The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Vertigo (1958)

The British Film Institute's Sight And Sound magazine announced the results of their once-a-decade poll of distrubutors, critics and academics to find 'the greatest film of all time'. This started in 1952- where the top film was Bicycle Thieves (1948)- and has continued every ten years since. Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) was announced as the number one film in 1962 and remained top of the poll for fifty years- until yesterday when Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) was announced as the 'greatest film of all time'.

So what makes Vertigo so great?

We start with the script, which was adapted from D'Entre Les Morts (From Among The Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The screenplay is credited to Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, although Coppel was credited for contractual reasons only. The story is dark and mature, touching on obsessive love and desire, guilt and betrayal, making for a complex and engaging film. 

Next, add in a selection of downright brilliant performances. This was James Stewart's last collaboration with Hitchcock; when the film was poorly received on its debut, a lot of critics attributed its failure to the fact that Stewart was too old to play a romantic lead (indeed, he was twice as old as Kim Novak). However, Stewart's portrayal as a broken obsessive is touching and disturbing and far from a failure. Novak is luminous in the dual roles of Madeleine and Judy, one of the quintessential glacial Hitchcock blondes. Barbara bel Geddes is also great as Scottie's ex-fiancee Midge with Tom Helmore rounding things off nicely as Gavin, Madeleine's husband whose request starts the tragic events off.

To this already strong mix, we add a director who- by this point- is approaching the zenith of his creative powers. Hitch's direction here is lean, taut and precise. Shots are beautifully framed and lit- the sequence in the Palace of the Legion of Honour (when Madeleine stares at the portrait of Carlotta) is a particular highlight. The locations looks sumptuous; San Francisco is almost a character in its own right. 

To finish, flourishes of technical brilliance abound in the film, no more so than the famous 'contra-zoom', invented by second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts to convey Scottie's sense of vertigo. The shot zooms out and tracks in, causing a dizzying and disorienting effect on screen. The view down the mission staircase at the climax of the film cost approximately $19,000 for what is a few seconds on screen. The effect is oft-imitated but never bettered. Saul Bass' amazing opening title sequence ranks amongst some of his best work. Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Bernard Herrmann's achingly beautiful score, one of his best.

It seems odd to think that, at the time it was released, Vertigo was called 'far-fetched nonsense' by the New Yorker and 'pure dross' by Saturday Review. Critics have since re-evaluated it and have come to lionise it in various polls. It was one of the first twenty-five films to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, and was named the American Film Institute's #1 Mystery film. As a Hitchcock fan, I find Vertigo dangerously close to perfect and am very pleased it has received this honour.


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