Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Queer Cinephile(s) #34: Vertigo

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). For this blog series, I'm watching and reviewing 50 films I've never seen before -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, blockbusters, cult flicks and weird shit my friends keep recommending. Go on, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

 (released May 1958)

James Stewart as John "Scottie" Ferguson in Vertigo.
This image is from a nightmare sequence in which he morphs into the Wizard of Oz for a second. 

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Vertigo's opening sequence -- lasting all of a minute and half -- plays like a bad dream. Police Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson" (James Stewart) and another cop are chasing a felon across some San Francisco rooftops at night. Scottie slips. As he dangles from a gutter about half a dozen stories above the street, the other cop attempts to rescue him. "Give me your hand!" he yells, just before plummeting to his own death. It doesn't feel real -- you expect Scottie to wake up from a nightmare, drenched in sweat. Nope, it happened. We never learn exactly how Scottie managed to survive the incident himself, but he tells his lovelorn college sweetheart Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that the aftermath has left him with a fear of heights, known as acrophobia. And acrophobia can cause vertigo, a feeling of dizziness associated with being in a very high place. Vertigo is also a much better name for a movie than Acrophobia.

Scottie retires from the police force, but agrees to do some private detective work for Gavin Elster, another old college friend. Elster married well and became a shipping magnate, but now has a quandary about his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). "Scottie, do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?" See, Gavin doesn't want Scottie to follow Madeleine around because he suspects she's an adulteress. He just thinks she's possessed by her own great grandmother, a woman that died in 1857. And so Scottie follows Madeleine to various locations -- her great grandmother's tombstone, a museum where a painting of the woman hangs, and even an old hotel that's only slightly less foreboding than the one in Psycho. Baffled, Scottie recruits Midge for some research and they visit a San Francisco historian who connects the dots: the old hotel had once been the great grandmother's home, she was abandoned by her wealthy husband, separated from her only child, went mad and committed suicide.

Fortunately, I'd never read a single review of Vertigo before I watched it, so nothing was spoiled for me. But this is an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The celebrated director didn't do ghosts or demons or possession. Everything about his film work suggests that he believed human beings are capable of sinister, monstrous things because of individual motivations or a personality disorder. So I was not remotely surprised that the eventual explanation for Madeleine's behavior doesn't involve anything supernatural. And, of course, Scottie falls in love with Madeleine -- the only way you wouldn't see that coming is if you'd never watched another movie in your entire life.

As Scottie, James Stewart gets to play a man with acrophobia and vertigo, then acute melancholia with a twist of guilt (yeah, that's a thing), and finally he's consumed by unrelenting obsession. I'm not a James (It's a Wonderful Life) Stewart fan at all, but Hitchcock pulled quite a performance out of him -- before it's over, he's a fervent, anguished mess. As Madeleine, a stunning and excellent Kim Novak is just the right combination of strange and alluring -- it's as if she's bathed in a mysterious dreamlike aura. In contrast, there's Scottie's down-to-earth college sweetheart Midge, played by Barbara Bel Geddes (known to '80s night time soap fans as Miss Ellie on Dallas). She's a nice lingerie designer with a funky cool little San Francisco apartment that would probably rent for $4,500 a month today. Midge has a bittersweet, unrequited crush on an oblivious Scottie, and there's nothing she can do as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the gorgeous, enigmatic Madeleine. Spoiler alert: It doesn't end well.

Vertigo received mixed reviews back in 1958 and only broke even at the box office. It was removed from circulation for a long time, but finally given another U.S. theatrical run in 1983 and released on home video in 1984. Proving commercially successful with '80s viewers, many contemporary critics reevaluated the movie. By 1989 it was recognized as "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. In 1996, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the two or three best films Hitchcock ever made." Then something genuinely amazing happened to Vertigo: it was named the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound,  the British Film Institute's film magazine. Every ten years since 1952, Sight & Sound has asked the world's leading film critics to compile a list of the 10 best films of all time. Vertigo entered their list at 7th in 1982, then placed 4th in 1992, jumped to second place in 2002, and took first place in 2012. Most astonishing, Vertigo bumped Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) from the top spot, a position it had held since 1962!

