Friday, November 2, 2012

Vertigo (1959) Appreciating Obsession

Alfred Hitchcock's more precarious masterpiece has been declared the #1 film of all time by the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound poll this year, so I figured that's a good reason to do a write up about it, but also because I myself consider the film very personal.  There are many people who can appreciate the film's artistic merits, but nothing more. To them it is a bleak film with a protagonist that is hardly likable through his actions later on in the film.  These seemingly despicable characters are hardly what one would expect from a film to come out in 1959 and audiences then were rather cold to it.  So it is today in fact, but due to most people's idea that we are supposed to root for them, or sympathize with their actions.  If it isn't already apparent, Vertigo is a highly personal film, and Hitchcock did not seem afraid to alienate most of his audience through it.  Indeed, for most of the audience, these characters are hardly relatable.  Yet this was not the case for Hitchcock and certainly not for those who fully appreciate it.

I myself am one of those who very much appreciate the film, for reasons I'll get into later.  Vertigo's story is one that can be traced back to Gothic roots, whose tales were characterized by Dopplegangers and unattainable love that culminated in death.  James Stewart's character is tormented by double images of the woman he loved, so there is a certain connection.  Also, that premise is simple enough, yet passing the halfway point is usually when the film loses people's sympathy for the character of Scotty.  After his trauma from the death of Madeline causes him to fully reject the affection of Midge, Scotty descends into an obsessive realm that is peppered with images connected to the deceased woman.  A protagonist obsessed with images rarely ever turns out well in the end.  Just look at the character of Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1962), played superbly by James Mason.  He is consumed with the image of the young Lolita but only the image, to him, nothing else matters.  He cannot accept the wilted flower that she becomes later in the film, yet he could do nothing to preserve her as such.  

The same goes for Scotty, he pines for Madeline in the same way, only he goes a step further, forcing her image onto Judy.  Now, when I said earlier that I am able to appreciate the film more than most, I'm not talking on a cinematic level, as in editing, cinematography, etc.  I am referring to the fact that I sympathize with Scotty's plight, not his actions.  It is entirely human to become obsessed, for some more than others it has occurred a few times.  It would be folly to say that it had never happened to me.  Because of those experiences I feel a very uneasy kinship with Scotty when he passes a woman who reminds him exactly of Madeline and he can't help but stare.  Here Hitchcock is reaching into a niche part of the audience, but also into a part of himself that was very much evident from his career.  In fact, there has been made a recent TV movie that capitalizes on his most sensationalized muse.  However, for everyone who has come out of these obsessions, they know that it is something destructive, the obsession exists solely out of the desire for the unattainable.  Yet, there is still that nagging feeling of "what if" that lurks beneath, the feeling of wanting that person or image as their own.  Hitchcock certainly has that feeling, being the quite jealous man that he was.  It is known that he was heartbroken when Ingrid Bergman quit starring in his films to marry the Italian director, Roberto Rosselini.  No longer would he be able to capture her image on the celluloid of his mastery.  As Scotty reconstructs Madeline through Judy, there is the sick sense of fulfillment, that reaches its climax when they kiss and Bernard Herrmann's music reaches a Liebestodian peak.

Hitchcock is wise enough, however, to reveal what actually happens to an image of obsession.  It is lost, again.  Not everyone has had the same experience of being consumed with a person and this is why some people are repulsed by the film and Scotty's treatment of Judy/Madeline.  They don't understand how someone could come to do this sort of thing.  Now I'm not saying that if you haven't had a similar experience, you won't enjoy Vertigo, on the contrary, there is much to enjoy from it from the gorgeous look of it, to the intricate plot.  However, to grasp the full director's intent and purpose, I believe that you must have had to experience your own personal "Vertigo".    

1 comment:

  1. This is a great analysis. I think you really nailed it. If you're expecting Scotty to be the hero of the film, then of course you're going to be disappointed. I think that's the reason why audiences didn't warm up to it at first. Especially when the beloved Jimmy Stewart is in the lead role. I mean, who wants to see George Bailey spiral into obsession and madness? (Look at the last shot of the film above, and then think about the shot of George Bailey on the bridge looking into the water before Clarence jumps in. See a connection?) Personally I have always enjoyed the film. Yes, it's challenging and definitely not comforting, but it's the dramatic tension that draws me in, which combined with the music, cinematography, etc. is very enjoyable. I love it. Greatest film of all time? Well, it certainly gives Citizen Kane a run for its money.