Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Still obsessed with Vertigo

with 7 comments

No other work of art is so central to my love of movies as the last forty minutes of Vertigo. There are movies I admire more, but none I find as emotionally devastating, or as endless in its implications. It’s full of classic moments and images, some of which take several viewings to fully understand, but I may as well start with the most famous: the scene at the Hotel Empire, which you can watch here if you must, culminates in what is simply the greatest shot in the history of cinema. As the camera pans around Stewart and Novak, with Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score swelling in the background, we’re as close as we’ll ever get to the reasons we watch movies in the first place, in a sort of gorgeous rhapsody on love, art, and death. As Roger Ebert writes: “This shot, in its psychological, artistic and technical complexity, may be the one time in his entire career that Alfred Hitchcock completely revealed himself, in all of his passion and sadness.”

Not surprisingly, I’ve been obsessed with this movie for a long time. After hearing about it for years, I finally saw it in college, in a study carrel at Lamont Library, watching it on videocassette with headphones on a tiny television set. Later that evening, I came down with some kind of fever, and spent most of the night tossing and turning, convinced that the events of the movie had somehow been part of my own life. The second time I saw it was on the big screen, at the late lamented UC Theater in Berkeley, and the experience there was equally wrenching. And I’m not the only one who responds to it this way: when I showed it to one of my college roommates, he ended up in a fetal position. Vertigo tells us things about art and life, and how we’re driven to transform ourselves and others, that few other works have managed to express. As David Thomson notes, it’s a movie that grabs and haunts the viewer, especially for certain sensibilities:

It’s a test case. If you are moved by this film, you are a creature of cinema. But if you are alarmed by its implausibility, its hysteria, its cruelty—well, there are novels.

Watching it again with my wife last night, the implausibility, the hysteria, and the cruelty were all on clear display. It isn’t a perfect movie, although it has long stretches of icy perfection: the plot sometimes creaks, especially in the first half, and the dialogue scenes often feel like part of a lesser film. But all these concerns are swept away by the extraordinary third act, which may be my favorite in any work of art. I’ve noted before how the original novel keeps the big revelation for the very end, while the film puts it almost forty minutes earlier, shifting points of view and dividing the viewer’s loyalties in the process. It’s a brilliant change—arguably no other creative decision in any movie adaptation has had a greater impact—and it turns the movie from an elegant curiosity into something indescribably beautiful, and painful. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that no other American film is so staggeringly complex in its final emotional resonance.

It’s no accident, then, that I’ve been revising and rewriting Vertigo in my head for much of my life. After seeing it in college, I spent the better part of that summer working on a story that would fuse Vertigo with another great American film of startling depths: John Ford’s The Searchers. The project, to put it mildly, was more than I could handle, and I never came close to finishing it, but the vestiges can still be seen in the names of two important characters in The Icon Thief: Maddy and Ethan. Since then, Vertigo has remained a personal and professional touchstone, a movie that I’m constantly revisiting and engaging, for reasons that I can’t always explain. All I know is no matter how many times I see it, ninety minutes into this remarkable movie, when Novak turns to the camera and the screen goes red, I’m sucked in and can’t escape—not any more than she can.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

7 Responses

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  1. I think I was in a fetal position after watching Attack of the Clones.


    November 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

  2. You and me both.


    November 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

  3. I watched Vertigo tonight for the first time. The second half of the film was riveting. I’ve always known Hitchcock is a master of suspense, but I love how he shows the audience the truth and involves us! And I agree with you – James Stewart pushing Kim Novak up the stairs was both thrilling and emotional. Love your reviews and commentary. Keep them coming!


    November 3, 2012 at 11:01 pm

  4. I envy you—Vertigo is a movie I’d love to see again for the first time. (As I say in the post, I first saw it in a tiny video kiosk at Lamont Library, with headphones on, and I think I had the flu—I spent the rest of the night hallucinating that the movie’s events had actually happened to me, which is something I’ll never forget…)


    November 4, 2012 at 6:22 pm

  5. You’ve mentioned that there are several aspects of the film that seem new to you with each viewing. I’m planning on seeing it again, but I was wondering what seemed new to you. Was it the acting choices, the way it was filmed (technical aspects), plot points within the exposition, etc?


    November 4, 2012 at 6:40 pm

  6. Kim Novak’s performance is one element that gains immeasurably on a second viewing. She’s really playing three different roles—Madeline, Judy, and one shading into the other—and the moment when she almost breaks character, for instance, just before abandoning Stewart at the mission is impossible to appreciate entirely when you’re seeing it for the first time.


    November 4, 2012 at 9:29 pm

  7. I had a feeling that she was a femme fatale, especially when she, while kissing Stewart, looked off to the side. When I saw her fall from the tower I thought, “Well, there goes that theory!”


    November 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm

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