Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—V is For


      I'm one of Paul Newman's most ardent fans (his portrayal as Cool Hand Luke is simply jaw-dropping). His performance in The Verdict is nothing short of spellbinding. But Sidney Lumet's powerful and competent legal thriller does not earn my "V" spot (it was a close call). It's an unfortunate circumstance for the wonderful Lumet whom I greatly admire. I'd certainly place 12 Angry Men, his more riveting legal drama, in any numerical countdown, but there's just no numerals in the alphabet. Furthermore, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon feature two of my favorite actor's (Al Pacino) best performances, but Kurosawa and John McClane got in Sonny's way. I haven't seen Valkyrie, so we can at least preemptively stave off any Tom Cruise bizarrely-jumping-for-joy-on-couches sightings. And Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most important and prodigious filmmakers in the history of cinema, but I must admit a modicum of shame for not seeing Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux. It's on my ever-expanding must-watch list. At some point, I might have to share my musings on the immensely talented Godard. But I digress. Without further ado, one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films (I prefer a few of his other works over this one), Vertigo earns the spot. The grandmaster of suspense already has one film in my Alphabet (North By Northwest), which is my favorite of the bunch. Consequently, Hitchcock ties Spielberg and Coppola among the repeat letter holders, though I still have four letters to go.
      I'm going to be more concise in my plot review merely because I do not want to reveal even the slightest Hitchcockian twist. John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired San Francisco police detective who suffers from both vertigo and acrophobia; sporadic bouts of dizziness coupled with an unyielding fear of heights. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) is Scottie's old college friend who just so happens to have a beautiful wife named Madeleine (Kim Novak). She is the woman who takes Scottie to high places. As a wealthy shipbuilder, Gavin solicits Scottie's expertise. He wants Ferguson to follow his gorgeous wife because he fears that she is going insane. A more startling suspicious of Gavin's is his grave fear that she may attempt suicide. Scottie is skeptical of his old friend's angst, but agrees to the job after catching a glimpse of Madeleine's stunning beauty. So begins the legendary tale of mystery and romance. 

      It wasn't his most heralded film when first released, but Vertigo has come to be regarded as one of the two or three best films Hitchcock's ever made. And ironically, it is also his most intimate, dealing directly with the themes that governed his magnificent art. Vertigo is about Hitchcock's fear and efforts to control women. Scottie falls madly in love with the image of a woman, who is without reproach, the quintessential Hitchcock woman. When Scottie cannot have her, he describes another woman. Through his obsessive affection, he tries to transform her physical appearance (dress, makeup, hair, etc), until she looks like the woman he desires. He cares nothing about the repressive damage he is conferring upon this woman. He only desires an implausible, romantic enkindling. His unabashed manipulation is only a method to his forlorn, emotional madness. He desperately wants to morph her into the woman he once deeply loved—to ignite his deceased flame of insatiable rapture. But of course, in true Hitchcock fashion, the woman he is molding and the woman he desires are the same person. Her name is Judy (Kim Novak), and she was hired to play the dream woman, Madeleine, as part of a devilish murder plot that Scottie is not too acutely aware of. It is this devious plot contrivance that engenders the moral paradox at the center of Vertigo. The other man Gavin, has after all, only done to this woman what Scottie also wanted to do. Consequently, Hitchcock's genius is his ability to spiral his story of mystery and romance into a deeply personal story concerning the hollowness of our human desires and the hopelessness of manipulating life to make us happy.
      James Stewart, in typically grand fashion, manages to act terribly tense in a casual way, and Kim Novak is really quite amazing in captaining dual roles. Stewart does a phenomenal job playing a man who is spiraling into the cavernous depths of obsession. It is one of his strongest and most demanding performances, requiring compartmentalized, psychological sketching. He ranks among my favorite actors of all-time. And his intricate and nuanced portrayal reminds me precisely why I greatly admire his craft. Miss Novak is one of the most sympathetic female characters to ever materialize from Hitchcock's work. She does an incredible job playing both of her roles with a shrill stiffness, But as a heterogeneous heroine, she also wonderfully captures sorrow, anguish, and an indefatigable, submissive will-to-please; not to mention, she is a timeless beauty of grace. Tom Helmore is sleek as the husband, and Barbara Bel Geddes is affectionate as the nice girl who loves Scottie so dearly, but is only given the chance to watch him drift away. 

