Monday, April 4, 2011
Today's movie was Vertigo, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1958. It's one of his most highly praised and discussed films. It is also, as Ebert mentions and I have noticed, one of least trying for the female character out of all of his films. Hitchcock was a bit infamous for how he treated women in cinema - his movies with his blond women, always humiliated or abused in some way. This movie is slightly more sympathetic, showing much more of the pain and emotions that she experiences.
The movie follows John "Scottie" Ferguson after he is hired as a private investigator to follow around his client's wife, who has been exhibiting strange behavior. The woman, Madeleine, is beautiful, but seems to be suicidal. One day she jumps into the San Francisco Bay, and he rescues her and takes her back to his home to care for her. He starts to fall deeply in love with her, and he tries to help her with her issues. However, during this process, she throws herself off of a bell tower - John cases after her but he is afraid of heights and doesn't make it to the top. He is devastated, and afterward is convinced he is seeing her around town - or at least a woman who looks like her, who he soon pursues in an attempt to get her to dress and act like his missing Madeleine.
The plot of the movie is really great - it's an interesting little mystery that, unlike many Hitchcock films, is solved pretty quickly into the film. It deals more with emotions of the characters. The suffering of Madeleine (who, spoiler alert, is actually not dead but just was hired by John's client to cover up the murder of his wife) is very real and shown clearly. She seems so miserable when John finds her again, because it's so clear that he doesn't look at her as anything other than a living doll to dress up and use to become another woman. But she loves him, so she suffers through it.
Visually, the movie is fantastic. Ebert writes a lot about how the theme of fear of heights and falling is visually conveyed in the film, writing, "Consider the obvious ways he suggests James Stewart's vertigo. An opening shot shows him teetering on a ladder, looking down at a street below. Flashbacks show why he left the police force. A bell tower at a mission terrifies him, and Hitchcock creates a famous shot to show his point of view: Using a model of the inside of the tower, and zooming the lens in while at the same time physically pulling the camera back, Hitchcock shows the walls approaching and receding at the same time; the space has the logic of a nightmare. But then notice less obvious ways that the movie sneaks in the concept of falling, as when Scottie drives down San Francisco's hills, but never up. And note how truly he ``falls'' in love' (The Great Movies, 480-481). I know it's a bit long, but I never really thought of these other, added uses of the concept of falling, and it was really interesting to read about it. Of course Hitchcock did all of this on purpose, and it works wonderfully.
There are other interesting visual motifs as well. I remember after the first time I saw it being struck by all the images of spirals in the film, from the opening credits to the hairstyle that Madeleine often wears. It seems that John is always drawn to them, staring into them. He has nightmares about spirals and pinwheels. It's really obvious, but I like it - it shows how trapped and stuck John is. He can't forget about Madeleine, he keeps circling around the memories and ideas of her in his head. He also can't figure out or see what is happening to him, and is stuck, trapped, in a maze. I think it's interesting that the motif isn't just in his nightmares or implied, it fascinates me that even Madeleine wears her hair in a spiral, linking her with John's confusion and obsession.
Even though I know how the movie ends, and I know who set up whom and whatnot, I still like to come back to Vertigo and watch it. For some reason, Hitchcock movies never get old for me. I always find new things to love about them, and the plots don't ever seem to stale. I think it's a great movie to rent and check out. It's well-filmed and fun to watch, and I think everyone likes these sort of mystery/thriller stories. If you watch it, let me know what you think!
Have any of you seen Vertigo? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Vertigo