Original release: May 9th, 1958
Running time: 128 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak
I frequently tell my students that one can learn a great deal about filmmaking from watching the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Even a bad Hitchcock film has a lot to recommend it. My own personal favorite is Rear Window. However, Vertigo seems to be the one that inspires the most commentary.
On nytimes.com, I saw a short video by A.O. Scott about the enduring appeal of Vertigo. It’s amazing that a film that was routinely panned when it was released a little over 50 years ago is now regarded as one of the great films of all time by a majority of critics. It’s also amazing that Hitchcock inspires such strong feelings, both good and bad, even now, almost thirty years after his death.
Whenever I teach, I talk a lot about Vertigo — particularly Hitchcock’s use of design and color elements; the repetitive patterns, in its blocking, in its framing, and its score; and the use of the intrinsic physicality of his two leads, James Stewart and Kim Novak.
To me, this is one of the most important aspects of directing actors, yet as far as I can tell, one of the most under-utilized. Though one wants an actor to feel at ease and unselfconscious in a scene, I find that it’s helpful if he or she understands what I’m trying to accomplish in terms of the pieces of the scene. (I should add here that there are many directors, actors, and acting teachers who would disagree with me about this approach. But I find that a lot of young actors grasp the value of it very quickly. Perhaps it’s because they’re part of a generation that’s been raised on computers, and therefore they get onboard with the idea of thinking in a non-linear manner.)
Hitchcock also said,
Vertigo is an amazing piece of work in terms of how little the dialogue matters to one’s experience of the film. Actually much of the dialogue feels dated, and more than a little ham-fisted (on the most superficial level, the plot is somewhat ridiculous), but the impact of the film’s visuals doesn’t feel dated at all. The power of seeing Kim Novak as Madeleine, moving across a room towards James Stewart, three different times in the film, on exactly the same axis, in exactly the same framing, creates an enormously potent motif that reinforces its themes.
She’s presented over and over to the viewer in a manner that reinforces the character Scottie’s first and enduring experience of her, and the moment is always treated as dream-like. She moves slowly and artificially — she seems unreal, because ultimately she, the character, is unreal.
My favorite shot in the film is the long dolly shot that introduces Madeleine. The camera begins on Scottie, seated at the bar, looking over his right shoulder. The restaurant is full and noisy. The camera moves off of him and tracks to the left until it comes to rest on a shot of the entire dining room. Then, ever so slowly, like a dream, the diegetic sound drops away and the score begins as the camera slowly tracks in towards Madeleine, with her back towards us.
We know who we should be looking at because of the positioning of her body in the frame — she’s posed elegantly, like a painting. Her bare back is exposed, drawing our eye like a magnet. It’s not Scottie’s POV — instead it’s an objective shot that identifies the audience with Scottie. It’s as though Hitchcock is saying, “I want you, the audience, to become as fascinated with this woman as the protagonist is about to become.”
For me, it’s masterful filmmaking and it’s indicative of a mind that understands the power of the dynamics of montage–when to make the shot subjective, when to make the shot objective, and how the difference will affect the audience.
The film tracks Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine, piece by piece—his attention and the viewer’s are simultaneously directed towards the specifics of her hair, wardrobe, shoes, jewellery — in such a way that one could turn the sound down entirely and know exactly what Scottie is thinking. Madeline is frequently shot in profile, reinforcing the idea of her as an Apollonian ideal (i.e. the idea of imposing an illusion of order on the chaos of the universe).
Mirrors are also used throughout the film to reinforce the idea of the ephemeral quality of our ideals, and the dual nature of the Madeleine/Judy Barton character.
The film is stunning in how much it evokes a universal experience of projecting onto a romantic “other” our own ideas of what we want that “other” to be. It captures the sense of how we unconsciously try to duplicate an experience that was meaningful for us, in spite of what it costs us in ignoring the pleasure of a present experience.
The tragedy of Vertigo reflects the tragedy of the human condition, when one is unwilling to accept what actually is and to let go of the past. I think that’s probably why the film continues to endure, and warrants repeated viewing. It presents an opportunity to ponder one’s own romantic illusions and one’s present choices.
Norman is a television director and editor known for his work on shows such as Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, The Lying Game, Melrose Place, 90210, Chuck and The OC. He currently teaches part-time at UCLA, in addition to editing and directing.