Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Vertigo (1958)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #1

After nearly two years of mostly-consistent posting and 51 films covering the broad scope of cinema history, "Sight & Sound Sunday" has finally arrived at the end of the poll's top 50. This feature is going out with a doozy, too: the new number-one, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller Vertigo. When the poll was released in 2012, the film's placement at the top was a shock, as it ended the five-decade reign of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. And it did so by a fairly considerable margin: Vertigo received 191 total votes, while Citizen Kane managed 157. It has steadily risen for the past several decades as well, debuting in the top 10 at number seven in 1982 before climbing to number four (1992), number two (2002), and now the summit.

Yet Hitchcock's film wasn't always so esteemed. Upon its release, it was greeted with mostly mixed reviews; the film garnered only two Academy Award nominations (for Best Art Direction - Color and Best Sound), and in Francois Truffaut's seminal 1962 book of interviews with the esteemed director, Vertigo only merits a few mentions. Even Hitchcock himself dismissed the film, placing the blame on leading man James Stewart's age as a factor for the film's poor reception (amusingly, Welles was also vocally disappointed in the film).

For a contemporaneous audience, the film does seem to be based on a far-fetched premise. Scottie (Stewart) is a retired detective who was forced to hand over his badge after he became afflicted with a dizzying fear of heights, which lead to the death of a policeman. He lives with his ex-fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he's asked by a former schoolmate, Gavin (Tom Helmore), to investigate his wife Madeleine's (Kim Novak) strange behavior. Madeleine claims that she is possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a well-known woman who had committed suicide nearly a century prior. Scottie, however, begins to fall in love with Madeleine, only to find himself even deeper entangled into a web of lies and intrigue.

To be fair, this premise is still pretty out-there, even when compared to the kinds of barren framework and contrived setups that define many of today's thrillers. However, the film's reputation has grown more esteemed with time because of Hitchcock's impeccable direction, implication of the audience in Scottie's misdeeds, and a cruel sense of irony that makes for one of the most sublime final shots in all of cinema.

More after the jump.

In film analysis, one of the core concepts of understanding cinema is to think of the camera as an all-seeing third party that's witnessing the action. The camera, in this sense, is an eye that remains unseen by the characters of the film through which the audience can see what is happening. Some directors take advantage of this idea to skew the perspective of the film a certain way, encouraging the audience to enter the headspace of one of the characters and see the world specifically through their eyes (2009's (500) Days of Summer, for example). Others treat the camera as a threat, a possibly-malevolent force that is closely monitoring the action through an unfeeling lens (1974's The Conversation). However, many simply allow the camera to film the action, never truly engaging in this concept.

Watching a film, then, is essentially an act of voyeurism. And very few filmmakers have exploited this idea quite as much or with as much skill as Hitchcock. There are obvious examples of Hitchcock's voyeuristic gaze, such as Psycho (1960) or Rear Window (1954), which takes the concept to the max with Stewart as a wheelchair-bound man who spends his days spying on his neighbors. Hitchcock's camera is almost always noticeably placed a certain way in the action, a direction meant to insinuate that someone else is watching. It's this effect that makes Hitchcock's films such potent examples of the power of cinema: it creates a perverse intimacy, as the audience forges relationships with the characters through violations of their privacy.

Vertigo is no exception to this motif. Especially in the scenes in which Scottie is following Madeleine around, Hitchcock's camera is often placed at a distance away from both characters, as if there were someone following Scottie as well. Hitchcock frames his shots as if they were photographs taken discretely, giving them a candidness that's at once masterfully controlled and seemingly spontaneous. The audience is able to form a connection with Scottie's plight and Madeleine's shifting personalities, even though the former becomes increasingly domineering and the latter becomes increasingly unstable.

Those connections are probably the most remarkable aspect of the film, and are an unexpected consequence of Hitchcock's voyeuristic camera. By having the camera "spy" on the characters, Hitchcock is able to directly implicate the audience in what is happening onscreen. For the most part, the audience is asked to play detective alongside Scottie, and Hitchcock is careful to only reveal what Scottie knows at any given part of the film. But as Scottie slowly devolves from friendly private-eye to dangerously-obsessive lover, Hitchcock doesn't detach the audience from Scottie's perspective. The audience is primed to sympathize with "Madeleine" (her real name: Judith Barton), but the camera remains steadfastly with Scottie. When Madeleine/Judith falls to her (actual) death in the film's final moments, the audience is just as guilty as Scottie is.

It's that final shot that earns the film it's most notable place in the film history books, though. As mentioned before, there's a cruel irony to the circumstances that lead to Madeleine's death. Scottie, plagued with dizzying spells of vertigo anytime he's looking over a ledge, finally pushes through his syndrome to stop Madeleine/Judith and further confront her on her and Gavin's deception. Yet at the top of the tower, he can only watch as she falls to her death - this time actually falling. But there's the thing: the film ends with Scottie looking over the edge, his fear of heights finally cured by another tragedy (just as Midge suggested).

Moreover, this shot is notable for being the only time in the film where Hitchcock places the camera outside of Scottie's perception. In this moment, the audience is no longer treated as another person spying on the couple, but instead takes on a god-like position with the camera staged in mid-air. Yet the audience is still implicated in Scottie's deed. The only difference is now, they're asked to examine the consequences. Scottie's escalation has come to its only logical end, and now he - and the audience - are left to handle the fallout. This is what makes the final shot truly resonate.

Vertigo derives its power from Hitchcock's formal mastery of the art-form. Through his tightly-controlled direction, understanding of cinematic voyeurism, and the staging of a terrifically-dark final shot, the filmmaker crafted a thriller that has managed to only gain in estimation over the years. These are the reasons that the film has - like many others on this list - become a staple of film classes everywhere. It's a study in how film can do things that no other art-form can.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Wrapping up the series with lessons learned and my personal top 10 list.

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