By Heather Baysa
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San Francisco isn't just the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo: It's the movie's muse. Along with composer Bernard Herrmann, who transforms convoluted psychology into resounding lyricism, and co-star Kim Novak, whose pheromones and otherworldliness give body and soul to tortured romance, San Francisco enables Hitchcock to conjure a netherworld of amorous yearning. Of course, James Stewart is wonderful in the role of a retired police detective drawn into an apparent case of demonic possession; but he's not the movie's muse, he's its Orpheus. In this movie, San Francisco isn't the City That Knows How or Baghdad by the Bay. It's a fantasia made into flesh and blood and bricks and mortar. Cutthroat street history and cushy mid-Fifties chic, theology and murder rub up against each other--and then, improbably, merge in a seductive trance.
The precipitous urban hills, with their unexpected perspectives and blind spots, the wind-swept trees of the Northern California coastline and the misty pockets of the sequoias inspired Hitchcock to do what only a great director can do. He melded hyper-controlled studio artifice, as specific as a building plan, to spontaneous physical beauty. In Vertigo, Hitchcock's combination of natural and unnatural flirts with the supernatural. And this directorial wizard's brew was crucial for the far-out plot to work: Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, who discovers that he has acrophobia while hanging from a rooftop. After he quits the San Francisco police department, a college pal, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now a shipbuilding magnate, hires him for an odd job: following his wife, Madeleine (Novak)--who acts as if she's seized by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor. Scottie's best friend is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his onetime fiancee, a commercial artist who's too much of a maternal force to be a lover. Madeleine has problems, but being maternal isn't one of them. The vertigo of the title refers to Scottie's acrophobia and to his vertiginous drop into amour.
When Novak and Stewart emote by a picturesque stretch of shore, Hitchcock goes from the pair's anguished parlay in front of a studio-built tree to a shot of them navigating an actual rocky hill, and then on to a process shot of the two stars avowing their love and tempestuously kissing just as a big wave tumbles and froths behind them. (A process shot is a visual sandwich whose ingredients usually include live actors and a canned background.) Hitchcock turns studio trickery into the highest of high styles--the shifting grade of the shoreline actually tweaks the emotions. The crisp outlines around Hitchcock's human figures relate to the whirling geometric forms in the opening credits--throughout, the surface action has a subterranean pull. The world outside Midge's window looks eerily black and white; whenever Scottie starts to trail Madeleine outside her Nob Hill apartment, he has to maneuver around a patch of torn street. These touches seem emblematic of the movie's booby-trapped romanticism and of the mixture of sentiment and decadence in San Francisco itself.
The current restoration, by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz (Starport Park Meadows is showing the 35mm version, not the 70mm), helps you realize afresh how much imaginative discipline went into this dreamscape, and it helps you to appreciate motifs, some of them major, that are diminished when the image loses clarity. The movie's fabled hypnotic power derives from Hitchcock's ability to sharpen our vision against his. He builds observations of a woman's form and getup right into the narrative--most supporting characters rate less attention than Madeleine's hair, which she wears in an upward swirl like her doomed ancestor in the "Portrait of Carlotta" hanging in San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor. And I can't think of another movie, by Hitchcock or anyone else, that uses odd-angled closeups to such penetrating effect. Of course, it's striking for Hitchcock to freeze Madeleine in profile when Scottie first sees her in Ernie's. But the shot that makes the sequence sting is the downward-pointing closeup on the back of Stewart's head--the composition that conveys Scottie reacting to her presence with the hairs on his neck. It's the movie's visual exploration of sexual nuance that keeps you from wriggling at its sleepwalking pace or balking at its sometimes-ludicrous melodrama.
What a literary critic said of Nathaniel Hawthorne's work applies to this movie's sneaky queasiness: "It will work upon you like a very weak and very slow poison." But Vertigo also works on you more directly. Hitchcock knew how to create atmospheres in which offhand comments crackle. After Scottie has brought the post-dip Madeleine back to his apartment, undressed her and put her to bed, he asks her if she's ever done this before. She responds with a "What?" that communicates: "Gone naked in a strange man's apartment? Or jumped into the bay?" And Herrmann's music has an extraordinary, plangent urgency that keeps Hitchcock's florid-in-the-best-sense approach from seeming overblown. Herrmann (who composed eight pictures for Hitchcock, including an unused score for Torn Curtain) said shortly before his death that Hitchcock had "little or no interest in people's emotions," that the director was only concerned with music's power to heighten suspense. Actually, the wonder of Vertigo is that with the help of Herrmann, his stars and San Francisco, Hitchcock was able to use his practical, thriller-honed craft to venture into surrealism and thereby capture emotional extremes (something he failed to do in Spellbound, even with the collaboration of Salvador Dali). It's that inward-outward, push-pull charge that gives the movie its pulse. The last forty years of auteur criticism have convinced serious audiences that Hollywood directors could be artists. The reissue of Vertigo shows us that even at his most artistic, Hitchcock never ceased to be a showman.
Vertigo. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With James Stewart, Kim Novak, Tom Helmore and Barbara Bel Geddes.
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