      Bernard Hermann's hypnotic score is a fine augmentation of Hitchcock's thematic composition. The haunting, repetitive melodies not only reflect Scottie's obsessiveness, but they also enrich the dramatic, lingering feelings of fulfillment and despair. At many key emotional junctures, Hitchcock displays his technical brilliance through a fantastic arrangement of spirals and circles (for example the pinwheel flurries in Scottie's nightmare). Furthermore, Hitchcock's ornate visual oeuvre perfectly matches the genius of Hermann's score. The prodigal American composer. often a collaborator in Hitchcock's greatest films (North by Northwest, Psycho), masterminds a compositional style that accentuates Hitchcock's tone; a tone defined by an unsettling yearning, particularly in the scene when Judy completely transforms into Madeline.
      Hitchcock weaves an intricate web of obsession and control, deceit and despair. His audacious plot mechanisms may be a tad over-the-top, but he completely pulls it off. Few can really. The cinematography, music and mood are also equally amazing. Undoubtedly, Hitchcock's genius is a byproduct of his boldness. His auspicious mastery derives from his manipulation of the human condition. He handles universal emotions like fear, guilt and lust, and deposits them in everyday characters. Unlike novelists, he develops these ubiquitous emotions through careful imaging, not sophisticated wording. As an unrivaled visual stylist, Hitchcock employs mundane imagery (city streets, commercial buildings, a bell tower) and surrounds them with a delicate, imaginative context. The famous last mission tower sequence is an unforgettable and dazzling example of Hitchcock's prowess. Judy is a woman trapped in an obsessive man's forsaken, romantic chase—a woman occupying feelings of unforgiving pain and terrible loss. Hitchcock cleverly manipulates his story, such that when they both climb up the tower, we can empathize with them. In a rare Hitchcockian twist, Judy is less guilty than Scottie—effectively, she is one of Hitchcock's most sympathetic female characters. 
      Earlier in the film, Judy locks herself in the bathroom and then performs a full makeover. She slowly strides towards Scottie, and a hurricane of emotions engulfs the room. As a visual and technical master, Hitchcock illustrates this outpouring of emotions through a haunting green fog. As Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Novak's face (emitting feelings of pain, sadness, deference) and Stewart's (exuding a dizzying carnality and a pleasing predominance), we witness the tragedy of the human condition, of love lost and found. They are both captives to an image concocted by an opportunistic, nefarious man. Scottie only sees Judy as a mere object of carnal desire. But Judy endeared herself to Scottie's charm once before, so she accepts this impersonal fate. The entire sequence is a stark reminder of Hitchcock's filmmaking ingenuity. It is an unbelievable shot, in a succession of unbelievable shots, that renders Hitchcock's film a masterpiece of psychological, artistic, and technical complexity.


  1. BIRDS are still my favourite of Hitchcock's films :)

  2. The Birds is great and stands the test of time as one of the most unique horror films, but I followed McFly and went with Back to the Future for B.

  3. Vertigo is a solid choice. It's a classic. And, yeah, Jimmy Stewart was brilliant as usual.

  4. Excellent choice, as always. I saw Vertigo as teen, and refused to accept the ending.

  5. @ L.G.

    Thanks. It was between this and The Verdict. Believe it or not, I actually thought the deliberate theatrics of Lumet's film were a little more confounding even though I enjoyed it, esp., Newman's performance.

    Stewart is simply one of the greats.

    @ Susan

    Thanks! Ah, the ending. Hitchcock was a daring and unrestrained force behind the camera. When I first watched it (I re-watched it recently), I was actually anticipating some kind of tragic climax. His decisions are always deeply provocative and powerful.

  6. Vertigo is a great film. Hitchcock was great, even on television.
    The Verdict was great, but Verigo greater.

  7. Vertigo was a fantastic, unforgettable film. I grew up watching Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and I remember being blown away by his performance here. It was so unlike anything I had seen him do up until that point in my life.

    Kim Novak is beyond brilliant. This was the first time I had ever seen her and I sought out her other films because of this. I loved her in Bell, Book and Candle with Stewart and Jack Lemmon.

    Hitchcock directed a complex, unsettling tale that rivets and at the same time drives you crazy. I have seen this multiple times and appreciate it more each time I watch. Great choice for V.

