I have recently been going on an Alfred Hitchcock-spree, not so much "getting into" his movies but more like "catching up". I've already seen PSYCHO and I think enough has been said about that movie by others so I will not go into length about it right now. I recently caught up with ROPE, which I consider more of an experiment rather than a film, however I still enjoyed it and not much needs to be said other than appreciating it for its technical feats (and follies) --NOTE: between writing the first draft of this post and now I also saw THE BIRDS and it was fantastic, but will require its own posting after this-- The film I will be discussing here is VERTIGO, but first I must express my feelings towards Hitchcock in general.
I am not a Hitchcock fan. The closest I can get to love the majority of his work is if I loved to hate them (THE BIRDS and ROPE excluded). The reasons why will be discussed using VERTIGO as the prime example, but the fact remains is that Hitchcock is a lasting influence for film-makers and story tellers to this day, if not then he is an influence of the influences. I can understand this, although I'm a fan of Orson Welles and he is considered influential to Hitchcock (compare TOUCH OF EVIL where Janet Leigh gets into trouble at an out-of-way motel with PSYCHO where Janet Leigh gets into trouble at an out-of-way motel). Hitchcock did things differently and told stories in new and exciting ways, in doing so creating everlasting conventions which have stuck with the modern film-makers of our time. Very often you find people making films refering to a scene as a "Hitchcock moment" or talking about "what Hitchcock would do", so where else is a better place to look for the leading moments of cinema than from the leader himself? This is when I decided to watch VERTIGO.
VERTIGO contains everything I love and hate about Hitchcock. VERTIGO was apparently Hitchcock's "personal masterpiece", the one he self-indulged in the most out of all his films, the one he had to struggle with the most to get made. All the greats have them: Miyazaki has PRINCESS MONONOKE, Kubrick has EYES WIDE SHUT, Welles has CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, Hanake has TIME OF THE WOLF, Kurasawa has RAN and Werner Herzog has just about every film he's ever made. These are the films that are the most difficult to sit through but the most revealing of its creator; and the most rewarding to the creator's ardent fans. You only really watch them in order to understand your heroes on a more personal level, like they are opening up their deepest secrets and fears just for you, but you have to prove your worth by actually making it to the end of the film first (not as easy as it sounds), then you can start appreciating the depth of what you just saw. Research is an important factor in understanding these types of movies, it's equally important to have seen the entire body of work from the director, or as much as you possibly can. Naturally, I dived right into VERTIGO without doing any of this, so my review will be biased towards the more "casual viewer" mentality.
VERTIGO suffers from an ailment in film-maiking I call the "Hitchcock Stale". Many horror movies and, oddly enough, comic-book adaptations suffer from this. It's not to say Hitchcock invented it, but Hitchcock truly defines it and mastered it as his trademark. The "Hitchcock Stale" is made up of a combination of many symptoms, mainly to do with the director's total demand for complete control. Firstly, Hitchcock commisions a script to be written, commonly adapted from a book - sometimes the book is commissioned by Hitchcock - and adapted by a rotation of screenwriters. Once the script is approved by Hitchcock then he will never deviate from it. These scripts, by the way, are written more like shot-lists; basically the movie is already made before it is even filmed. It is frustrating for me when I can clearly notice a film-maker unable to "let go", the ones who suffer the most are the actors. The actors are not given any breathing room to give life to their characters. The spoken lines are flatly delivered, the movements are mechanical. I don't think it should be required of me to pay extra attention to a casual mundane conversation when it reveals required exposition. It's hard enough in an Orson Welles movie where he constantly provides visual distractions during an important complex conversation, Hitchcock on the other hand is boring me to sleep.
Another symptom of "Hitchcock Stale" is almost metaphorically egregious in VERTIGO. The protagonist's acrophobia - irrational fear of heights - seems to reflect Hitchcock's irrational fear of shooting on location. I wouldn't be surprised if all the outside scenes were shot by second-unit. A particular moment of conspicuous staleness is a scene with James Stewart and Kim Novac supposedly on a bay of rocks by the ocean, but obviously super-imposed over a pre-photographed movie behind them (including complimentary fake wind generated by off-screen fan). Hitchcock believes that close-ups must be shot with studio lighting, however I'm too distracted by the studio lighting on the actors mis-matching with the natural lighting of the outside location (a common problem that is noticeable on compositing special effects to this day). I'm guessing Hitchcock wanted to time a specific tidal-crash to a specific point of the conversation, but really, who cares?
Despite its staleness, there are parts of VERTIGO I found extremely impressive, and I see in these parts where the Hitchcock inspiration comes from. Perhaps Hitchcock's inability to "let go" comes from the great ideas he has to tell a story. I think the parts that shine the most in VERTIGO are the parts where Hitchcock puts faith in his collaborators. After a particularly long and boring expositional conversation (where I mentioned I nearly fell asleep) there is an extremely long set of scenes - almost like a slowed down montage - that eliminates dialogue altogether. It is here when the music of Bernard Hermann does the talking and I was able to become emersed in the world of the film. I don't know whether it's true or not that Hitchcock snatched Hermann from seeing CITIZEN KANE, but he certainly saw the benefits of putting more trust in the composer than anyone else (Bernard Hermann was even given credit as "sound adviser" on THE BIRDS, which was a scoreless movie save for the synthesised bird sounds).
I liked the editing of VERTIGO. There is a particular moment when James Stewart is following a car that seems to drive endlessly down-hill, which we can see is an editing trick that cuts out any flat-road or up-hill driving, but also an editing effect which expertly inserts the protagonist's distorted perspective into the viewer. Another distorting effect on the viewer is when it gives an "ending" about half-way through the film, and then provides a coda which seems to keep going and going, then you realise after thirty minutes or so that maybe there is more to the story, and you have to kind of re-position yourself to get back into the movie again. Unless that's just me, I don't know.
(more to come)