Saturday, August 3, 2013

Hitchcock's Vetigo: On Directing and the Many Layers of Reality

Drawing of man caught in a spinning circle

I had seen Alfred Hitchcock's movie Vertigo (1958) more than fifteen years ago and had a vague recollection that I had enjoyed it. All I recalled about it was that there was an ex-police officer (James Stewart) suffering from high anxiety, and a mysterious beautiful woman (Kim Novak) who confused and misled the poor guy. Finally, he ended up in a mental asylum, which believed in treating patients with classical music. Since I am a fan of Mozart and Beethoven and enjoy the field of psychology immensely, the implications of musical treatment for psychological ailments was what has stuck with me all those years.

But re-watching Vertigo recently made me appreciate it so much more. As a youth, I had never been very impressed with Hitchcock who seemed to me rather conventional in his themes and approach. I could not get my head around the fact that the Cahiers du cinéma, those ingenious masters of the nouvelle vague, the French New Wave, should be interested in this Hollywood-style director, and I partly blamed Hitchcock for “ruining” dear François Truffaut's career (similar to Yoko's generally detrimental influence on John's work) who after the remarkable Jules and Jim made mostly second-rate - and in comparison rather ordinary - mystery flicks in honor of his British idol.

My prejudice against Alfred Hitchcock had persisted for quite some time until I watched Rope and more recently my second and hopefully more mature viewing of Vertigo. In fact, ever since Rope I have set myself the goal of re-watching and re-evaluating all the main Hitchcock films. There will be a number of spoilers on the movie Vertigo coming up ahead so I recommend those who have not yet seen this particular movie to do so as quickly as possible and to return to this post with an untainted but opinionated mind.

As a mystery movie, it was generally well-done and entertaining. Contrary to some opinions, I did not find it too long and definitely not boring as Hitchcock does grab into his cinematic bag of tricks to entertain. His use of camera shots to induce a sense of vertigo in the viewer and the nightmare sequence that predates and prefigures computer technology are rather breathtaking and original. Not to mention the curious opening title with close-ups of a woman's face with swirling lines all over, including within her eye balls. It somewhat reminded me of a Bond flick especially when combined with the enigmatic Bernard Herrmann score.

The main surprise regarding the storyline was the fact that Hitchcock decided to reveal the film's core mystery half way in. Why would he spoil his own surprise, I thought. He could have kept us in the dark guessing until the very end as most such films do. The punchline came too soon and stole some of the momentum of the movie.

Then I realized that the focus was not the story, but its hidden themes. The first part was merely a prelude to what was to come. This movie offered indeed a personal statement on the director's own obsessions. He was giving us a glimpse of his work and soul wrapped up in the mysterious garment of a thriller. From this view, there is so much more underneath what may seem an ordinary thriller. The movie gives us various layers of reality and all of them not only reflect upon directing but the medium of film itself.

Let us begin with the female lead. In the movie, she is hired as an actress to impersonate Gavin Elster's wife. She has been trained and modeled to look and behave like Madeleine. Her job is to mislead Scottie but in the process they both fall in love with each other. She is not who she seems, but Scottie falls for her portrayal since he loves Madeleine. (Interestingly, Scottie himself has also another name, John, which seems to involve another, a somewhat different or separate identity within himself.)

Some time later after the main incident and half way through the movie when Scottie runs into her, she is Judy Barton and not Madeleine. He sees the similarity between the two, and this obsessed character, one of the most interesting early anti-heroes, tries to model her according to his ideal of women. He insists that she wear the same clothes as his beloved Madeleine and even demands that she change the color of her hair.

This type of obsession could have turned out to be even more tragic had she not actually been the person he took her for, but rather a stranger. It would have shown how perturbed his obstinate mind really is, unable to love anybody but his lost love. By making Judy the same person who has indeed played Madeleine and by having her fall in love with him, there seems to be a glimpse of hope and even redemption in this process. She wishes that he would love her for who she really is and not for the person she was paid to play.

Yet the movie turns tragic. Scottie is so blinded by the rays of his lost love, perhaps additionally fueled by the enormous amount of self-blame and guilt that he will not love her until she acts (again!) as Madeleine. This might be a statement on both the director and the medium of film. The director is obsessed not only with details but with his (blonde) female leads as well. He becomes a master who can fashion them according to his liking. On the set, his beautiful leading actresses are lions that only he with his talent and fame can actually tame, and, at least during filming, he can generally do with them as he pleases.

Furthermore, a movie is a reflection of reality. Scottie had missed his first chance, and so may have Hitchcock. By recreating or directing those scenes in a movie, the director would also be given a second chance. This may be the case of all those auteurs who make personal films. They are not only overcoming their traumas, but are reshaping them and somehow redeeming themselves through the creation of an alternate reality. Film can magically turn out differently from what life is and has been; you can rewrite and overwrite reality to your liking.

As previously noted, it all turns tragic in the movie. By trying to get his second chance, Scottie in the film screws it up. Towards the end, Judy mistakenly believes that Madeleine's ghost has reappeared on the tower taking a nun for the dead woman's ghost, and Judy jumps to her death. For the second time, and this time for real (at least regarding on-screen reality) Scottie loses her. There are no end credits, and it is all an abrupt statement or punch in the stomach. We feel and get a sense of cynicism, the dramatic irony of this whole situation, but we find it hard to laugh not unlike the shower scene in Psycho.

As Judy herself says, the whole thing was part fiction and partly real. This is the stuff of movies. They cannot be the same as reality. At the same time, reality itself is deceiving. So we have mirror in mirror images. And all of this will make us feel dizzy, the fitting title of this masterpiece by Hitchcock.

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