vertigoMany Alfred Hitchcock films are great entertainments, but they are contraptions next to Vertigo. Full of dread, and highly personal for all of us, it is Hitchcock at his most profound.

This is Scottie’s story. He is a single man (James Stewart) living in San Francisco, a retired detective who suffers from vertigo. One day a friend (Tom Helmore) asks him to follow his wife (Kim Novak), who may or may not be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman.

To say more of the story would be sacrilege. Readers of Exploded Goat have seen the movie and would sooner watch it than have the plot recited. If you have not seen it, you must.

The movie is deep. It coils back on itself and makes for uneasy symmetry. For the film geek this can be weighed to no end: How the obsessive nature of the plot mirrors character; how character mirrors Hitchcock; how viewers long to crack the film’s pull by watching it steadily; how this quest is similar to Scottie’s, consciously or otherwise. Bullshit loves Vertigo.

Because Vertigo is about the male mind, and craft displays it well, the film is self-reflexive. The key to its success is that we identify with Scottie completely. Point-of-view shots indicate and involve us. We see a movie, a mystery, unfold: Scottie “falls” in love and we follow him down a rabbit hole. Since we join in his subjective reality, voyeurism is objectified. That is why the film moves. Hitchcock transmutes the film-going experience into story form.

Since the Hitchcock/Truffaut book came out in 1967, biographers and critics often meld Hitch to some inner pathology. We are told he was a control freak with a fetish for cool blondes; Vertigo is a masterstroke that, given the subject matter (and the French urge to psychoanalyze “B” films and directors), self-incriminates. I dispute this. Coldness is central to his work; and yes, he owned everything he did. But this proves only that he was a top craftsman and a cynic, hewing to film as the height of emotional entrapment.

Truly smart films appeal to the brain and the gut. Hitchcock’s subversion of expectation (his educated sense of suspense) belies the view that popcorn flicks are shallow by definition (i.e., intellectually bare). That — and the readiness to look at the dark side of human nature — is what keeps him fresh. He is modern; and Scottie, finally, is a tool of the human condition. All of us are victims of love, of the battle to not be lonely and self-centered. We are Scottie.

And he moves through a dream, one that spellbinds and leaves him (and us) hanging. Closure does not exist and perception is without cure.

Few movies use VistaVision and Technicolor with as much aplomb, and the jagged romance that is San Francisco has never been this eerie, this right for a character or film. There’s a bent European quality, a strange mix of architecture and geography. The city is otherworldly. So the movie is larger than life, but it works precisely because it is not realistic, heightening character and plot for dramatic effect. Because they are potent from the start, they are more “real” than real; the presence of the director does not distract. If anything, his use of artifice sits side by side with the film’s theme. In foregrounding technique and character at one and the same time, Hitchcock stuns.

There are many subtle touches: the way the bookshop dims; the way the wife is introduced (we seem to pick her out from the crowd); the soft haze through which she walks; the realization that Scottie has undressed her; the long shot of Scottie in Union Square at dawn. And there is only one gap in logic: Why did he not check her corpse?

Still, one is left to wonder on purpose. Perhaps the same woman fools him twice. Maybe the man and woman deceive each other equally. We are riveted just the same. Any questions raised are relaxed or made grave by Hitch and by three-dimensional leads.

We get to see Jimmy Stewart’s breakdown in the bar in It’s A Wonderful Life, and the truthfulness of that, developed for two hours. Darkness overtakes him, yet we know he is a decent man. (It’s his best performance.) As the object of affection, Kim Novak is stiff, stunning, and studied — until she slips in the end, by which time we feel for her as much as we do for Stewart. Lovers come clean, but there are no happy endings in Vertigo.

Poor Scottie.

Was it a ghost? Was it fun?

Or was it just a bad dream?

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