Movie Review and Other Thoughts: “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958)

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.

Movie Review: “Solyaris” (Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR 1972)

Ranked #154 on 2012 Sight & Sound Critics Poll
Ranked #224 on 2012 Sight & Sound Directors Poll

Andrei Tarkovsky is a director of whom I had somehow never heard before the 2012 Sight & Sound poll came out and he actually had seven films that received votes–as many as or more than such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola (7), David Fincher (5), George Cukor (5), George Roy Hill (3), Michael Curtiz (2), Oliver Stone (3), Otto Preminger (7), Robert Atlman (5), and Steven Soderbergh (2). Many of the films also ranked quite highly. Obviously, I had missed out on a special director, so I planned to watch something of his, and I eventually decided to start with his science fiction film Solyaris.

It turns out that this is a very difficult film to review. It does what it sets out to do, and in some ways it does it extraordinarily successfully, and yet it is difficult to engage with it (in a manner ironically similar to the engagement/communication problems that the film depicts) for reasons that do not seem obvious, at least to me. It’s a beautiful-looking film with a great concept and an amazing atmosphere, but it takes so long in making its points in such painstaking detail that a creeping dullness really hurts the film.

The film’s point is the difficulty of communication, and it comes up with a very smart way of making its point: an alien species called “the Ocean” that coats nearly the entire surface of a planet attempts to communicate with people, with motivation impossible to determine, resulting in a torturous, confusing existence for the people who visit its home world. It seems to be attempting to understand humans, but it’s impossible to rule out that it’s really trying to imprison or torture them.

An earth scientist, Kris Kelvin, arrives at the human base on this planet and is quickly met by his dead wife, who committed suicide, with some odd distinctions from what she was like in reality. First, her dress is not removable, but she returns with the dress suddenly removable. However, even after returning, while she can remember the facts of things from her life, she has no emotional connection to them or memory of any emotions. Kelvin realizes that she is an invention of the planet, and the others on the base explain as much to him, and tell him that the more time he spends with her the more human she will become. The base scientist has treated his companions with a scientific detachment, experimenting on them and attempting to keep a safe distance, and has also held onto the other base member’s companions as well. They spend a lot of time discussing what the creature’s motivation is, though they also admit that there is no way to know what it is.

It’s a fascinating premise that would make Gene Roddenberry proud, and it highlights exactly what Tarkovsky was hoping to say.

Visually, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Tarkovsky and cinematographer Vadim Yusov provide high-key lighting and a wonderful use of textures that is something few films would bother with, providing the world of the film with a fantastic amount of depth. They seamlessly interweave color with black and white, using the black and white as an opportunity to explore some more high contrast lighting ideas. The only problem is, as beautiful as the film is, its visual nuances really don’t seem to have any real connection to the film’s point. That disconnect makes its visual language rather limited in spite of how gorgeous looking it really is.

The film did not require much of most of its actors, but the two leads were required to show some rather extreme emotions in rather difficult, unusual ways. Tarkovsky famously disliked lead actor Donatas Banionis and was displeased with his performance, but I found him quite credible as the emotionally damaged Kris who really has no idea how to deal with anything that’s going on around him but definitely does not want to deal with it in the same way that his crewmates do. Natalya Bondarchuk, meanwhile, had a difficult role because it was so extreme that it could easily devolve into something of a joke–it was a role not too dissimilar from Sally Field’s role as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)–and yet she managed to inject the role with a pathos and reality that was quite touching. She was really the heart of the film, and she held together what could otherwise have been quite a sterile work.

The biggest problems with the film are that it gets lost in its own narrative at points and just takes far too long making its points. It’s intentionally ponderous, to the point that it at least borders on, if not tips over entirely into, pretension, and it’s intentionally obtuse about its narrative. While an obtuse narrative never bothers me (I’m a David Lynch fan, for crying out loud.), this film sometimes uses obtuseness just for the sake of obtuseness, such as in the enigmatic opening half hour of the film. It also makes the same point in the same way far too many times, leading to a film that just lacks in some polish.

The film is often compared with the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968), and the reasons for that comparison are quite clear, but it also doesn’t deserve the comparison. Kubrick’s film is a film about human evolution that rarely wavers from its point and only takes too long in order to emphasize the realities of space travel, evincing a wonderment at space and science that well befits the genre. This film lacks the kind of focus that 2001 has and lacks the reasoning behind its ponderousness. That said, like 2001, it has a fascinating concept and is absolutely stunning.

