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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Filmmaker's Film: Vertigo

"Here I was born, and there I died.": The Vertigo Effect screens at BAM Apr 16—30.
Photo: Paramount Pictures/Photofest

By C. Mason Wells

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo was released to largely mixed reviews. This story of acrophobic San Francisco detective Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) hired to trail mysterious blonde Madeleine (Kim Novak) was tagged “basically only a psychological murder mystery” by Variety. Writers ranging from the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinéma to Andrew Sarris to Robin Wood had begun to make the case for Hitchcock as a consummate film artist during the 1960s, but critical consensus took far longer; Vertigo failed to place in Sight and Sound’s once-a-decade critics’ poll until 1982. In 2012, it climbed to the number one slot and the title of Best Film of All Time, knocking Citizen Kane (1941) from its 50-year reign atop the belltower.

But if critics have largely been slow to come to Vertigo’s greatness, filmmakers were quick to see its many virtues. Only four years later, Chris Marker’s sci-fi short La Jetée (1962) appeared, littered with teasing, reverential nods to Hitchcock’s film. By the end of the ’60s, its influence was already becoming pervasive across the globe: Hollywood’s Robert Aldrich stunt cast Kim Novak in multiple roles in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Cahiers’ Hitchcock interrogator François Truffaut made his own tragedy of infatuation and betrayal, Mississippi Mermaid (1968), and Italy’s Lucio Fulci repackaged its setting, themes, and narrative tricks as a giallo (thriller) in Perversion Story (1969). In the ’70s, Vertigo was sexed-up in Sugar Cookies (1973), played for laughs in High Anxiety (1977), and inspired the famously Hitchcock-enamored Brian De Palma to make Obsession (1976), an homage so slavish he hired Vertigo’s own composer Bernard Herrmann to write the score.

Obsession is the perfect word for Vertigo’s many filmmaker-fans. Few (if any) other movies have spawned as many explicit reimaginings, parodies, and outright copies as this one. Countless directors have been enthralled by Vertigo’s sheer technical mastery, its dazzling use of color (that green dress!) and geometry (those spirals!). There’s the magisterial presentation of San Francisco geography—the sloping hills and encroaching fog and towering bridges—glimpsed as Scottie tracks Madeleine from a flower shop to a Mission Dolores cemetery to an art museum (locations Marker memorably retraced in Sans Soleil, 1983). The film even introduced a new type of shot: the so-called Vertigo effect, wherein the camera simultaneously zooms in while tracking backwards, that has become the go-to cinematic shorthand to represent disorientation.

But dive (or fall) deeper into Vertigo and it’s clear the reasons for the film’s enduring influence extend far beyond its ample surface pleasures. Hitchcock counted this as the most personal of his works, and it plays as a self-lacerating roman à clef, a deeply felt dramatization of the dark side of his filmmaking practice—the voyeuristic concerns of Rear Window (1954) pushed to their extreme. After Scottie loses his beloved Madeleine to suicide (or so it seems), he encounters her doppelganger Judy (Novak again), and proceeds to remake her in Madeleine’s image, all at once playing director, screenwriter, costume designer, even hair stylist. When Scottie learns the truth about Judy’s identity, this nightmarish Pygmalion scenario becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of falling madly in love with a projection. What director can’t relate to that?

There are so many angles from which to approach the haunting mysteries and troubling questions of this film, but grouping together the movies hovering around Vertigo can provide a particularly instructive way in. There are the antecedents, the possible influences: Preminger’s Laura (1944; a detective lusting after a dead woman), Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie (1948; amour fou, tower staircase, green light), even Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948; sexual jealousy and a few conspicuously Vertigo-ian camera moves). There’s Quine’s bizarro companion piece Bell, Book, and Candle (1958), made the same year with the same stars. There are the crucial feminist responses, the films that turn Hitchcock’s male gaze back on itself: Akerman’s La Captive (2000), or Variety (1983), which director Bette Gordon has noted features a woman who remakes herself, not one who is remade by a man.

Christian Petzold's Phoenix closes the series on Apr 30. Photo: Sundance Selects
And Vertigo is still inspiring terrific work—Christian Petzold’s new melodrama Phoenix (2015) re-contextualizes its ideas on identity and loss for a fractured post-WWII Germany. Nearly 60 years on, Hitchcock’s defining statement now looks increasingly like the most expansive and inexhaustible of filmic texts. As a character in Terry Gilliam’s La Jetée remake 12 Monkeys (1995) says, “[Vertigo] never changes—it can’t change—but every time you see it, it seems to be different because you’re different... you notice different things.”

The Vertigo Effect series screens at BAMcinématek from Apr 16—30.

C. Mason Wells programs and hosts the IFC Center’s ongoing “Celluloid Dreams” series, devoted to showing classic and rediscovered films exclusively on 35mm prints. He previously programmed the series “Auto-Remakes” and “Andrew Sarris: Expressive Esoterica” for Anthology Film Archives.

Reprinted from March 2015 BAMbill.


  1. Lovely article. But I think you meant Robin Wood instead of James Wood.

    1. Thanks! You're absolutely right—updated!