Vertigo

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointAcrophobia is a perfect psychological ploy for a Hitchcock movie. Always fascinated with little psychological motivations, Hitchcock used fear of heights as the guiding principle of his 1958 movie Vertigo.  The plot, so detailed and involving, has become nearly iconic as the film has worked its way into the American psyche.  It will be discussed in some detail in this review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, please beware.

The film begins with a rooftop chase scene in San Francisco. A uniformed cop is chasing some criminal with Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) right behind him. Jumping from one roof to another, Scottie slips on the Spanish tiles and slides down, barely catching hold of a gutter to prevent himself dropping many stories to the pavement.  In an effort to help him, the cop climbs back down the roof and holds out his hand, but Scottie has entered a kind of fugue state where he is unable to respond.  Slipping, the cop falls to his death as Scottie watches with a kind of tunnel vision.

Diagnosed with acrophobia, Scottie, independently wealthy, decides to retire rather than take a desk job. He hangs out with his old pal, former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a former artist who now designs brassieres.  An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) calls Scottie and asks for a meeting.  A shipping magnate, Elster is concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a stunning blond who is obsessed with her great gandmother, Carlotta Valdez, who was courted by and bore a child to a very rich San Franciscan, who built a great house for her in what is now the Western Addition, then abandoned her.  She gradually went mad and eventually committed suicide.  At first reluctant, Scottie takes on the job of tailing her as a protective measure, as Elster thinks she might do harm to herself.  He follows her first to a flower shop where she buys a little nosegay of rosebuds, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor in the Presidio, where she sits before a painting called Portrait of Carlotta, in which the mysterious Carlotta Valdez holds an identical nosegay.  Looking closely, he sees that Madeleine’s hair, done up in a bun that terminates in a distinctive whorl, exactly matches the hair style of Carlotta in the portrait.  Afterwards, he follows her to Mission Dolores, where she visits Carlotta’s grave, and, finally, he tails her to the McKittrick Hotel, which he later discovers is the home that had been built for Carlotta.

The next day, Midge takes Scottie to visit the proprieter of the Argosy Bookstore, who tells him Carlotta’s history. Later, he follows Madeleine to Fort Point, underneath the Western end of Golden Gate Bridge, where, to his horror, she jumps into San Francisco Bay, an apparent suicide.  He jumps in after her and saves her life.  Rather than returning her home, he brings her back to his apartment, undresses her, and puts her to bed, hanging up her clothing to dry.  Scottie passes through phases of becoming fascinated with her, to becoming obsessed with her, and finally falling in love with her.  They meet the following morning, going to Muir Woods, where he begins to drill her on what she remembers of her rambling and especially her dreams, one of which includes a memory of being at the Mission of San Juan Bautista.  Stopping at Cypress Point, they kiss passionately, then he brings her to the Mission, hoping that he will be able to confront her with the past and help her to move beyond it.

At the Mission, she emotionally begs him that whatever happens, he should remember that she loved him, then she runs into the church and climbs the stairs of the bell tower. Following, he begins to have his vertigo attack and cannot go all the way to the top.  He hears a scream and sees her body falling past a window and she dies in the fall.

Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing during the inquiry, he retreats into himself and is finally hospitalized with extreme depresson. Visiting him, Midge sees that he is nearly catatonic and the doctor informs her that it will be six months to a year before he can be released.  Skipping ahead, we see him visiting the places that Madeleine used to visit.  One day, he sees a brunette that looks so much like Madeleine that he follows her back to her apartment and introduces herself.  At first reluctant to see him, Judy Barton (Kim Novak), a shopgirl who works at I Magnin, eventually gives in and agrees to a date at Ernies, the restaurant where Scottie first saw Madeleine.  After he leaves her apartment, Judy relives the moment at the top of the bell tower and we see Elster throw his wife’s body from the bell tower as Judy screams.  It becomes apparent that Judy had been playing the part of Madeleine for Scottie’s benefit, so that Elster would have a reliable witness (with vertigo) who would swear that she committed suicide.  Still in love with Scottie, Judy decides to pursue a relationship with him.

Obsessed with the memory of Madeleine, he begins to dress Judy to look like her, going to the extreme of having her hair dyed blond and recreated the whorl at the back. When she dresses for dinner, however, she makes the crucial mistake of putting on Carlotta’s necklace.  Recognizing it, Scottie assembles the pieces of the puzzle.  He brings her back to the bell tower and forces her to go all the way to the top.  In the process, he overcomes his vertigo.  She confesses to being an accomplice to Madeleine’s murder, but when a nun comes up the steps, Judy screams and turns to run, falling to her death, the same as Madeleine.

