Sight & Sound, the world’s premier film journal, last year published the results of its once-per-decade Greatest Film of All-Time poll, which is the only such poll anyone actually cares about. While I was rather unsurprised to see it happen, the headline for most was the toppling of Citizen Kane as the top film, a position it had held since the second-ever edition of the poll in 1962 (in the first, it ranked second, behind Ladri di Biciclette [Vittorio de Sica, Italy 1948]).
The film that finally knocked Kane off of its perch was Vertigo, one of Hitchcock’s rare commercial and critical flops, and a film with a rather remarkable history. The film was so unsuccessful on its release that Hitchcock never worked with star James Stewart, who had been in four of Hitchcock’s films in the previous decade. Hitchcock, never one to take failures well or accept blame for them, blamed the failure on Stewart “looking too old,” long proclaiming the film one of his favorites. It sank from theaters quickly and Hitchcock followed with perhaps his best-received film of his career in North by Northwest (USA 1959). In 1973, Vertigo was removed from circulation (along with a handful of other films whose rights Hitchcock owned himself). While a few critics (notably Bosley Crowther) had stuck their necks out in favor of the film, it remained one of Hitchcock’s rare blunders, as far as most were concerned. It remained out of circulation for a decade, but a funny thing happened in that time: Critical opinion turned sharply–so sharply that the same Sight & Sound poll that had not included it at all in 1962 or 1972 suddenly ranked as the seventh-greatest film of all time in 1982. The film was then re-released to theaters in 1983 and found remarkable success that has never abated. In fact, the praise of the film has been so strong in the last 30 years that there is a significant group arguing that the entire film has become overpraised.
I felt I should watch it again in light of the Sight & Sound news. To my view, it is a rather odd film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. It at once succeeds in ways that Hitchcock rarely succeeded, fails in ways that Hitchcock rarely failed, and shows some of Hitchcock’s regular limitations.
While Hitchcock is one of the acknowledged, unquestioned masters of cinema, he rarely used color, lighting, or flashy types of special effects like animation or noticeable transitions to their greatest effects. However, perhaps the single most noteworthy thing about Vertigo is the use of color throughout, which is absolutely incredible: the changes in color and lighting to fit the mood or show time transitions are simply amazing and provide a lot of the film’s visual depth. Major effects like the “vertigo effect” and the nightmare shown through animation are also very un-Hitchcock, and add so much to the film.
Hitchcock’s greatest strength as a director was his sense of story and narrative: his films have very carefully-crafted narratives that spin out clever, often nearly flawless stories in a carefully-constructed balance of conventionality and surprise. Vertigo, however, has a beautifully clever, complex story that is delivered overly conventionally. It’s organized as a mystery, with James Stewart discovering piece after piece of seemingly nonsensical information and then going places to listen as others unravel his explanations. Further complicating matters, the film’s seeming McGuffin is actually one of its strongest elements: the story of the traumatized cop being forced to face his own trauma even as he falls into an obsessive spiral of pain. It’s an intense emotional story, something Hitchcock would rarely try, and he does not seem sure whether he’s making a a film about that story or about the mystery.
The film also showcases some of Hitchcock’s repeated issues: his rigid devotion to a number of visual tropes like his lead female actors who all look alike, the constant suggestion that men have no interest in women if they’re unattractive, predictable comic relief, and a willingness to cast people for attractiveness rather than talent.
In a way, it’s Hitchcock making a non-Hitchcock film. The remarkably clever conceit at the heart of the film and the inherent darkness of the storyline, especially with its unresolved ending, is so powerful that it covers up the rather glaring weaknesses. The interesting part is that a film with such obvious weaknesses has become so highly thought of. I don’t think it’s wrong to put it among the greats of all time, but it seems to me that it just doesn’t quite live up to comparison to some films that don’t have any noticeable weaknesses, like Citizen Kane, Ladri di Biciclette, Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA 1974), and Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA 2011).
- The Elephant in the Room: The most obvious failure in this film is that its lead female role–an extraordinarily deep, complex role–is played by non-actor Kim Novak. Hitchcock wanted Vera Miles, a traditionally Hitchcockian beauty who would go on to show that she was at least a competent actor when Hitchcock cast her in the largest female part in Psycho (USA 1960). Just before work was to begin, Miles announced that she was pregnant. In the studio system, there was not enough time allowed to wait for an actor, particularly a woman actor, so Hitchcock had to recast the part, and turned to a young up-and-coming actress known for her model looks in Kim Novak. Novak doesn’t really fit the physical Hitchcockian ideal set by women like Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly. However, the major problem is that she cannot act at all, ruining a part that a stronger actor could have turned into something special. Hitchcock always said that he thought Novak was “miscast,” implicitly admitting to having made a mistake in her casting. Hitchcock of course made this same mistake with some regularity, as shown by his frequent casting of model-turned-“actress” Tippi Hedren in his later years.
- Bernard Herrman was always a big part of Hitchcock’s arsenal, and he was on full display here, producing a powerful, evocative score that ranks among cinema’s finest.
- What was Hitchcock’s obsession with creating small characters like Midge? She’s a smart, clever, well-employed, attractive, remarkably sweet woman whom Scotty ignores because Madeleine is supposedly better looking. Also, was he just convinced that glasses automatically made women unattractive?
- How much of the film’s failure on release is really attributable to its runtime? It runs 128 minutes, which is 20-30 minutes longer than most films at the time (including Hitchcock’s). Films now creep over the 2 hour mark with regularity, but it was much more unusual in 1958. Critics charged that the film was slow and bogged down through large portions–a frankly silly charge. Were they really just bothered by length?
- While I said that the film stands out in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, his last few films–particularly Marnie (USA 1964)–actually take the story approach of basing a mystery around a character-driven story arc further. One wonders if he would have continued with that sort of approach between Vertigo and Marnie instead of returning to more familiar territory with North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds (USA 1963) if the film had been a success.
- Stewart’s age actually doesn’t show as much as one would think, considering that he was literally twice Kim Novak’s age.
- I think it’s easy to miss just how deep and nuanced this film really is, as far as the story, narrative, and characters are concerned. It’s really an incredibly ambitious film in that regard, and I suspect that ambition is a big part of what critics are rewarding by ranking it so highly. It’s not a fatal problem for a film’s reach to exceed its grasp when its reach is this far, but I have a difficult time ranking such a film among the all-time greats. Indeed, when Hitchcock returned to more familiar and less ambitious territory for his next film, North by Northwest, I believe he did in fact make one of the greatest films of all time.