Framework: Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Our DIY film school series continues with this 1958 Hitchcock flick, originally dismissed as a bore and now considered an all-time classic.

Framework is a year-long DIY film school; 52 essential films to expand your consciousness.

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most boring film. At least that is how critics and audiences alike responded to his work when it was first released in the spring of 1958. Almost 45 years later, Vertigo was voted the best film of all time by the venerable British Film Institute’s decennial critics poll.

What changed? How did a film that was perceived as mediocre move to masterpiece in such a small window of time? Why does a film that is so full of narrative holes, one proposing such an improbable story, now draw accolades from the film community that once dismissed it?

It was not Vertigo that changed over time. What morphed was our expectation of Hitchcock and of the thriller genre, which grew to include films that lean towards experimentation. Vertigo’s experiment lies in its separation of narrative into two stories. The first story introduces us to James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a detective on leave due to an unfortunate accident, which could have been prevented was it not for his intense fear of heights. Soon after the accident, Scottie is recruited by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old acquaintance who hires him to investigate the comings and goings of his wife Madeline (Kim Novak).  Elster has a hunch his wife is becoming consumed by a dark family secret.

As Scottie begins to follow Madeline around the streets of San Francisco, his affection for her grows, and he becomes intent on saving her from self-harm. In his effort to help Madeline face her fear, he becomes faced with his own when he is paralyzed from rescuing her as she climbs to the top of a bell tower in her final suicidal act.

Act Two begins with Scottie’s total mental breakdown after Madeline’s suicide. When he stumbles upon Judy (Novak), who bears an eerie resemblance to his lost love, Scottie becomes intent on redeeming himself from his deep-rooted guilt. His focus is to re-vision Judy into Madeline, his dead beloved.

Ironically, the genius behind the “best film of all time” is due to its redirected focus on character motivation over technical achievement in cinema. It is a murder mystery that cares little about the culprit of the crime, instead probing into the hidden depths of human psychology that lie behind fear and guilt.

In this sense, Vertigo is indeed Hitchcock’s most boring film, as its slow, repetitive pace and break in traditional structure is not what audiences of 1958 expected. After all, Hitchcock was the self-proclaimed Master of Suspense, and Vertigo is best enjoyed as a slow burn that teeters between eerie and deranged. Thankfully our expectations have become more refined, allowing a film that was once dismissed to enjoy a second chance at success.

Alfred Hitchcock and his life and work will no doubt be in your face over the next couple of weeks as his biopic Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, opens next week. Additionally, the auteur’s rare and earliest credited work The White Shadow was recently restored by the U.S. National Film Preservation Foundation and is available to screen online for free. ■

Vertigo is available to rent at most local videostores, namely  Boîte Noire and Le Septième in the east, Avenue Video in the west. It is also available on  iTunes.  

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