James Stewart and Kim Novak both give brilliant, breathtaking performances in this film, which must rank as one of Hitchcock’s very best in a distinguished career of filmmaking. Stewart gives the best performance of his own career as Scottie, perfectly believable from beginning to end.

The cinematography by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks is excellent. As a long-time resident of San Francisco, I love the detail and love of landscape shown the San Francisco Bay area, from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio, Muir Woods, Cypress Point, and Mission Dolores.  It is stunning to see the city in all of its beauty in the late 1950’s.  Although many things have changed over the years, the essential beauty remains unchanged.  At one point in the film, Elster, talking about his return to San Francisco, remarks that the city isn’t what it used to be, but he doesn’t understand the basic timeless beauty to be found there.

The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass, provide a dramatic introduction to the movie. Beginning with a close-up of a woman’s face, the camera moves into and extreme close-up of the woman’s right eye, dissolving into the distinctive whorl, in vibrant violet, that becomes a repeated motif in the movie.  The costumes, by Edith Head, are gorgeous.  And, of course, the music by long time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann is great and illustrative of the action.

The screenplay, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, based on the French novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac, is the perfect Hitchcock vehicle.  The pacing of the film is nearly flawless, although it must be considered a little bit long.  As with most of Hitchcock’s movies, the first viewing is the most important because all of the details are just being discovered, but it is also a film that can be watched many times merely to study the technique. 

Painstakingly restored to its original Vistavision glory by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the DVD is simply stunning. It contains a special feature on the film’s difficult restoration process.  If there is one thing, however, that dates the film, it is the special effects depiction of Scottie’s dream after Madeleine has died.  Stewart’s head, framed against a pulsing stream of light and with evolving animation just doesn’t seem to work now.  It was state-of-the-art in 1958, but it doesn’t show well now.

Even with that flaw, the film remains one of Hitchcock’s finest.

North by Northwest

north-by-northwest Samt and GrantMistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.  This review assumes the reader has already seen the film, and thus reveals many plot details that might spoil the movie for a novice film viewer.  Beware!

New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is about to conclude another busy day when he is kidnapped by two vaguely eastern European men (Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein) and taken to a mansion in the country. An erudite Englishman, whom Thornhill assumes is the estate owner, Mr. Townsend (James Mason) has mistaken him for a George Kaplan, a mysterious man who moves about the country making short stays in hotels before moving on.  Townsend recites Kaplan’s complete itinerary, demanding information from him.  When Thornhill tells him of his real identity and refuses to cooperate, Townsend tells his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to kill him.  They force a bottle of bourbon into Thornhill, then put him behind the wheel of a stolen car and aim it at the ocean, but Thornhill revives just enough to avoid the plunge and leads them on a wild car chase.

Arrested for drunken driving, Thornhill calls his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and tries to explain about his kidnapping. On a return trip to the mansion, Mrs. Townsend tells the police that he was there for dinner, got drunk, and went off on his own.  Thornhill then takes his mother back to the hotel where Kaplan was staying and they find evidence of his presence, but none of the hotel employees have actually seen Kaplan.  When Townsend’s flunkies show up, Thornhill grabs a taxi and goes to the United Nations, where he discovers that the real Townsend knows nothing about his adventures.  As he speaks to Townsend, Leonard sneaks up and stabs the diplomat in the back, leaving Thornhill holding the knife.  A photographer takes a picture, then Thornhill drops the knife and runs off.

Hitchcock usually includes a scene in his movies where the audience learns something that his hero doesn’t know. In North by Northwest, that scene occurs in a Federal Government building (FBI? CIA? Hitchcock never says) where a group of executives led by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) ponder Thornhill’s predicament and wonder if they should help him.  Kaplan, you see, doesn’t actually exist.  They created him in order to make the spies think that they were closing in on them, while actually they are simply trying to get them to reveal information.  They decide to allow Thornhill to sink or swim on his own.

Knowing that Kaplan’s next stop is in Chicago, Thornhill boards a train, the 20th Century Limited. With no disguise but dark glasses, he should be easy to spot, but the beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) appears and hides him in her private room.  While the porter is putting down the bed and Thornhill is hiding in her toilet, she slips a note to Luther Vandamm (James Mason), the man who had posed as Townsend earlier.  In Chicago, she pretends to help him by calling Kaplan to set up a meeting, but she gives him instructions to take a bus into the country.  That is where the famous scene with the crop-dusting plane occurs.  Waiting on the side of the highway, surrounded by bleak, empty fields, a small plane dives him, trying to run him down and spraying deadly poison on him.  He makes it to a field, then runs back onto the highway, stopping a tanker truck, which the plane then proceeds to hit, causing an explosion.  Stealing a pick-up left idling by a local, he returns to Chicago and goes to Kaplan’s hotel only to find out that Kaplan had checked out and left before Eve could have possibly talked to him.

