Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
In the latest survey by the British Film Institute on the 50 greatest films ever made, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo bumped Orson Welles' Citizen Kane out of first place. One might initially wonder at this choice: Vertigo initially received at best a lukewarm reception from both the public and the critics. Time magazine called it a "Hitchcock-and-bull story." Forty-five years later, however, Vertigo has become almost an obsession in many quarters. It has been, and 2VERTVertigo04continues to be, the object of countless studies, both scholarly and public, and rarely does any film conference go by without at least one paper devoted to the film.
A tantalizing spiral into the abyss, Vertigo follows Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), an ex-police detective in forced retirement after his last case ended in a tragic death, as he is enlisted as a private investigator to keep an eye on an old friend's wife. Following Madeline (Kim Novak), he is drawn into a sprawling riddle of love and death, from which he may never emerge. So, why Vertigo? There are many answers, but the approach that will be taken in this presentation will involve the two sides of Alfred Hitchcock. On the one hand there is the hugely popular filmmaker
3VERTvertigo1who, as the "Master of Suspense," won over the public with thrillers that on first glance (and listen) appear to fall in-at the high end, of course-with the norms of Hollywood commercial filmmaking.
On the other hand, Hitchcock's films, with Vertigo right there at the top, subtly subvert the norms of commercial filmmaking at almost every step of the way, both in the profound and often unexpected psychological ambiguities of his films-is the main male character of Vertigo a tragic hero or purely and simply a stalker?-as well as in moments where, technically, Hitchcock moves momentarily into something close to "pure cinema." We will look, with film clips and musical examples, at some of the ways in which this happens.
(USA, 1958, 120 min., color, DCP)
Royal S. Brown is a member of the Ph.D. Program in French at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He received a B.A. from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music and Focus on Godard.
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