Puzzling over Vertigo

As Hitchcock’s Vertigo is rereleased nationwide, Geoff Andrew ponders the steady rise in critical esteem of a cruel and complex film now considered the ‘greatest ever made’.

Geoff Andrew
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Fascinating, isn’t it, how the reputation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) has steadily risen over the years, so that it recently knocked Citizen Kane (1941) off the top spot in the Sight & Sound ‘greatest films’ poll? It didn’t even appear in the poll (held every decade since 1952) until 1982, since when it has climbed from seventh position to fourth (1992), second (2002) and now first.

The reason, almost certainly, that it didn’t figure in the 1972 poll was that (along with Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Trouble with Harry) the film simply hadn’t been visible for many years; withdrawn from distribution, it could only be seen at illicit screenings of prints (usually 16mm) owned by private collectors.

I saw it in such circumstances three or four times around the end of the 70s and start of the 80s, and was pretty knocked out by it – though it’s hard to say for sure whether my response was due entirely to the film itself or in part, at least, to the fact that what I’d seen was an alleged classic which I wasn’t supposed to have seen and which very few of my acquaintances were familiar with. Human nature being what it is, there’s always, sadly, a risk of overestimating the worth of something which is denied to others; it helps us feel we’re somehow special.

That, of course, has nothing to do with Vertigo’s elevated standing now; the film has been back in circulation since its rerelease in the mid-80s (when I had the good fortune to interview Jimmy Stewart about it and the other two reissues in which he starred – unsurprisingly, his assessment of the various films’ strengths and weaknesses were characteristically down to earth and made a lot of sense).

But as those who read my blog of a few weeks ago about my own favourite Hitchcock will know, I myself don’t consider Vertigo the finest of his achievements, let alone the ‘greatest film ever made’. That said, I think it’s a remarkable movie in all kinds of ways and, like most of the films that scored highly in the Sight & Sound poll, it has a mysterious quality which amply rewards repeated viewings. Just when you think you’ve got one aspect of the film clear in your mind, another troubling question arises. (How, for example, when Scottie sees Madeleine go into the hotel, does she manage to disappear without trace, so that even the receptionist denies having seen her go up to her room? I’ve never been able to fathom that one out.)

Much as I admire the film, however, I must confess I am a little puzzled as to precisely why it has become, for so many, the Hitchcock movie without equal. Because it is mysterious – almost troublingly so. And it’s also cruel, cool, complex, melancholy, anguished, neurotic, nightmarish, audaciously elliptical and strangely structured – not exactly the kind of qualities you’d expect to win out over seemingly lighter, more straightforward fare like Rear Window and North by Northwest (joint 53rd in the S&S poll) or even the dark but witty and generically categorisable Psycho (35th).

So I keep asking myself why the film has come to be thought of as Hitchcock’s masterpiece. After all, Vertigo is quite an oddity; in various respects it doesn’t really fit with his customarily canny commercial sense. He was, of course, both an artist and a showman, but here, for once, he seems to have let his guard down, allowed his artistic ambitions to take precedence, and made a film that happily broke many of the perceived rules about what makes a consistently gripping, entertaining suspense movie.

Perhaps that’s why some had problems with Vertigo when it was first released; and now, ironically, perhaps that’s why it is esteemed so highly. One can disagree as to whether or not it is Hitchcock’s finest artistic achievement (clearly a great many believe it is); but what may explain its lofty status is that Vertigo is the film in which the presence of Hitch the artist (as opposed to Hitch the entertainer) is most immediately felt.

Indeed, might it also, like Rear Window, be seen in part as a sort of skewed self-portrait? Among other things, it’s about a man trying to make over an ordinary woman so that she becomes the ideal woman of his dreams; in other words, he’s trying to turn his fantasies into reality. Isn’t that what Hitchcock was trying to do throughout his career?

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