Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Great Movies: "Vertigo"

Alfred Hitchcock, 1958

Previous Contact: I had seen Vertigo before – I recognized certain scenes after they happened – but didn’t remember it well enough to predict events before they came. I think I have it scrambled up in my head with another Hitchcock film set in San Francisco, because some of the scenes I was waiting for never arrived.

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I’m puzzled enough about Vertigo’s presence here in the Great Movies list that I’ve looked into the history of its reception. At its release, it got mixed but accurate reviews as a stylish thriller with pacing and plot problems. From the late 1960s on, though, it became a critic’s darling, “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us” in the words of one dazzled soul. Ebert’s own evaluation is uncharacteristically vague, florid, and divorced from reality:
And the camera circles them hopelessly, like the pinwheel images in Scottie's nightmares, until the shot is about the dizzying futility of our human desires, the impossibility of forcing life to make us happy. This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.
Huh. Well, from where I was sitting, Vertigo is not a Great Movie, nor even an especially strong Hitchcock movie. It starts slowly, with a leisurely portrayal of a relationship that subsequently becomes entirely irrelevant. The development of the central puzzle is interesting and conveys a stylish air of mystery, but also consists of numerous long scenes of people driving around in cars. The back half of the movie is not only implausible on its own terms, but retroactively ruins the mystery of the development section by giving it such a clunky explanation.

To spell out what I mean, I’ll have to employ the following radical spoiler: We learn that Marguerite established her relationship with the protagonist for the sole purpose of luring him to the scene of the crime so he can be an unintentional false witness. This itself is a whopper of a Rube Goldberg machine, completely beyond the pale of criminal planning, in which -- or so it has always been my impression -- less is more.

But it gets worse. The fruition of the plan comes when Gavin takes his wife up to the top of the tower, breaks her neck, and waits for Marguerite to lure John up the stairs. Now: for that to work, Gavin has to act in confidence that Marguerite will be able to get John to (1) figure out the location she is hinting at, (2) decide immediately to drive the 100 miles to get there, while (3) thinking it’s his own idea, and (4) on a very tight timetable. This is beyond preposterous. What if he didn’t know about the place? What if, say, he’d had a dental appointment that day? What if they’d had a flat? What if any of thousands of other perfectly normal things had happened? Then Gavin’s stuck up there in the tower clutching his stiffening wife and wishing he’d staged a simple burglary-gone-wrong like a sensible spouse-murderer.

No, the murder plot is only a overextended contrivance that sets up the final reel of the movie, but here we run into more problems. Ebert praises the interesting psychology at work, but he's off base. For cinematic psychology to be interesting, it has to bear some relation to actual human behavior, and the behavior in the second half of Vertigo is all cartoonishly false. This doesn’t make the movie bad, necessarily – most movies are a little dodgy in their portrayal of how humans really tick – but it makes praising Vertigo as an amazing psychological thriller a bit of a stretch.

Also, the ending is so abrupt that’s it’s unintentionally funny.

Plot: Hoo-boy, let's see. Man gets hired to track old friend’s wife, who turns out to be manifesting odd paranormal symptoms. Man falls for old friend’s loony wife. Old friend’s loony wife dies. Man falls for woman who was pretending to be old friend's loony wife.

Visuals: Very sleek and stylish in the best Alfred Hitchcock mode. Excellent use of slightly too-garish period color film. There’s a trippy dream sequence that has Saul Bass written all over it.

Dialog: Surprisingly little for long stretches of the film, when the protagonist is following various people around in his car. Occasional stretches of fairly blunt exposition, especially in the opening scenes and during the inquest.

Prognosis: Certainly not a Great Movie, but a fun entertainment with a strong first half. Recommended for anybody who likes Hitchcock, San Francisco, Jimmy Stewart, or the style and fashion of the high 1950s.


mysterymoor said...

I really like this film, but then again, I also really like all the things you mentioned in your last line!

DrSchnell said...

Hey, if you want more long scenes of people driving around in cars, you should see the original Russian version of Solaris. 5 straight minutes in one shot. Hooo boy....

amateur idler said...

I thought the same things when I saw Vertigo. Well, not, like, as nicely or intelligibly, but basically the same.