Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

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2 Responses

  1. Can anyone help with a senior moment I am experiencing? I thought I had read somewhere that the studio’s response after the cool critical reception of the weirdly wonderful Vertigo was to pressure Hitchcock to making something more accessible and mainstream and that this explains the straight narrative, generic flavour of his next film, North By Northwest (which is essentially an updated Americanisation of The 49 Steps in my book). Trouble is, I cannot find a reference for this knowledge. Did I dream it or does it have some basis in fact?

    • I’ve not come across that. I think Hitchcock had in mind a film like ‘North by Northwest’ for some time based on the idea of ‘a man in Lincoln’s nose’

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