Classics Corner: Vertigo (1958)
A word from TJ @ Weekend Lollygagger
Jannis has been an amazing help during these early days of Weekend Lollygagger, offering support and ideas for both videos and the site. It’s with great respect and excitement that he will now be providing us written content when possible! Please remember that English is not his first language and yet he still manages to shame my writing, Gut gemacht, Sir!
Now back to the amazing writing of Jannis who can be found on Twitter using @JannisBremer.
One could certainly ask oneself how I, being born in the early 90s, came up with films by Alfred Hitchcock. My first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock in my early childhood was not in cinematic terms, but through his presence in the radio plays of “The Three Investigators”. Alfred Hitchcock was not only on the cover of the tapes, but also had appearances in some of the early radio play episodes. A few years later I discovered the detective novels of my parents for myself and, in addition to greats such as Henning Mankell, I repeatedly came across the name Alfred Hitchcock. Because my parents told me that he made good film adaptations of many books, I couldn’t help but watch them. As the title suggests, this is about the film “Vertigo” by Alfred Hitchcock, which I consider to be one of my favourite films. The story of the film is based on the 1954 novel “D’entre les morts” (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The film itself was produced 1958 in American and stars James Stewart (May, 1908 – July, 1997) as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson.
The starting point of the film is that Scottie finds himself in a life-threatening situation when pursuing a criminal over the roofs of San Francisco, because he slips on a tiled roof and clings to the rain gutter at the last second. A colleague, who wants to rush to his aid, falls to his death while trying to help. Scottie resigns because he is diagnosed with the film’s name-giving fear of heights and feelings of guilt.
After Scotties retirement from the police, his former schoolmate Gavin Elster asks him to shadow his wife Madeleine. Elster worries about his wife, who seems to be possessed by the ghost of her late great-grandmother Carlotta Valdes. She took her own life at the age of 26; according to Elster, Madeleine, also 26, increasingly feels the urge to do the same. She wears her hair like Carlotta, regularly visits Carlotta’s grave and one of her portraits exhibited in the museum, and has rented a room in the hotel where Carlotta last stayed. After Madeleine’s jump into San Francisco Bay, Scottie saves her from drowning and takes her home. The two fall in love, but Madeleine’s death wish remains. On a trip to the old Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, Scottie can’t prevent Madeleine from throwing herself off the bell tower. The examining magistrate ascribes to him – even if he is innocent in the legal sense – a joint responsibility for her death. Scottie falls into depression and is admitted to a mental hospital. Even if he is released as cured, Scottie remains marked by the death of his lover. After a certain time later the young saleswoman Judy, who looks amazingly like Madeleine. In fact, it’s one and the same person: Judy pretended to be Madeleine’s wife so that he could murder the real one. Since Judy really loves Scottie, she leaves him in the dark about it. Obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the image of the dead Madeleine, Scottie presses Judy to accept Madeleine’s appearance in clothing, hair color, hairstyle and behavior. Judy reluctantly gets involved, hoping that Scottie will fall in love with her real self in the course of her relationship. When she puts on a piece of jewelry that belonged to Madeleine, Scottie realizes that Judy and Madeleine are identical, that he became the victim of a deception. Here I want to finish the retelling in order not to spoil the end of the film. Because from this discovery of deception, Scotties pressure to act develops and this ultimately leads to a dramatic end.
Regarding the plot I have to say that I think the story as a whole is quite original and that the basic idea would be exciting. Sadly, the ending seems to me to be a bit too much of a hair-raiser, especially after repeated watching of the movie. Nonetheless, it’s a conclusive story with an interesting ending and interesting nuances. All praise and criticism goes to the following: Vertigo is a movie that doesn’t offer fast action and at times tends to be a bit verbose. It’s a movie that needs some time to unfold its potential. So if you can overlook these two things, or even like this farsightedness (as it is the case with me, for instance), you can expect a quite effective movie, that can grab the viewer. The movie is supported on the one hand by a very good arrangement of scenes and on the other hand by an outstanding acting performance. The actors seem credible in their roles and portray convincing characters. None of the characters seems out of place or overdrawn, as it is the case in so many modern action crime movies. The term that generally describes my feeling towards Vertigo is that of authenticity. This authenticity is also what makes us sympathize with the main character and also makes the viewer feel his feeling of instability. This compassion makes the psychological drama in which Scottie finds himself very accessible. A drama between love and obsession. The so-called “Vertigo-effect”, which was applied three times in this movie, shouldn’t be left unmentioned when we are already talking about scenes. Because Hitchcock always used it to visually reproduce the feeling of dwindling. An effect that was incredibly strong at its time and was adopted by many films. Two better known films that made use of this effect should be mentioned here: Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Jaws (1975). From today’s point of view, these effects are of course outdated, but have not lost their effect in the old films. Of course, the “Vertigo effect” in the film Vertigo is still really good to watch today. The soundtrack, which I find very fitting, was written by Bernard Hauptmann. A composer who already composed the music for three previous Hitchcock films. As a lover of classical music, I also like film music recorded by an orchestra. So anyone who shares this love for classical music will also hear the music accompanying the film with goodwill. I have chosen the word “goodwill” because the film music is appropriate, but not exciting.
All in all, I would like to join Hellmuth Karasek in his assessment of the film as “the most beautiful testimony of a black romanticism in the middle of the 20th century”. It’s a film that skilfully combines criminalism with the traits of a romantic narrative – perhaps even a narrative that can sometimes be described as a fairy tale of black romanticism. Today’s viewers will certainly benefit above all from the restoration of the film from the mid-1990s. I like to watch the film again and again, although I have to admit that the genre doesn’t really motivate to watch it again. But as one of the great classics and a film that has introduced an effect that was significant in its time, I hereby make a clear recommendation to watch this film.