Vertigo is a far-fetched but insanely compelling mashup of mystery, melodrama and romance. I can agree that it deserves preservation in the National Film Registry, but I'm going to have to disagree with Sight & Sound over that greatest-film-of-all-time acknowledgment. Vertigo is not a better film than Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. I studied Kane in college; it's a flat-out masterpiece that changed American filmmaking. In my opinion, Vertigo is not even Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film. I'd argue that Rebecca (1940) or Rear Window (1954) are superior works. And if you want to call any one of his films "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant," look no further than Psycho (1960).

Vertigo is the first film in this blog series that left me genuinely conflicted. I admired some of Hitchcock's choices, including long dialogue-free sequences, the use of San Francisco area locations and some splendid camerawork and cinematography (which would later be replicated by directors like Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma). But a couple of things really bothered me. I was troubled by one nagging plot hole. Bernard Herrmann's score is frequently terrific, but there are moments when it sounds awfully similar to music he composed for Psycho two years later. There's a psychedelic nightmare sequence that looks like an experimental blooper. And it just feels too long. Then I watched it again. After a second viewing, my verdict on Vertigo: it's a great film.  The central performances are outstanding and the final thirty minutes are riveting. All the things that bothered me the first time I saw it were still there, and that led me to the obvious conclusion: even great films have flaws.

Stray Gay Observations:

Vertigo's main theme music is cleverly sampled for the opening sequence of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City mini-series that originally aired on PBS in 1993.

As far back as silent films, Hollywood has been obsessed with female eyebrows. Some of the earliest stars had their eyebrows completely shaved off, then drawn back on with a grease pencil. The desired arch and fullness have evolved over time, but the trend toward a more natural look didn't really arrive until the1960s. Below, Kim Novak has a common 1950s look. The arch is softer and her real hair is enhanced with a pencil to make it look darker and fuller. Vertigo was shot in color using the higher resolution wide-screen VistaVision format, so Novak's eyebrows didn't really have a chance at looking natural -- they look like they were painted on by someone in the makeup department.

Kim Novak
One of the original problems I had with Vertigo is the significant (and obvious) age difference between James Stewart and Kim Novak. He was 49 and she was 24 at the time the film was made. At first the disparity irritated me, but then I realized Vertigo is way more serious about obsession than love. As it progresses, that age difference adds an extra measure of creepiness to what's happening. Although Hitchcock deemed Vertigo one of his favorite films, he wasn't shy about blaming it's tepid box office and indifferent critical response on James Stewart. Stewart, he claimed, was too old to be a convincing love interest for Kim Novak. So here's what I'd say to Hitch if we could resurrect him for a chat: Oh, Alfred, please. You cast the man. You also cast Barbara Bel Geddes as his old college sweetheart. Bel Geddes was 35 when you made the movie. So she was roughly 15 years younger than Stewart. Was he her professor at this college? And incidentally, you also cast Tom Helmore as Novak's husband. He was even older than Stewart -- 54! Consider this: Maybe 1958 audiences didn't connect with your movie because it was an unexpected departure from the romantic thriller promised by the trailer. Your movie is dark. Very dark. Your leading man is an emotionally disturbed abject failure. Your ending is cruel and shocking; it offers no solace. In other words, your film was way ahead of its time. So let's just be thankful for all those people who rescued it from obscurity back in the 1980s.  

Should You See It? There are Hitchcock films I find a lot more satisfying, entertaining or disturbing than Vertigo -- RebeccaStrangers on a TrainRear Window and Psycho. And I definitely have some personal reservations about it, but that wouldn't stop me from recommending Vertigo. It may be flawed, but I can't deny that Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is also an audacious, twisted and risky motion picture that deserves to be seen and discussed .
Next Time: Cabaret (1972)

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