Vertigo (1958, dir. Hitchcock) at the Mayan

“You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”

Tuesday night I had great fun seeing a print of Hitchcock’s Vertigo at the historic Mayan Theater in Denver. The theater was built in 1930, and the main auditorium was breathtaking. There were reliefs and paintings all over the walls, fancy Mayan themed lighting fixtures throughout and a red velvet curtain over the screen. This was the way this film was meant to be seen.

The film print was from the 1996 restoration, so basically the same thing you get on the DVD edition these days. It looked good, but perhaps not as vibrant as the digital transfer is on the DVD, or as I would imagine the original Technicolor print was.

I love Vertigo, but I know it’s definately not everyone’s cup of tea. Made after Hitchcock’s big hits like Rear Window, and before North By Northwest, I feel like it is a way different film than any of the other greats of Hitch’s. It is basically a psychological thriller, so don’t expect major action scenes like the ones that appear in North By Northwest.

Granted, I will admit it can be slow at times. The pace is definately set at a slow burn, and, without giving away the entire story, there is plot resolution at the middle of the film, which drives some people crazy. But I think for the acting and sheer beauty of the film, it is one that warrants repeat viewings, and I know every time I have seen it I see something new.

Vertigo follows detective John “Scottie” Fergeson (James Stewart), who has just resigned from the police force after his partner on a case fell to his death. Scottie, suffering from fear-of-heights-induced vertigo, could only watch as the man fell off the roof.

Scottie was once briefly engaged to artist Midge, but their relationship seems very on the “good friends” side of things. He seems very content to hang around her house pondering what he’s going to do with his life now that he is retired.

This is all shaken up when an old friend from college, Gavin Elster, hires Scottie to trail his wife, whom he believes is being possessed by an ancestor. Madeleine (Kim Novak) is everything that Midge is not. Both blonds, Midge is the more ordinary, glasses-wearing girl-next-door, Madeleine is the typical Hitchcock girl, beautiful and alluring. Scottie becomes smitten, and more and more determined to save Madeleine from the fate that her life seems to be heading in.

Of course the plot sounds kind of ridiculous, but nothing is as it seems. And besides that fact, Hitchcock always seems to make us believe totally strange situations.

Basically the film is about obsession, and the obsession of molding people into what others want them to be. It asks what the compromises people make to make things in a relationship work are, and how obsession can drive a person mad.  I think in the end the question must be asked as to whether Scottie is a victim merely reacting to the situations around him, or has he become a villain?  Many have also said that the plot of this film reflects Hitchcock’s own actions as a director, taking actresses and turning them into beautiful blond leading ladies.

This was the last collaboration between Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart. The film was a flop at the time, and Hitchcock blamed Stewart’s aging looks as the reason that the film was not a draw. However, Hitchcock was known for playing with the perceived screen images of his leading stars, and this is probably the most extreme for Stewart. My friends and I actually call this Stewart role “Creepy Jimmy” because as his character becomes more and more obsessed he gets more controlling and tyrannical. It is a far cry from the lovable “everyman” that Stewart usually portrayed.

Kim Novak stands at Fort Point

The scenery in the film is insanely beautiful. It is set in San Francisco and landmarks like Fort Point, the Legion of Honor and the Palace of Fine Arts sparkle in all their widescreen Technicolor saturation. In fact, the city and it’s history play into the film as much as any of the characters do.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is also one of my favorites; it’s eerie and intense when it needs to be, and this piece written for that exquisite shot where Kim Novak emerges transformed as Madeleine is probably one of the most gorgious pieces of music I’ve ever heard:

All in all, not to give away the plot, it’s a film that deserves at least two viewings in my opinion. I would say, however, if one has not watched a lot of Hitchcock, this is not a good starter film. It’s hard for me to say if it is his best movie, but it is definately a grand example of the master director at the peak of his craft.

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