“Vertigo” is a great film for many, many reasons, most of which I don’t really care about.
To be sure, I can, and have touted Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial skill and his knack for exploiting the psychology of characters and audiences alike. But empirical arguments have little to do with why we love movies. I think you can make an argument that the reason “Vertigo” is a great film has a lot to do with why we do love movies, however. Or at least I am going to argue that the reason I love it has something to do with that.
If you have seen it, you know that James Stewart plays against his mensch-y image as “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective whose crippling fear of heights gets a fellow cop killed and forces his early retirement. An old college friend hires him to follow his wife, Hitchcockian icy blonde Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be possessed by the troubled spirit of a tragic 19th-century figure named Carlotta Valdes. Scottie shadows Madeleine, and falls in love with her, but he can’t save her from madness, fate, or a fall from a mission belltower.
That’s the first hour and 15 minutes of the movie, roughly, and to be honest, I don’t have much patience for this part of it anymore. It’s great filmmaking—those wordless scenes of Scottie following Madeleine, particularly—but I know what’s coming.
It gets rather convoluted, but Scottie keeps seeing women who remind him of a lost love until he runs into Judy—the ordinary mousy hayseed whom Scottie’s old friend hired to pretend to be his wife Madeleine in the overcomplicated murder scheme that drives the first three acts. She pretends not to know Scottie, but she loves him too, of course, and soon she submits to one of the most terrible, wonderful things I’ve ever seen on-screen.
She dates him as Judy, but he barely sees her as who she is. He wants Madeleine—can’t help but want Madeleine—and starts transforming her, buying her the same tight gray suit she’s hiding in the back of her closet, insisting that she bleach her hair and wear it in a twist. She resists, she quails, but he won’t be denied—Stewart is good here, gazing slightly past her, his avuncular jaw sitting a little firmer. And she submits, too much in love to risk losing him, even though he’s not in love with her, but with a shadow of herself, a dead woman who never really existed in the first place. And when her transformation is complete, Bernard Herrmann’s melancholic score swells and the green sheen Hitchcock has established as the color of Madeleine overwhelms the screen and they kiss. They both have what they want, but it is hollow, ironic, based on a grievous lie.
I imagine that many people have probably found themselves in a situation where a breakup sends them spinning, and tints the way they see the next person they share a restaurant booth or a bed with. Comparing your new love to your lost love is the stuff of immature drama, but not least because it’s powerful. Seeing the same thing played out to its terrible conclusion onscreen is a transfixing thing. And so is seeing a transfixing thing.
Whenever I watch “Vertigo,” Scottie and his friend-zoned pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and really the whole Carlotta thing are just preamble to Stewart’s character, and Novak’s, in the grip of his terrible obsession. And then, for about a half hour, my pleasure and engagement are pure. Hitchcock’s skill is such that there are no slack spots, no careless moments to distract from the tightening grip of Scottie’s desire, and of Judy’s heart-torn acquiescence at each step until the final act breaks the spell.
And I think part of the reason that part of Hitchcock’s masterpiece resonates so much for me is that it mirrors my own obsession with movies. Not that I go out looking for other films that feature mentally ill former police detectives reanimating dead women for romantic purposes, but that I, too, look for, long for, those moments you never forget—almost never entire films, just sequences, scenes, individual shots—where what’s on-screen stops your breathing, stops your thinking.
Like the moment in “Happy Together” when sad, lonely, drunk Tony Leung is handed a tape recorder in a noisy bar and asked to record whatever he wants to say. Or the rickety grandfather in “Amarcord” taking a wrong turn out of his house in a thick fog and wandering through an unfamiliar landscape perilously close to the zone between life and death. The shirtless hippie pet-cemetary scion wordlessly serenading the brown hills of California with his electric guitar and amp in “Gates of Heaven.” The stairwell/apartment shootout in “The Raid: Redemption.” Isabelle Adjani’s extended subway freakout in “Possession.” Even a flawed film, like Steven Soderbergh’s version of “Solaris,” can serve as a setting for a transfixing moment (in that case, it involves George Clooney, his lost love, and an escape pod).
There are hundreds of these moments, and yet they’re each vivid, each precious.
When they come along, they become a part of you, and even if you can’t recreate the power of that first encounter, you can spend your whole life searching for it again.