AFI 100 #43- Vertigo

by - Monday, March 25, 2013

When Vertigo first came out, it was lauded for it's killer twist (which really is great and I am going to try to write about the movie without spoiling it) and one new use of the dolly camera, but not much else. Since then, it has become a favorite of critics and theorists, and it was even recently crowned the best film of all time by Sight & Sound (dethroning Citizen Kane, which is still on the top of this list). In short, if you really love film or you love Hitchcock, you are supposed to love this movie.

from The aceblackblog.com

 I do love movies, and I mostly like Hitchcock ok so far, and I mostly thought this movie was fine. I liked the movie, and I LOVED Jimmy Stewart's makeup. So far I have seen 3 Hitchcock movies (I will see a good chunk of them by the end of this project, because he is all over top 100 lists)- North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, and now Vertigo. I liked North by Northwest for its performances and its super cool style, and the plot is pretty bizarre (and improbable) like this one. Dial M for Murder is much slower paced, but it indulges the pleasure of watching someone plan a murder and then the other pleasure of watching someone else unravel it.

All three center around a beautiful, excessively sophisticated blonde who has an ambiguous position around a mysterious death.

This (often-noted) scopophilic obsession with a Grace Kelly or lookalike is where my Hitchcock love starts and ends all at once. I am sure if I watched all of his films, I would get super tired of it. In face, all of his women don't just have the same look and style, but they are essentially the same lady with minimal variations. In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart's super glamazon and aw shucks lady are aesthetically the same, minus one pair of glasses. Later in the film, Hitchcock presents an alternative female type- a brunette! Of course, she is wearing clown makeup and is generally presented as a garish mess. The glamor Blonde is clearly the only type that Hitchcock sees as viable and desirable. It feels formulaic, and in some ways, the more you connect to that formula , the more it adds pleasure to seeing the films, because Hitchcock plays on his audience's expectations.

Here, let us pause for a moment for poor Midge. She was a hot blond with classy 50's pencil skirt style, but she wore glasses and had a sense of humor (and was supposed his age, but no one believes that), so of course she got passed over. I guess movies wouldn't be as interesting if people made not stupid life choices, but losing the chance for Midge is the biggest date dousher Jimmy pays.

This play on expectations (and the way this is aestheticized) is part of what made the film a flop in the first place, but what makes me actually like it now. Jimmy Stewart has a VERY specific type as an actor- he is the awe shucksy honest guy. Very All American. In most of the movies I have seen with him in it, he wears a not spectacular suit and just looks like the everyday guy (his voice does a lot of the work for this too). In this movie, he starts there and ends somewhere totally different. Audiences hated that Jimmy wasn't the Jimmy they loved, but I thought his performance was one of my favorite parts of the movie. I do not like the normal JS schtick, and I hate that part of his MO is stomping on his aw shucksy girlfriend en route to a hot Hollywood glamazon (Philidelphia Story is case and point on that).

from tdylf.com
The movie actually depends on Stewart's likability so that it can contradict it, so that we as an audience feel uncomfortable identifying with him, even if it is what the film asks us to do. Here, Jimmy still wears a suit, but you can sense through the whole movie (which in general has a fantastic sense of color and richness) that they were struggling with Jimmy and his look. At points his hair looks lighter or darker, he seems to be rocking some sort of Dancing With the Stars- style spray tan through other sequences, and his very pronounced eye makeup and guyliner makes his blue eyes pop. In an interview, Hitchcock said that Vertigo would have been his favorite but the romance between a 50 year old Stewart and the much much younger Kim Novak didn't seem possible. Hitchcock obviously tried to counter this by trying to hide Jimmy's age. In a film which, in the end, becomes about transforming a woman's image, it is Jimmy who ends up being most transformed.  The film is incredibly smart in that it is continually leaning on conventions, only to pull the rug out from under its audience (again).

Not only is Jimmy's aesthetic transformed in the mis en scene, but his image is abstracted in the most exciting and strange sequence of the whole film (clearly this dream sequence is one of the reasons that the movie is so beloved by critics). First lit by a blinking colored light outside, the character transforms into a disembodied head in his own dream, changing colors in an animated landscape, the sequence eventually becomes pure animation, until he wakes up.

The film is perfectly split into three parts, where each part repeats and deviates from the previous one. Simple shots, like the camera following the trees as a car drives, are repeated. A clock tower is shot over and over again, very famously, but in different ways at each turn. The camera moves in beautiful ways through the film, with gorgeous stagnant shots and excruciatingly slow pans across rooms. When I watched this for the first time this weekend, I really was on the edge of my seat, because you cannot even trust the film to behave the way a film should (especially when it will turn its star into an abstraction and live performance into animation). Soon after the super weird dream sequence, an actress looks directly at the camera and speaks (through voiceover) to the audience. This isn't a totally unheard of convention, but at that point in the movie , it is incredibly jarring, in a good way. This lack of trust between the film/ camera itself and the audience is what really makes the movie a thriller.

Ok, I can see why critics love this, because it is really fun to write about! All in all, the Boy gave the movie a 4/5 and I think I agree. I read that this film is a "grower" so even after the pleasure of watching it for the first time is over, you actually enjoy the film more and more each time you watch it. I think I will have to wait a while to see if that is true, but I would definitely watch it again.

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