Week 26: Vertigo (1958), Movie Theater Memories, and the Cruelest Shot in Cinema

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

1. Return of the Jedi, 1983, El Con Mall, Tucson, AZ

I was seven years old. The El Con theater was tiny, just a small greasy snack bar with two theaters on either side. When I got older I’d walk over there after high school to see movies. But today we were watching Return of the Jedi. I’d seen Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back at home on TV. And while I didn’t totally understand them, I liked the robots! I was hoping to see lots of shiny, flashy space stuff.

So I was nervous when all these strange, creepy creatures started popping up in Jabba The Hutt’s palace. The monsters weren’t so scary when they were on my little TV at home! But what really got me was the Rancor. You remember the Rancor, it’s the giant stooped-over monster that lives in the belly of Jabba’s palace. Luke gets thrown in there and has to fight his way out.

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Come on, that guy is terrifying.

Or at least that’s what I assumed. Because I couldn’t take it. I ran out of the theater, scared to death. Even now I think the Rancor is a tremendous, terrifying creation, all forearms and claws, with a small, tooth-filled mouth. I remember standing in the theater lobby with the smell of burnt popcorn and the waning sun glinting across the tile floor. I was pretending like I wasn’t scared, but I was. Terrified. It was the first time I remember going to the movies.

***

Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature film, made when he was fifty nine years old. With this film he would begin what Robin Wood called his “unbroken string of masterpieces,” from Vertigo to North by Northwest to Psycho to The Birds. Few directors have ever achieved this level of perfection and had the films be so wildly disparate in tone.

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For Vertigo isn’t really a “typical” Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s a ghost story more than anything else, maybe a cousin to Rebecca. The story of Scottie, a lonely, broken man suffering from vertigo (Jimmy Stewart) investigating a wealthy friend’s wife starts normally enough. Then bit by bit we’re drawn into the film’s dreamlike state as the two seem to fall in love and we start to wonder, is Madeleine (Kim Novak) truly possessed by a ghost? Is she pretending? Then abruptly the story seems to end after an hour and fifteen minutes when Madeleine kills herself, or so Stewart thinks. Of course then he runs into Judy, the woman who looks exactly like his lost love. In a scene that’s still startling, Judy writes and then tears up a letter admitting that she is the same woman, that it was all a ruse, but that she loves him and wants to be loved for who she truly is. And so the film enters a course of madness before its grim, inevitable end.

This plot is, of course, nonsense. For years I’d been thinking that North by Northwest is the perfect example to show Hitchcock’s disregard for the mechanics of plot & plausibility when really it’s Vertigo. The industrialist Elster’s scheme to kill his wife is so ridiculous, so convoluted, it depends not just on Stewart’s vertigo, but also his falling in love with “Madeleine,” Judy being not just a very good swimmer but also an incredible actress, Stewart knowing where San Juan Batista is, and a million other improbable details. It’s utterly absurd yet at the end of the film who is still thinking about these complexities?

Vertigo is also one of the finest examples of an audience relating to a protagonist and at the same time recognizing the danger of how he’s behaving. Long before “anti-heroes” became common, Hitchcock is giving us America’s beloved Jimmy Stewart as one of the grandest anti-heroes of them all. Stewart spent much of his post-war period consciously embracing a new direction and taking roles that tore down his “aww shucks” image as America’s Next Door Neighbor. I actually think that he does his career-best acting in Vertigo and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Both embrace his natural charisma, yet also showcase his desperate side. Few actors could be so vulnerable and pleading on screen, whether he’s begging/cajoling Mr. Potter for money or asking Judy to change her hair color. Stewart is raw, naked, and frenzied in these movies and it’s spectacular.

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Kim Novak is also especially good, playing layers upon layers as Madeleine, Judy, and then Judy-as-Madeleine, changing her accent, posture, and body language with each division. Yet Barbara Bel Geddes is my favorite part of this film, the unsung hero of Vertigo. Beneath her caustic wit is an ocean of pain and torment, hinted at in some brief scenes where Stewart remarks that she was the one to call off their engagement. Bel Geddes wears the pain of unrequited love on her face through the entire film, and she’s a sad yet fearless character because of it.

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Barbara Bel Geddes, the heart of Vertigo

2. Batman, 1989, Tucson Galleria, Tucson, AZ

I was twelve years old. I would turn thirteen later that summer, the same year that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Back to the Future II came out. But my heart belonged to Batman. A lot has been written about how 1989’s Batman would presage the modern rollout of blockbusters: a brilliant teaser poster, endless news coverage, merchandising tie-ins, and more. I didn’t care, and still don’t. I was beyond pumped to see it on opening day.