Now that he knows she is working for his enemies, he goes to confront her at an art auction, only to find Vandamm and his henchmen. Disrupting the auction, he is able to save his own life by getting arrested.  Diverted to the airport, the police deliver him to the Professor who explains that Eve is actually working for the government, gathering information on Vandamm, and that Thornhill has now endangered her life.

North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreFollowing the villains to Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill and the Professor have set up a little scene in the restaurant at Mt. Rushmore where Eve shoots him with a gun loaded with blanks, but when he finds out that Eve will be leaving the country with Vandamm, he eludes the Professor and goes off on his own to save Eve, resulting in the famous final scene at Mt. Rushmore where Thornhill and Eve clamor over the president’s faces running from Leonard and the others with a statue filled with microfilm.

At two hours and 16 minutes, this should feel like a very long movie, but Hitchcock keeps the tension building so that viewers will not notice the passing of time. Even so, I wonder if it couldn’t have been cut a bit to bring it down to a more realistic length.  As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there isn’t much in the story, but action and suspense.  When Ernest Lehman wrote the script, he definitely wanted this to be the best Hitchcock film of all time and there may have been a certain amount of collusion from all of Hitchcock’s collaborators to make this movie his “masterpiece,” resulting in a greater length than usual.  It is Hitchcock’s longest running film and although it was stunning at the time of its release, in retrospective, there are many other films that would better fit the description “masterpiece.”

Although Hitchcock pulls all the right strings to keep the audience involved, I thought that Cary Grant really just mailed in his performance. Aside from a few moments early in the film, I really didn’t care what happened to him.  Eva Marie Saint was considerably better, bringing a level of nuance that was involving, but Mason, Landau, and all of the other actors seemed to be on automatic pilot.

The opening credits by Saul Bass are quite captivating, especially with the music of Bernard Herrmann behind them. This may be one of Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock as it does much of the work of keeping the film moving along.  The cinematography by Robert Burks and the editing by George Tomasini, both long time Hitchcock collaborators are terrific.  The widescreen color by Vistavision is magnificent.

What makes the film most memorable are the two iconic scenes, by themselves kinetic masterpieces: the scene in the fields with the crop dusting airplane and the scramble across the President’s faces at Mt. Rushmore. The scenes between Grant and Saint on the train are also very sexy and quite suggestive for their time.

North by Northwest deserves its place as a iconic Hitchcock film and it should be seen anyone who is a fan of suspense movies, Hitchcock or 1950’s Hollywood. It is an outstanding film and it definitely has its place in film history.  Even so, I would not call it Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece, as Ernest Lehman called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” 

In fact, Hitchcock’s very next film, Psycho, would leave a much deeper impact on his audience.

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 Man Who Knew Too Much Stewart and DayThe Man Who Knew Too Much

Never endanger an American’s children.  That is the advice given by a foreign minister to his English lackey when it is already too late for the villains in this remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock originally directed in England before he crossed the pond.  Wishing to enlarge and improve on his earlier film, he teamed up with his signature actor and composer to produce this widescreen thriller in 1956.


Marnie 03Marnie

Marnie is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual film.  There’s no murder, no spies, no sabotage, and practically no suspense.  It is a straight up psychological drama.  This might have been a great film, with sufficient editing, perhaps with a different leading actress as Marnie and maybe an American actor as Mark, with some of the action sequences done more realistically.  As it is, the movie looks like an overblown Hollywood version of what should be a compelling drama.


Midnight Cowboy 03Midnight Cowboy

This classic 1969 John Schlesinger film, adapted by Waldo Salt, from the novel by James Leo Herlihy, won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It is the only X-Rated film to ever win Best Picture.  Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, in what many consider his signature role, the film is about what happens to our dreams when they are tested against harsh reality.


 Miss PettigrewMiss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

London in 1939 was a hodgepodge of pre-war jitters.  Depression era soup kitchens operated down the block from posh nightclubs for the rich and the middle class worked to scratch out a decent living.  This is a rip-roaring comedy filled with delightful performances by Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.


mr and mrs smithMr. and Mrs. Smith

This 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.


Much Ado About NothingMuch Ado About Nothing

If you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.


936full-mystic-river-photoMystic River

Mystic River is a hard-hitting blue collar crime movie by the amazing Clint Eastwood.  Released in 2003, it tells the story of three boyhood friends forever changed by an incident in 1975.  Eastwood makes a point of the fact that things do not add up–it is part of the appeal of the movie.  And it is usually a fact of life that most filmmakers do not worry themselves over.  For Clint Eastwood, however, the fact that life doesn’t add up is the very point of the movie.