  8. Vertigo is a magnificent choice - much darker than most Hollywood films of the time - and therefore that much more interesting. I'm actually due to sit down with this one again soon - it's been a long time - but Stewart is pitch perfect no matter his age, and he's matched down the line by everyone in front of and behind the camera. Here's a tenuously connected anecdote - my father worked with a man named George. He had a law degree and was a bigwig in my father's company. He liked my father, so for one trip to our region he actually chose to stay with us - well, my small town was not exactly swimming with hotel options - anyway - at breakfast George asked me what my hobbies were - I was around 16 or 17 - and I told him movies. George smiled and said he'd tell me his one story of his interaction with movie production. It seemed that he somehow knew the script readers working for Robert Redford, and at one point a few years previously they had gotten ahold of a script about a lawyer they were considering putting in front of Redford for a star vehicle. They wanted George to give his thoughts on it as it dealt heavily with the law, and he knew law. So, he read it, and he thought it was pretty outlandish, so he told them he wouldn't recommend it on the law basis. The script readers proceeded to give it a negative, and Redford passed on it. Imagine how George felt some months after he'd when that same movie - yep, you guessed it! - The Verdict - came out to theaters starring Redford's old pal Paul Newman - for which he was of course nominated for an Academy Award. George told me he stayed away from the movie business after that. (Now, Wikipedia and the IMDB give different accounts of Redford's involvement in this - but this is how George told me the story in the mid-80's. That went as far afield from your chosen movie as I ever want to go - in fact, I got dizzy from straying - one might say I got a little Vertigo...

  9. Great choice! I saw this movie for the first time at a midnight showing at one of the local theaters. It was definitely the way to go. Such a twisted but excellent movie. Stewart was completely brilliant and sold every scene.

    "As an unrivaled visual stylist, Hitchcock employs mundane imagery (city streets, commercial buildings, a bell tower) and surrounds them with a delicate, imaginative context." Excellent line. You articulate what I can often only wonder at with an open mouth. You really nail on the head the subtleties of Hitchcock, as well as his bold outrageousness. Well done!

  10. Haven't seen "Vertigo". It's a shame, I know :)
    Great review, Matty!

  11. Oh how I adore this film!! Such a fantastic pick for V. I remember when my mother forced me to watch this. I was annoyed by her persistence but I ended up loving it!! Duh, mother's are always right.

  12. Another excellent review, buddy! Completely excellent choice for V! As a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock, now I can't help myself from not rewatching this film.

  13. This is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. Great choice! Stewart is amazing. I loved Barbara Bele Geddes as Midge, the "girl next door." I wanted so much for her and Scottie to get back together...sigh. It's so cool that she was a brassiere designer! Very creative characterization. MIDGE: You want to know something? I don't think Mozart's going to help at all.

  14. @ anthony

    Exactly. It edges out The Verdict because it's Hitchcock at his finest.

    @ Melissa


    I loved Stewart in all those films, especially Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    And Novak is an absolute delight. Her performance was demanding, but she nailed the nuances of her characters with such elegance and skill.

  15. @ Craig

    Wow! What an awesome story. I wish I could've offered up a fine tail like that in my review. I understand your Dad's lawyer-buddy's contention. The Verdict's legalese was a bit farfetched, too keen on theatrics. But Newman and Lumet pulled it off. I'm sure Redford still regrets that decision, but such is the nature of the beast. I mean, Will Smith passed on The Matrix to do Wild Wild West.

    And your story was not unusual or digressive because The Verdict was a strong contender for V.

    And thanks!

  16. @ M.

    Thanks! Ehh, I do my best to articulate what is necessary. You're a fine writer, yourself!

    @ Nebular

    It's a "shame" that can be corrected. Nah, just kidding. I'm sure you'll get it around to it. Thanks!

    @ Nicole

    Thank you! And oh-so-true. Mothers always have the answers. My mother was infatuated with all of Hitchcock's films, so that's probably why I've seen nearly all of them.

  17. @ Jaccstev

    Thanks man! You know I always like to inspire my readers to re-watch the classics.

    @ Luana

    Awesome. It's in my top, I'd say, probably 4. I love North by Northwest, Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds. Frankly, he's made so many tremendous films, it's really hard to reduce his work to a favorites list. But as movie lovers, don't we just love to inundate our readers with lists!? Of course we do.

    Ah that quote. Poor Midge. She loved Scottie with such a fervor, and he never reciprocated the romance. Their opening scene together is wonderful. They had such beautiful chemistry.

  18. Great article. If you want to watch movies and TV shows for free, download the MovieBox app.