Thursday, August 2, 2012

Would I have voted for Vertigo? No.

Kim Novak ponders taking the plunge in Vertigo.

Word reaches us that after half a century, Citizen Kane has finally been dislodged from its throne at the top of the Sight and Sound "greatest films of all time" list - to be replaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo (with Kim Novak, above), a film whose critical reputation has been building for years.

Vertigo cleared the bar by a substantial number of votes - and Kane is still ensconced comfortably at #2.  So the "decision," as it were, is neither arguable - nor the end of the world.  Still, I think most cinéastes are right now asking themselves - would I have voted the same way as the critics who contributed to that poll?  And I have to answer - no, I wouldn't have.  Not in a million years.  There's just no way Vertigo is a greater film than Citizen Kane.

Which isn't to say that Vertigo will ever cease to intrigue, even fascinate.  There are moments of startling brilliance (such as the suddenly-tunneling perspective of its "vertigo" shots), and a generally haunting, dusty-pastel mood that's unique in Hitchcock.  It's certainly a cornerstone of this director's achievement, and any analysis of his career must treat it as central.

But I think its ascension, if you  will, to the pinnacle of critical acclaim tells us more about trends in criticism than it does about Vertigo itself.  For to crown what amounts to Hitchcock's sexual confession as the greatest film ever made, you have to ignore its panoply of obvious flaws; some sort of unspoken criterion has to paper over its many gaps, and outweigh the hitches in this prime piece of Hitchcock.

For even in his prime, Hitchcock could be inexplicably clumsy, and there's plenty that technically goes clunk in Vertigo.  The film is an awkwardly paced mélange, for instance, of evocative location shots (of romantic tourist magnets in San Francisco) with oddly stagey sequences played out on obvious sets.  What's more, the screenplay - an amalgam of separate scripts by two writers, from a novel by two writers - alternately lurches and then treads water in dialogue that's often none too inspired.  (We won't even mention the laughable "dream sequence," by the way. In Hitchcock, these are always terrible.)

And then there's Kim Novak (a wicked comment on her performance, at left).  I just can't get around Kim Novak; I'm afraid I have to agree with the early critic who described her double turn in Vertigo as "little more than competent."  Not that there aren't a lot of Hitchcock leading ladies who could be described exactly the same way.  Sometimes their naïve acting can be forgiven for the erotic nimbus they project (Grace Kelly); sometimes all they really have to do is hit their marks and scream (Tippi Hedren); and sometimes they just muddle through, obviously lost, but doing the best they can (Doris Day, Julie Andrews).  Sometimes - sometimes - they make an impact with their own emotional presences, rather than as mere costume filler for their director's fetishes (Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint).  But this is rare, even for the most talented actresses among them.

And Kim Novak wasn't so talented (the rest of her career attests to that) - nor was she as lucky* as Hedren; she has to do far more in Vertigo than just hit her marks and scream.  Indeed, the role of Madeline/Judy is arguably the most complex and fertile in this director's entire oeuvre.

Not that Hitchcock cared, of course - and why should he have?  Many critics have lauded Novak's performance despite its embalmed (yet tentative) quality - but most of these have been heterosexual men (like the amusingly masturbatory David Thomson) whose critical faculties - sophisticated as they may be! - seem to originate somewhere south of their navels.  I don't deny female beauty can be intoxicating, and that plenty of performances have been built on it.  Still, once you get past the artistic statement of Novak's  décolletage, it's hard to discern in her stocky languor much in the way of persona - or presence.  Touchingly, she does strike some poignant sparks as Judy, the crass (and criminal) working girl who longs for love with Jimmy Stewart - you can tell Novak can relate to Judy.  It's as Madeline that she's a disaster, conjuring almost nothing in the way of haunting romantic personality, even as waves crash around her and Bernard Herrmann's remix of Tristan und Isolde circles like some swooning valkyrie.

And what makes this gap almost painfully obvious is that Novak's fumbling is set against what may, improbably, be Jimmy Stewart's finest performance.  We don't believe in Novak's Madeline for a minute, yet we're asked to identify with Stewart's utter intoxication with her, even as we appreciate that his nuanced torment is about as subtle as Hollywood acting ever got.  Talk about vertigo!