All told, this is the kind of film that seems made only for those obsessed with film. It’s beautiful and has a great, deep concept, but it just doesn’t quite execute perfectly. It’s worth a watch, but I don’t think it lives up to its lofty billing.

Movie Review: “Pelotero” (Ross Finkel/Trevor Martin/Jonathan Paley, USA/Dominican Republic 2011)

Major League Baseball has for many years received a considerable amount of talent from the Dominican Republic. The system whereby they are signed is at best very far short of perfect and at worst outright exploitative, not to mention quite unfair competitively. This film exposes some of the ugliest elements of the system. It should be noted that the system has changed a bit since when the film is set, but not enough that the problems it sees are assuaged.

Pelotero follows two Dominican prospects, Jean Carlos Batista and Miguel Angel Sano, as they go through the process of signing with MLB teams when first eligible. MLB’s rules only allow players to sign after turning 16 and fix the first eligibility date as June 2, making every player eligible and the first June 2 after his 16th birthday. Because teams place a high premium on youth and have limited international budgets, the top prospects are 16-year-olds who sign immediately on June 2. The competition among teams has led to high costs in signing the players (pricing the lower-budget teams out of signing the top prospects) and a very strong incentive for players to lie about their ages or even complete identities, the latter of which has led to countless scandals over the years.

This film examines the issues through following its two prospects. Sano is considered one of the top prospects in recent memory, and we get a good look at the 15 year old who turns 16 just in time for signing, a poor kid who is surrounded by his family, an agent, and a trainer. He’s rather immature (big shock), but is also an incredible athlete whose trainer and agent seem to be taking good care of him. Then, a scout from the Pirates suddenly says, “He doesn’t seem like a kid. The maturity. The way he talks to you. So, that’s a concern.” As a result, MLB begins investigating his age, performing DNA tests, bone tests, and records searches that all agree with his family’s story that he is 16, but, after months of investigation that cost Sano his chance to sign on June 2, MLB still considers his age “inconclusive.”

Most teams refuse to sign Sano because of the age questions, but the question about his age really seems to exist only because one scout from a small market team desperate to sign the top prospect implausibly claimed that the kid seemed too mature for 16, against all evidence the film has shown so far. It’s a fascinating and rather depressing picture of how corrupt the baseball system can be with Dominican players and how difficult it can be for them to make it through the system in tact even when they haven’t done anything wrong. We see his family try every method it can of proving his age and do everything MLB asks of them, only to have MLB announce that its results are inconclusive and one scout insist that he’s the kid’s only hope. It’s ugly, but it’s the type of mess that we rarely get a chance to see from the player’s perspective, and this film gives us a shot at it.

Meanwhile, Batista is an almost disturbingly serious kid who works hard and is a good prospect but nowhere near Sano’s level, and yet apparently through most of the process no one questioned his age. Then, when the best offer he got was for $450 000 instead of the $1.5 million he was expecting, he turned it down and waited for a new offer. MLB then decided to investigate him as well and came back with the same “inconclusive” result. However, his trainer decided to investigate on his own and quickly (so quickly that it really makes MLB’s investigation questionable at best) finds that he was the same age in two elementary school grades and then his mother admits to lying about his age.

The film does an excellent job of presenting these two players, the desperate situation they are in, and the trials and tribulations of the signing process. It also absolutely destroys any pretense of impartiality or competence by MLB’s investigations unit, which took far too long to investigate both kids and came out with nonsensical “inconclusive” results in both cases. I also don’t see any sign anywhere that the film cheated journalistically, though MLB has refused to say anything in response to it.

Visually, the film thankfully avoids the traditional sports documentary pitfalls. It presents its story very plainly and simply, without graphics and other visual tricks and with only a small amount of narration. It’s not visually stunning, but it’s a good, smart look that allows the story to shine and lets it stand apart from most sports documentaries. My biggest issue was with the insistence on showing subtitles for everyone with a Spanish-language accent, regardless of how clearly they spoke–it was a bit distracting and annoying.

All told, this is an interesting film that works either as an absolute takedown of MLB’s system in the Dominican Republic or as a human interest story about two desperate families who need their children to help them to escape poverty through baseball but run into road blocks along the way.