This blog is dedicated to looking at films released before 1970. I chose this period in particular to look at because it was an earlier, growing period in cinema's life, establishing the styles and technology that would be used in more recent films. My first post will be on what has become one of Alfred Hitchcock's most widely-praised films: Vertigo.
The history of the film following its release in 1958 stands in opposition to its now beloved status. Upon its initial release, it received mixed reviews and wasn't a box-office hit. It would be followed by North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, massive successes that have gone on to become culturally significant. Hitchcock liked the film, but thought the story didn't make much sense in hindsight. Dying in 1980, he would never see it become a beloved film.
As time has gone on, however, Vertigo has become better regarded by film critics. It has gotten to the point that it's considered one of the best films of all time, on par with Citizen Kane. The sudden surge of popularity for one of Hitchcock's seemingly less relevant films is at first baffling, but a closer look reveals just what it is about the film that shines.
Vertigo is about Scottie, (Jimmy Stewart) a detective recently discovered to have vertigo. Vertigo is a condition where the person's equilibrium is off, causing dizziness and loss of balance. Because of this, Scottie is horribly afraid of heights. Scottie's friend, a wealthy man, hires him to watch over his wife Madeleine (played by Kim Novak), who has been acting bizarrely. What follows is a psychological thriller about romance, obsession, and time.
Vertigo has an interesting premise, a cruel twist on the “boy meets girl” story. However, the means of reaching this premise are quite contrived. I believe this is likely what kept Vertigo from being noticed at first: the plot that unfolds during the film is painfully contrived at times. From a character's plan that seems overly-reliant on someone else doing something specifically, to the main character finding one person among a city full of people. This film runs on pure impossibility and insane chance.
Another mark against the film is the script. The extreme corniness of the dialogue within the film is almost unbearable sometimes, be it romance or comedy scene. It's a far cry from the overall wit of Rear Window, an earlier Hitchcock film with Jimmy Stewart that managed to balance the two elements remarkably well. While Vertigo is also a much more sad and personal film than Rear Window, the weakness of levity are a detriment to the film overall.
Despite these flaws, Vertigo does several major things well, helping the movie become a great film. The first is the acting, which is quite good. Kim Novak's acting, in particular, is outstanding. However, the exact intricacies of her ability are not apparent until watching the film a second time. At that point, you get a real feeling of the soul of these characters, even with the dialogue.
The cinematography is superb, so much that the film carries with it a haunting atmosphere. Even during the presence of a contrived plot and terrible dialogue. The type of zoomed shot (a dolly shot) used in order to show off the main character's sense of vertigo became named after the film. The use of colours helps to accentuate the rather dark events of the film, eventually creating a creepy, possessed feeling.
The themes presented by the film are strong. The few moments of good writing lead to good insights about time, death and obsession; so much so that this film inspired the film La Jetée, which in turn inspired the film 12 Monkeys. Much has been written about the film's underlying themes: Film critic Dave Kehr, for instance, sees Vertigo as a film about Hitchcock's passion for film. He cites that as a reason why the film has become a darling of critics, yet ignored by the general public.
In short, Vertigo's appeal lies under the surface. It's a great film, despite its obvious problems. It's definitely worth a watch; maybe just in time for Halloween? You could do a lot worse.
Bryan Mackay is a recent graduate from Carleton University. At his time at university, he minored in Film and thus learned a lot about the film medium and industry. He started this blog in order to post his thoughts on films made before 1970 that caught his eye for thematic or stylistic reasons, hoping that others may be interested in his thoughts and opinions on several films.