So what can outweigh the issues loading down Hitchcock's "masterpiece"?   What can paper over the gaps in its acting, script, and production?  Well, it's rather obvious that the ascension of critical theory itself is probably behind the film's accolades.

For Vertigo may have little to do with actual life as most human beings live it, but it has everything to do with Hitchcock's obsessive voyeurism, and its parallels in the voyeurism of most film critics - and the manner in which postmodern film theory feeds this complex.  Indeed, seen as a theoretical confession rather than a "movie," the flaws of Vertigo all but vanish; the clunky transitions between stage and screen conventions become objects of post-modern intrigue, for instance - moments of "breakdown" in which something ineffable is "liberated."  The self-pity becomes "tragedy," or at least as close to tragedy as Hollywood can get.  And Novak's bad acting can be excused on one level by the crudeness of her primary character "Judy" - although to be frank, Novak's lack of ability is probably the point of the whole exercise. The "personality" of both her "characters" become secondary; the whole idea is that she serves (and struggles) as essentially a sculpted (and plucked, dyed and costumed) object of Hitchcock's obsessive fantasy.

So in a way, Vertigo crowns not the achievement of the art of film in general, but rather the apotheosis of the auteur theory of film at its most sexist, and most self-referential (on both sides of the screen).  But then Vertigo isn't really about love or death, or even sex - it's about the movies, or at least Hitchcock's movies - and so it shouldn't be so surprising that movie critics should decide it's really the best movie ever made; after all, it's about them.

The fallen idol - Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.

What's funny, of course, is that much the same could be said of Citizen Kane - after all, aren't the needy flaws of its outsized central character approximately the same as those of its outsized director and star (above)?  Isn't it obsessed with itself, and doesn't it, too, treat the problem of voyeurism in emotional (and political) life?

The difference, of course, is that while Vertigo devolves into a morbid vortex of withdrawal, and is essentially built of limited means, Citizen Kane is an exuberant, extroverted explosion, a veritable cornucopia of tricks, techniques, and cinematic ideas that never lets up, is brought off to near-perfection, and remains exhilarating till its finish.  If Griffith and Eisenstein invented film syntax, then Welles pushed it into a form of poetry that dances between a kind of hyper-theatrical space and the very limits of cinematic expressionism.  After reading the news from Sight and Sound, I watched both movies again last night - and Kane all but obliterated Vertigo; but then whenever I've seen it in a double feature (and I saw it that way several times many moons ago, back when there were double features), it always blew away its companion film, whatever the film was.  There simply is no other movie like it; sometimes, in fact, I think there's Citizen Kane - and then there's everything else.

And looking over the Sight and Sound list, I'm struck again and again by its eccentricity.  I've never been one to rate the miniatures of Ozu (whose Tokyo Story - admittedly lovely - is currently at #3) over the sagas of Bergman or Kurosawa, for instance.  But then I'm glad Renoir's Grand Illusion has at last been replaced here, as in most of these polls, by his superior Rules of the Game.  Other ratings likewise made me cheer or cringe.  Bergman and Kurosawa now trail Fellini, and only barely edge out Tarkovsky?  And seriously - Godard's Contempt at #21?  Clearly too many self-serious male film school grads participated in this poll!

Still, wasn't it ever thus?  Everything is temporary, after all.  Someday the critics will be less dizzy over Vertigo, and it too will fall from the heights.  And I don't think anyone needs to have read a review to respond to the wonders of Citizen Kane.  In fact I might just sit down and watch it all over again tonight.


  1. Sexual harassment, trickery and abuse are institutionalized. My college film professor (a woman) assigned VERTIGO as part of a study of Hitchcock's aesthetic. I know that her purpose was to highlight his sexism, but the absence of CITIZEN KANE in the syllabus left me thinking that Hitchcock's world was the more important; that despite his flaws HE is the essential auteur.

    I've never felt compelled to watch KANE. I don't blame my teachers. I knew it was a film I would have to watch on my own, with my own volition. But that Mark Twain quote, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." Jane Eyre, Citizen Kane, (and Huckleberry Finn): it will take a big push for me to read/watch these classics. Yet I love Shakespeare...

    What I remember most from VERTIGO was the ending. The big reveal which nowadays doesn't seem so big at all.