And so was the whole audience. The Galleria was a new theater, larger stadium-style seating in a small mall complex. Nothing amazing, but clean, new, and totally unprepared for the chaos. There were long lines, excited but not rowdy crowds, people crammed into every seat on that opening day. It was the first time I saw a harried staffer go to the front of the theater and ask people to move in, take up all the seats, and make room for everyone. This screening is completely sold out.

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I’m Batman.

Finally the lights went down and the movie went on. It was amazing. Everyone laughed, reacted, and breathed as one in that crowded theater. This was different that the sense of community I’d experience at a Star Wars marathon, where everyone knew what to expect. This was a crowd of fans thrilling to every detail of a new film, delighting in it, drinking it in. This was entertainment in the best possible sense. Whether you like the film or not (I still love it even tough I see it’s flaws), you can imagine what it meant to a nerdy kid like me. As the Batmobile raced  through a moonlit forest while Danny Elfman’s score pulsated with operatic intensity, I knew. This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make movies.

***

It’s still hard to get a handle on Vertigo. My god, the technical accomplishments alone. The cinematography by longtime Hitchcock camera Robert Burks ranks among the finest in cinema history; the scenes by the Golden Gate Bridge and in Redwoods National Forest have no peer. There’s also the fact that Hitchcock (or an assistant cameraman, accounts differ) essentially invented a new camera move, the dolly zoom, something that hadn’t been done since the silent era.

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Sweet mother of god, this shot.

To communicate Scottie’s sense of point of view during an attack of vertigo, the camera moves forward on a track at the same time it zooms out, creating a look where the framing hardly moves, but the perspective changes. The entire shot warps and objects in the distance recede. You can see many examples of the technique here. It’s now known as a Spielberg Jaws shot, used when Roy Scheider sees an attack on the beach, but I’ll be damned if you read this and don’t know that Hitchcock was the first to use it (Hitch would also reuse the Dolly zoom in Marnie).

Now look at the incredible color scheme and expressionistic use of lighting. The film is awash in vivid red and greens, with the lighting even changing in a scene to illustrate Stewart’s falling in love. Or the way a bookstore dims at sunset as the owner tells a story about the Mad Carlotta. Or the spectacular revolving shot where Stewart finally turns Judy into “Madeleine” and kisses her as the camera spins around them, dissolving into his mental image as he’s back with her in the stables, and then back to her green neon apartment. That same green that Hitchcock first used with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, giving the film and otherworldly, ethereal, ghostlike beauty.

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Above, when Scottie first sees “Madeleine” in the all-red Ernie’s restaurant; below when he is talking to Judy in her hotel room.

And the contribution of Bernard Hermann, in probably his most important score. It’s hard to imagine the success of North by Northwest or Psycho without Hermann’s music, but it’s downright impossible in Vertigo. Would those glorious but endless driving sequences be tolerable without Hermann’s dreamlike score evoking a trance-like state? For me this is Hermann’s and Hitchcock’s best collaboration, a case where director and composer are singularly fused in pursuit of a cinematic tone.

Those long driving scenes are a pure lesson in filmmaking technique. Hitchcock never abandons Stewart’s point of view; he turns the audience into private eyes as we’re trying to figure out where she’s going. By doubling down on these sequences we’re drawn into Stewart’s mindset as he struggles to figure out where she’s going. But the whole thing is a shell game too; we stay incredibly tied to Stewart and his point of view for the first hour and half, then when Judy writes her confessional letter, everything changes. We have information that he doesn’t. There aren’t that many singular suspense sequences in Vertigo, because the entire final third is a slow build to Stewart discovering what we, the audience, already know. This is much harder, more intriguing, and more elegant way to make a film that the current crop of surprise or twist endings. Finding out at the very end of a movie or TV show that a character’s been dead the whole time or is a figment of someone’s imagination is interesting, but it robs us of the sustained tension of watching our characters  when we know something they don’t. It robs us of suspense.

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3. Pulp Fiction, 1994, Angelika Film Center, New York, NY

I was eighteen years old. In august I had moved across the country to attend film school at New York University. I was living my dream; I was going to learn how to make movies. It was fun, frightening, exhilarating, bewildering. I was living in a dorm on 10th street and Broadway, getting to know my roommates, trying to figure out my classes, and learning how to live on my own. Just like every college freshman.

I hadn’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs when it came out in 1992. But many of my classmates had and it had created quite a stir. Now Tarantino’s new movie was opening. I think it was a slow rollout, the kind where it starts in New York & LA, then expands across the country. And one of those theaters, one of the few theaters in the entire country, was just 10 blocks away. The Angelika on Houston & Broadway. Someone organized a group field trip and we were off.

