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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vertigo: Watching Sight and Sound's Greatest Films

Every 10 years, since 1952, the British film magazine Sight and Sound polls critics and directors on the "Greatest Films" ever made.    For cinema fanatics (and list fanatics) such as myself, it's a major event.  My wife Emily and I are planning on watching the top 10, 1 by 1, and having a conversation about them here on the blog.  We'll start with #1, Vertigo, and move on down the list.

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
2. Citizen Kane (Welles)
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu)
4. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
7. The Searchers (Ford)
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
10. 8 1/2 (Fellini)

We hope you enjoy!



 is only the third film to hold the top spot on the list. 
Bicycle Thieves held it in 1952 and Citizen Kane had a long run on the 
top spot. from 1962-2002. Vertigo first appeared on the list in 1982
 at #7, moved to #4 in 1992, and to #2 by 2002.  It was a bit of a
 shock to see Citizen Kane off the top, but I guess this was probably 
the least surprising film to topple Kane.

 Vertigo is a film by one of just about everyone's favorite directors,
 Alfred Hitchcock, and is his only film to ever make the top 10 list. 
It came out in 1958 and was considered something of a box office
failure. It starts James Stewart as a man hired to follow another
 man's wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be entranced by a dead woman.  To
say much more would ruin the many pleasures of discovery in the movie.
 I hadn't seen this movie in probably 15 years, and it was quite an
 amazing experience to watch it again.  The themes in this movie seem
 so modern, and so influential, that its hard to believe what Hitchcock
 could do in 1958.


Emily, I guess I'll ask you a few questions to get us started:

-Why do you think critics are gaga for this film?

-What was your favorite shot or sequence in the film?

-Is Scottie (played by the usually lovable James Stewart) one of the
 most twisted protagonists in film history?


This was my first time seeing Vertigo, and I have to say it was pretty entrancing. The twists, turns, eeriness, darkness, and obsessiveness -all juxtaposed with the striking backdrop of sunny San Francisco -really drew me in, and probably the critics too. It's interesting to know this was originally considered only a marginal success, given how well it's known today.

My favorite sequences were the really spooky moments. Can I say two? The first was when Scottie and Madeleine are in Muir Woods, looking at the tree rings on the redwoods. Madeleine flips into Carlota mode, showing Scottie when she was born and... when she died. Chilling. And kudos to Hitchcock for taking advantage of this gorgeous setting. The
second is when the remade-as-Madeline Judy emerges from the bathroom in a haze, in her pulled back blonde hair and gray suit. The way it's shot gives it this great ghostly feel.

While I am definitely no film historian, so can't say whether Scottie is the most twisted character in film history, I'd have to think he's probably right up there! It's like being obsessed with the past and dead women is contagious - first in the case of Madeleine, then in the
case of Scottie. And it leads him to say and do some pretty bizarre things.

So let me ask you:

-Why the change in momentum in this film's critical acclaim?
-What directorial elements did you appreciate most?


Ah, yes.   I also appreciate the spooky moments, and I also love how they're also infused with romanticism.  I especially love a couple scenes.  First, where Scottie follows Madeline down a downtown alley and spies on her as she browses a dazzling array of flowers.  So
beautiful and heady.  I also love the 360 degree camera angle when they embrace and it switches between their current locale and the mission.

The change in criticism came for a couple of reasons.  I think the themes of this movie were a little disturbing for early audiences, who didn't flock to this movie as much as his "fun" movies like Rear Window or North by Northwest.

Also, during most of his career, Hitchcock was considered talented and popular, but also somewhat of a genre filmmaker.  It took some of the European critics to elevate him to his much deserved masterful status. What they loved about him was his command of the craft and psychological undertones, and this movie fits this to a T.  As a side note, it only shows how great he is that Vertigo is probably my 3rd or 4th favorite movie of his.  I love Rear Window and Psycho even more.

What directorial choices did I like most?  I love the technicolor and the amazing score by Bernard Hermann.  I also love how much he uses visuals to tell the story.  We'll be getting to some silent films later in our viewings, but I think he really took a lot of visual storytelling from past films into Vertigo.  There are several sequences where words don't happen for quite a while and we are simply transfixed by the score, the visuals, and Kim Novak's hair twist....
It just makes me want to watch the whole thing again.

I also love how it influenced one of my other favorite movies, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.  The mystery, the doubles, the changing of style, and the twisted romanticism.  It's all there so beautifully in both films.

Any closing thoughts?


Yeah, it definitely makes me want to watch Mulholland Drive again (another great movie!), and take notice of the influences. Another blog conversation for another time?

A couple final thoughts. First, I wanted to mention was that there were several points where I thought Scottie's misogyny and the general portrayal of women was kind of over the top, and wasn't sure if this was a product of the time or Hitchcock's own views. But then some of the unpredictable turns in the storyline end up adding complexity to the question of who holds the power. What's your feminist critique?

Then finally, I would just want to add for those who have never seen Vertigo before, go put it in your queue! It was truly a riveting watch, and a film I'd highly recommend seeing.


Yes, the misogyny was over the top, but I think the movie is fully aware of that.  Scottie's obsession with recreating a certain type of woman is creepy and crazy.  I also think the most accessible and sympathetic character in the movie is Scottie's friend (and admirer) Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes.  She definitely seems like a modern, independent woman.  And yet, Hitchcock definitely had a thing for cool, icy, blondes, and put them through all sorts of travails in his movies.  I think a reason critics obsess over this movie so much is the psychological underpinnings that give us a peek into Hitchock's own psyche.

So yes, go see it!

Next Up (Probably in October): Just a little movie called Citizen Kane!