and Bel Geddes was (surprisingly to those of us who only knew her as the aged matriarch of TV’s Dallas) simply heartbreakingly wonderful as the taken-for-granted-girl-who-is-a friend-but-not-a-girlfriend. Had Hitchcock only crafted a real ending that made sense — or left us some of those giant bread crumbs to follow into whatever madness he was thinking — Vertigo could have been good, grand even…

As it is, I suspect you’d have to be a male to look past the creepy misogyny and slapped-on ending to appreciate Vertigo; this is one classic I’m still calling a schmassic.

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  • Martin

    Ultimately, the film is about the unattainability of that one thing which we want more than anything else in life. This is a very Hitchcock way of viewing life. If you are open to this way of seeing things, the film will speak to you. If not, it’ll be a monumental struggle, guaranteed. I’ve heard more than one cinema-goer who’d rather be down the street at the pub sigh their way through this film.

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