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The Angelika was the opposite of what I was used to. A small cafe & snack bar on the top floor, then escalators down to a few tiny theaters below street level. When the R train went by, you could hear the rumbling in the theaters. No stadium seating, no cupholders, no comfort. This was a Serious Place to watch Serious Movies.

It was the opening week of Pulp Fiction, before the hype kicked in, so I didn’t know what to expect. The movie that unspooled before me was…different. What was it? Was it vintage? Was it cool? Could you say the n-word in a movie if you were the white director? (Answer: No you can’t) And what was with those outfits? The jumbled timeline? All of it?

I know I liked it; I can’t remember if I loved it. But I do remember that sensation of “Oh, I’m watching something new.” This is different. And as I grew older and saw where Tarantino is borrowing from, and his time-jumping seems less revolutionary, and dear god why is he saying the n-word, Pulp Fiction still felt like a revolution. And it was. Tarantino made a small movie that people liked, then went all in for his follow up. I haven’t liked and haven’t much of Tarantino’s work since then but it doesn’t matter. Seeing that movie my first semester at film school made me feel like I was a true New Yorker. It felt like I belonged.

***

The thing everyone agrees upon is that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most personal film. But personal how? Is it his sorrowful admission of losing Grace Kelly and trying to remake Vera Miles in her image? Is it a meditation on death, as both Hitch and his wife Alma were struggling with health problems? Is it the senile ravings of an old pervert or a man  accustomed to making mass entertainment consciously trying to make art again?

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Hitchcock and Stewart on the set of Vertigo.

We won’t know and we can’t know. The famously private Hitchcock left us no answers on this. All of these theories are valid and none of them may be true. We can agree that the film has its own power, unique in the history of cinema, a bizarre, mold-shattering piece with little precedent. Hitchcock is trying to tell us something…but what?

Like all art, the answer is different for each of us. Martin Scorsese identifies it as a film about obsession that influenced films like Taxi Driver. Kim Novak identified with the scenes of Judy being made over as a commentary on Hollywood and how it shapes women against their will. Others see it a rape fantasy, a woman wanting to be stripped down and turned into someone else, literally and sexually.

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Hitchcock directing Kim Novak.

For me, the most personal moments in the film come when Scottie is coming back from his depression after Madeline’s death, visiting the old places and seeing her everywhere. His grief is palpable, just as it is when we visit a place we used to go with someone we’ve lost. Stewart is never better than when he’s this haunted shell of a man.

Much has been written about the sexual complexity of Vertigo and Hitchcock’s sexism/misogyny, but two things stand out for me.  One is the scene after “Madeleine” jumps into the bay and Stewart jumps in to fish her out. At the time, Stewart doesn’t know that she’s acting so he saves what he thinks is a drowning woman. Great! Admirable. But then he puts her in his car. He takes her to his house. He undresses her and puts her in his bed, all while she’s unconscious (as far as he knows). And when she asks him why he didn’t take her home or call the police or do anything sensible, all he can reply is “I didn’t think you would want to be taken home that way.” As far as he knows, she’s experiencing all this from a complete stranger. This is every woman’s nightmare, waking up naked in the bed of a strange man who gives her brandy and doesn’t want her to leave. And somehow, SOMEHOW, this is played as a romantic situation.

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A totally normal situation.

But! As we’re prepared to think the worst, sexist, most awful thoughts about Hitchcock, there’s the portrayal of Judy. Bear in mind that this is a woman who is an accomplice to murder. Who drove a man to insanity, who pretended to be a woman he loved, who should at the very least be in jail for her despicable crimes. Yet Vertigo finds enormous, bottomless sympathy for Judy, seeing her only as a pawn of Elster, a woman motivated by love and struggling to get by in a world where men hold all the power. She’s human, endearing, and sympathetic despite being, on paper, one of Hitchcock’s worst villains. No man who truly hates or despises women could make this movie, or could have such sympathy and understanding for such a character. Just as Hitchcock plays a potential rape scene like a lover’s tender moment, he plays Judy as an unfortunate, helpless pawn looking for someone to love her. This the duality at the heart of Alfred Hitchcock.

And there’s the fumbled drama of the ending itself. After Hitchcock spends the entire movie crafting a fugue-like state, he builds to a psychological and emotional crescendo in the church tower, as Scottie literally drags Judy/Madeleine to the top where he realizes he doesn’t have vertigo anymore. Then, a dark figure rises from a corner. Judy yells “No” and starts to flee. Offscreen the figure says “I heard voices” a split second before we hear Judy scream; she’s fallen to her death from the same tower the real Madeleine fell from. The figure is revealed to be a nun, and she rings the bell for help as Stewart gazes down, inconsolable. THE END.

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Stewart at the end of Vertigo.