  2. It does seem that the film nerds' coronation of Vertigo couldn't have come at a more ironic political moment for Hitchcock - suddenly the news is full of his abuse of his female stars (it has also come out that Vera Miles - who was originally supposed to play Kim Novak's role - refused to work for him again after Psycho). And doesn't Vertigo in some ways enshrine his pattern of abuse, and even transform it into a kind of martyrdom? I'd argue it does.

    But I think you raise an intriguing point - are the professors actually perpetuating their own syllabi by promoting as masterpieces works that they can simultaneously critique as sexist? Hmmmm!

    In the meantime, see Citizen Kane! Orson Welles of course had his own sexual peccadilloes, but there are great roles for women in it, and its critique of its hero's romantic needs is clear-eyed and devastating.

  3. Interesting discussion. I've always loved Vertigo for all its flaws (well articulated by Mr. Garvey, as always). But to me, the film would lose much of its appeal without Bernard Hermann's beguiling score - at times lush and arch-romantic, at others wonderfully (vertiginously?) dissonant. There are other less obvious moments, too: like the obsessive bass clarinet ostinato as Stewart follows Novak through the streets of San Francisco.

    Far from #1, I agree, but the music elevates this one considerably, in my opinion.

  4. Decades ago I first saw Vertigo when I was a child. Now past middle age, having seen the film multiple times, each viewing has been filtered through the eyes of a wiser more mature man - and now more than ever do I understand the complexities that make the film so dazzling and rich. Like the protagonist Scotty who tries to turn Judy into his ideal - and not loving her for who she really is - Vertigo is a rare Rorscharch of a film. At one level it strips bare the true, insecure and masochistic nature of passionate love, one that projects pure fantasy - with no regard for the object of love. At is core, this movie is, paradoxically, the most anti-romantic, while wanting desperately like Scotty to be totally swept up by love. But what exactly is "love?" that is what this film asks. So while I do not disagree with one word you say, I also beg you to give the film another viewing, perhaps in a few years. I once also thought Kim Novack's acting was bad. After several viewings I realized that wasn't the case. Because Judy was falling in love with Scotty, she wanted desperately to be a sort of woman he would love - but what type was that? And how could she know? The layers of themes and questions never end - including how Hitchcock reveals his own insecurities and obsessions. That's an essay unto itself.

  5. Sorry if it sounded like I was dissing ol' Bernard. True, Vertigo's romantic string climaxes are a direct lift from Wagner's "Liebestod" - which famously only resolves harmonically with its singer's death - but that theme is nevertheless seamlessly integrated into an often hypnotic score. Which has generated a fair amount of concert interest, btw, and several symphonic recordings.

    But don't forget that Mr. Herrmann also did the score for Citizen Kane, for which he composed the hilarious overture to a synthetic Wagner-Verdi mash-up called "Salammbo." I've always felt orchestral suites derived from the scores of Kane and Vertigo were long overdue.

  6. Thanks, Stephen, for your comment. Perhaps time will change my feelings about Vertigo - but I'm no spring chicken myself, and so far time has only deepened my concerns about its many issues. But you've brought up something that in my post I should have made clearer - the contention, shared by many of the film's fans, that Hitchcock's physical obsessions speak to some "basic" truth about love. I'm simply not sure I agree with that - perhaps because I've never had an obsessive physical "type" that I fell in love with, over and over. Hence I can't really relate to Scotty's make-over of Judy into Madeline - believe me, I've been head-over-heels plenty of times, but I've never had an impulse like that one. Perhaps this is why it seems somehow pathological to me. I think the theme could be more convincing if Novak were more bewitching in the Madeline role - but as I said, she's just not; Novak comes off much as "Judy" does later - a nice, strapping young lady wobbling around in a fetishistic ensemble of gray suit and blonde coiffure. Or let me put it this way - there's another major artwork with something like the same theme - Nabokov's Lolita. Somehow, through the magic of his prose, Nabokov conveys both Humbert Humbert's passion, and the horror of its misplaced object. What's more, the whole novel simultaneously operates as a devastating satire of romance itself. But is there even a shadow of satire in Hitchcock's treatment of Scotty? Is there any sense of larger moral perspective? This may be my essential issue with Vertigo.

