For the sixth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen Vertigo.
Many great films can be boiled down to a moral or a theme. Vertigo maybe the single easiest film to narrow down to its essential: obsession. Considered by many to be not only Hitchcock's greatest film (something which I disagree with) but also Jimmy Stewart's finest performance, but even if it were not for those things Vertigo would still be remembered as one of the truly great films because it is at the very least the ultimate tale of obsession. Not obsession in a fun or satirical way, but in a deeply tragic and very honest portrayal of something bordering on mental illness. For the modern film goer whose memory ends basically at Star Wars or maybe The Godfather Psycho is probably Hitchcock's most recognizable film, other than possibly The Birds. And while Psycho is very deserving of its recognition the way in which psychosis is treated in the film is ultimately quite flippant. Norman Bates is an amazing character given amazing breath by Anthony Perkins. But he really only exists to give us thrills, not to meaningfully explore the human soul. Psycho's buildup should make this very clear. Janet Leigh's character has next to nothing to do with the actual story yet she receives the most screen time. Why? To deceive the viewer. Her death was shocking to the original viewers of this masterpiece of suspense not because the infamous shower scene is so horrifying (though it is) but because she actually died. She was clearly the main character. She was the only star attached to the project. And they killed her. The closest thing I can think of to this in the last decade or so is when Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten in Deep Blue Sea (a film that shouldn't even be mentioned on the same page as Hitchcock let alone the same paragraph). It’s shocking because of pop culture, not because of film making prowess. A similar situation can be seen with Tom Skerrit in Alien, though that death is much less manipulative and more thematically story oriented.
Vertigo is almost the exact opposite in that it provides little of the broad Hitchcockian thrills so many people love and is instead a painfully searing examination of obsession and human inability. Jimmy Stewart had already proven several times that he was a soulful and talented actor. Mostly with Frank Capra, who in many ways is the antithesis of Hitchcock as a filmmaker, in pure Americana films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart's greatest role was of course George Bailey, though not necessarily his greatest performance, in It's a Wonderful Life. Few films speak more to what it is to be American and at the same time what it is to be a Christian than that Masterpiece. But here we have almost the exact opposite. Whereas Capra's work with Stewart was always uplifting Hitchcock pulls a real British darkness out of that boyish American face.
The thing that makes Vertigo still so powerful all these years later really is dual: Stewart's Performance and Hitchcock's craft. The story is told so deftly and so purely one hardly notices entire stretches of the film that have no dialogue. Indeed these are some of the most powerful and haunting scenes. The poetry and multiple layers of meaning in the titular phrase give the story its force. Vertigo. A paralyzing fear of heights. But it’s also Vertigo, the dizziness of obsession. For the characters are swirled into a nightmare. As betrayal and lies are revealed throughout the rest of the film we find ourselves on the bottom rung of Humanity's ladder, where our lostness from God, society, law, and ourselves becomes so painfully obvious.
Michael Corleone "logically" thinks himself into hell by conniving and killing. Scottie Ferguson falls and falls hard. He is used and betrayed by others and then ultimately betrayed by his own greatest fear and weakness: Vertigo.
Much has been said and written about this film. Mostly from an artistic standpoint. Stewart's performance is praised for being cast against type. The cinematography is praised for its greenish hue and use of familiar Northern California landmarks for startlingly effect. But what is truly moving about this film is how Hitchcock's story telling ability and Stewart's performance blend so perfectly as to create almost an Icon of the very theme itself. We are totally dizzy. But we are not victims. At any point in the story Scottie could pull himself out of this trap. He could choose to be a hero. But instead he chooses to follow his impulses which lead to a kind of faux adultery and several deaths in the process. Almost like King David. David walks where he shouldn't be walking one evening and sees Bathsheba. And then from that enormous height he falls, dizzy with obsession, into the greatest sin of his life. How do we get there? By letting ourselves. By walking where we shouldn't walk. By standing right by the tree that God told us not to eat from.
Scottie knows better. He's a smart detective, but apparently he's not wise. He has a bad feeling about this case from the get go but won't follow his instincts and then temptation sets in, temptation through the deception of his client. But he still follows. Like most great Noir heroes he follows the Femme Fatale to his and her doom. But unlike most Noir heroes Scottie really is a nice guy at heart. He becomes hardened through his experience during the course of the film and that hardening is what leads to his obsession.
This is truly a great film, one of the greatest tragedies of all fiction. It makes us look into an ugly mirror, showing us how far we can fall if we allow ourselves to be deceived and give up our free will in the process. And I'll leave you with what maybe the most haunting exchange of the entire film:
Judy: "If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?"
Scottie: "Yes. Yes."
Frederick Manning Sanders (1918-1945)
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