Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958).
Enterprising Newcastle Community Cinema (NCC) celebrated its third birthday with a screening of Harris & Katz’ 1996 restored print of Hitchcock’s film Vertigo in the Annesley Hall on November 17.
NCC was also marking its clean sweep at the recent 43rd British Federation of Film Societies’ awards night in London where it won four prizes of which, most importantly, the Engholm Award for Film Society of the Year.
Vertigo is starting to show its age. As a style or approach to story-telling on film it is a dinosaur.
But then dinosaurs have always fascinated us.
Vertigo is a film about watching, the perfect example of Professor Laura Mulvey’s 1975 theory of the male gaze.
But it is also about light and dark – chiaroscuro – the raison d’être of film, and it is a film which we have to learn how to watch.
And of course it is very much about Hitchcock and his self-appointed mission in life to raise us up to a great height of suspense and then let us fall.
There is a key line early on
‘Do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?’
which could explain a lot about what is happening in the film.
And later on
‘Once you’ve saved a person’s life, you’re responsible for it forever.’
And at this point you begin to think that you are following the plot.
But Vertigo is such an enigmatic movie, rich and deep, that it epitomizes Hitchcock’s life long approach to suspense in film: all is not what it seems on the surface.
And as always he throws us off the scent by using mcguffins – things that spark off the action of a plot point but subsequently turn out to be irrelevant.
Vertigo contains one or two of Hitchcock’s best mcguffins, and just to emphasise how skilfully he is playing with our emotions as audience, he reveals, at no loss to himself, the surprise narrative twist half an hour before the end of the film!
So complex and so sophisticated is this film that one renowned critic I knew in France many years ago saw it nine times before he could sort out in his head what was happening.
In our real lives, desire and obsession can sort of creep up on us and take control. James Stewart, in the key role, obsesses brilliantly in Vertigo.
His greatest moments are haunting and convincing.
For him less is more as he stalks Kim Novak in the early sequences against wonderful San Francisco backdrops, dressed in beautiful cars and clothes, while all the time Hitchcock is unfolding an elaborate, deeply layered confidence trick, a set up difficult for us as audience to spot and which Stewart cannot see because of his guilt-driven obsession.
Of course the coincidences in the story are harder to accept today and, for me, the psychedelic dream sequence jars badly, while the scenes with his friend Midge are flat and dull.
But these are minor irritants in the most analysed and written about of all Hitchcock’s films.
Vertigo seems to improve as we get older and in the fully restored and digitised reissue its power and depth are so well sustained from start to finish as to make this film a dinosaur masterpiece.
Before the NCC screening of Vertigo, a small tribute was paid to Hitchchock’s second film The Mountain Eagle (1926) of which no prints exist.
He had made ten silent films between 1926 and 1929 of which the other nine have survived and they have been painstakingly restored at the British Film Institute National Archive over the past three years.
George Fleeton writes independently on arts and culture in Ireland and teaches Cinema in higher education.