  7. Actually we may be of like minds about it, just with different conclusions due to our different life experiences. And those differences are at the heart of Vertigo. It wasn't until my umpteenth viewing in my 30s that I realized it is very clearly about a deranged obsession, a psychotic one, and that is what Hitchcock meant to convey: That romantic "love" is a debilitating psychotic break from reality. Who, really, is Judy? Who is Madeline? Whoever either woman really is will make no difference to Scotty, because he is in love with a projection of his ideal woman, one that does not exist. That is how this film works so devilishly on many levels. Herrmann was quite capable of creating a unique score, but his act of stealing Wagner's Liebestod is no accident -- it is breathtakingly beautiful, but Ultimately a fake. Just like Madeline.

  8. Sorry I'm late the thread, but I'll add to what you all are saying by pointing out that, ironically, Citizen Kane satirize romance and elaborates on the theme more fully than Vertigo.

    Most obviously this is evident in Kane's "remaking" of Miss Alexander. We are constantly subjected to the off key warbling on the soundtrack as Kane gets more obsessed, finally placing his bizarre creation center stage.

    As far as how that is expanded, the character of Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) points out that Kane described Miss Alexander as a "cross-section of the American public." And Kane's bizarre, almost sexual obsession with "the people" and "the public" is also referenced time and again. Kane sees things, covets them, obtains them.

    After the brilliant sequence of shots in which Kane obtains the staff of the Chronicle, we are immediately told at the party that he also is acquiring the great statues and paintings of Europe. People, businesses, art are all interchangeable to Kane. And, at the height of this urbane and bawdy celebration, (originally it was supposed to be set in brothel,) we see that he will even create war because he desires it.

    Not that Vertigo is a bad film at all! I just feel that Kane has consistently offered more to chew upon.

  9. To Stephen - I think that this is where I disagree with you about Vertigo; yes, Madeline is a "fake" (and Judy is "real"), and Hitchcock acknowledges this, but somehow I feel that the movie nevertheless operates in a manner which at a deeper level ignores, perhaps even contradicts, this idea. As for Herrmann's musical theme resonating as satire, as it's also "fake" - hmmmm. It's really only as fake as the rest of Herrmann's scores, though, because he borrows liberally from the late romantic German tradition everywhere (even the shrieking violins in Psycho are a lift from Strauss). So do most audience members, or even most film critics, register that buried musical metaphor? Somehow I doubt it.

    To Art - I agree with you on every point. It's also worth noting that Kane "remakes" Susan Alexander into an opera singer in part to hang on to his sense of innocence. Remember Joseph Cotten says that Kane was determined to "take the quotes off 'singer'" in that famous headline ("Caught in Love Nest with 'Singer'") that ended Kane's OTHER love affair, the one with the public. (The irony, of course, is that we are led to believe Kane and Alexander actually did NOT have a sexual relationship.)

    This sense that he deserves to be loved because he's innocent ties in to the film's "Rosebud" theme in a poignant way. I actually hadn't noticed this until I re-watched the movie after Vertigo, but when Kane first bumps into Susan Alexander, he admits he was "on a sentimental journey" to see "some of his mother's things" that were put into storage - i.e., he was on his way to re-visiting "Rosebud," the symbol of his lost youth that burns to cinders at the terrible finale.

    This kind of thick symbolic braiding is typical of Kane. I think it's also worth noting that Kane's treatment of love embeds it in the political sphere; in contrast Vertigo is hermetic - indeed, Scotty's love tells us almost nothing about him personally, because he's not in love with an "ideal" but simply an IMAGE. This has tremendous resonance, of course, with the "love" that people have for movie stars, but I think less resonance with actual life.

  10. Jimmy The Eggroll HoftgartenAugust 22, 2012 at 5:33:00 PM EST

    For all its themes and depth, the pacing and exposition are at times truly terrible. 3 times in Vertigo what is going on is simply stated. John and Midge give their whole backstory in about 10 seconds. The evil husband explains everything in one go (understandable, but still) and the final straw, Judy has a flashback/memory simply showing what really happened and then narrates the truth while writing the letter. That she does this immediately after meeting John again, which is our first time as the audience too sturck me as ridiculous. No subtly whatsoever, it's like Hitchcock was halfway between psychological exploration and Cary Grant spy movie.

    I watched Vertigo again because of the list, but it's not even his best movie. It's not even a good movie. It may resonate with someone, but it's still not very competent. And to say it deserves to be recognised because Hitchcock worked out if you zoom and pull the camera back at the same time it looks funny (which I have read several times tonight) is hilarious.