Hitchcock was often bad at endings, but this is bizarre. There’s a symmetrical poetry to it to be sure; at the beginning of the film, Scottie says that only “another emotional shock” will cure him of his vertigo. Meanwhile, Judy follows the real Madeleine to her death atop the red tile roofs of the mission. But the manner, the way of getting there, it’s more pulp nonsense from a film built entirely on dreams and emotion.

And yet…it’s also perfect. Perfectly wrong.

4. Vertigo, 1996, Ziegfeld Theater, New York, NY

I was twenty years old. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was rereleased in a 70mm remastered print with an upgraded soundtrack. It was the repertory film event of the season and I was gonna be there. After all, hadn’t I talked my way into a Senior-level Hitchcock Seminar in my second semester of Freshman year? What more was there for me to learn? I knew it all.

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The Ziegfeld was and always will be my favorite movie theater. It’s not even a movie theater: it’s a Movie Palace. 1,300 seats, none of them bad. A gently raked slope of seats and an enormous, towering screen made it the go-to place for all the premieres of movies in New York. I even got to go to a premiere once! It was in 2002, when I worked at BAMcinématek and we were doing a series focused on producer Dino DeLaurentiis. His office invited us to the New York premiere of Red Dragon, where my seats were literally the worst in the house. I also got to discover that the famous red carpet is only for celebrities; if you show up at a movie premiere and you’re not famous, you go in through the side door.

No matter; the Ziegfeld was still the greatest theater. Every inch was plastered in crushed red velvet. The sound & picture was impeccable. They had a courtesy telephone in their lobby that you could use to make FREE local calls! It was paradise!

I got tickets to see Vertigo. It was crowded, but not line-around-the-block crowded like when they showed the Star Wars re-releases or the prequels. Yes, the Ziegfeld is where I would try really hard to convince myself that I liked The Phantom Menace.

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A sold-out crowd at the Ziegfeld

Up until this point I’d mainly seen Hitchcock films on VHS. Maybe a repertory screening at Film Forum on a small screen or a video projection of a laserdisc at film school (yes, laserdisc! I’m a million years old), but that’s it. I thought I knew what to expect. I’d taken a Hitchcock seminar. I was junior at NYU, man. I was twenty years old and knew everything. I was ready.

I wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready for the stunning, overwhelming visual splendor of 70mm. Wasn’t ready for those indescribably perfect compositions, the shots by the Golden Gate Bridge that make you want to throw up your hands and never make a movie again. Wasn’t ready for the pain and regret on Barbara Bel Geddes’ face or the shock and loss on Jimmy Stewart’s, or the desperate, cruelest shot in cinema where Stewart drags Novak up the stairs to the bell tower, her legs banging limply on each rung.

Vertigo overwhelmed me that night. It showed me that a movie can be many things all at once. It can embody multiple contradictions, it can be old but still be new, it can be cruel yet tender, sexist yet sensitive, and on and on. Vertigo is a masterpiece because of its mad imperfections and sitting in the Ziegfeld that night is when I started to really understand film. Hitchcock spent his entire career in search of perfection, yet it’s one of his most imperfect films that is his most discussed, most-written about, and most acclaimed.

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So I never became a famous film director. So what? The beauty of life isn’t measured in perfection; perfection is boring. We live our lives and accept the stumbles, the missteps, and the imperfections. Artists incorporate mistakes and make new work they’d never dreamed of. We all adjust and change our path. And I keep watching Vertigo, seeing new things every time. It’s a cinematic litmus test of where I’m at in my life.

The way we experience movies changes with time. The El Con theater was torn down and replaced by a nice but generic multiplex. The Galleria changed hands and names several times before closing last year to be replaced by a Comcast customer service center. The Angelika is going strong and you can still hear subway trains rumble by.

The Ziegfeld closed this year. They simply couldn’t compete with the multiplexes nearby; no one needed a 1,300 seat theater anymore. The last film to play there was Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I had some of my favorite movie-going experiences at that theater: I saw all the re-released Star Wars movies and all the prequels, the sing-along Sound of Music with my mom, a rerelease of Jaws, and countless other classics. But nothing matched the confounding power of Vertigo unreeling in 70 mm, revealing conflicting mysteries and gorgeous imagery in every frame. It’s one of Hitchcock’s greatest gifts. It’s one of film’s greatest mysteries. Vertigo doesn’t need us. It moves on, revealing itself to each new generation, rediscovered again and again, striving against madness and desperate for love. We’re lucky to have it.

P.S.
Speaking of luck, I’m lucky to have you along as a reader. I’m halfway through this Hitchcock 52 project. It’s been an astonishing amount of work, much more than I would have imagined. But it’s been rewarding too. I hope you’re enjoying it, and that you’ll stick around for weeks 27-52.

Vertigo is not streaming on any services. It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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