Alfred Hitchcock

(13 August 1899 to 29 April 1980)

Alan Pavelin

Talking Pictures alias






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Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo stretches the
                  imagination and distorts logic.


Apart from Charlie Chaplin, Hitchcock Is undoubtedly the most famous and widely-recognised film-maker in cinema history. Even those young movie-goers who, according to a 1999 newspaper article, had never even heard of Stanley Kubrick, have surely heard of 'Hitch'. 

Until the 1950s he was regarded as simply a supremely skilful and popular film-maker who had the knack of maintaining suspense, humour, and excitement throughout a film. Then the French critics - took him up (Chabrol, Rohmer, Truffaut & Co.), turning him, into an auteur par excellence. Since then he has been the subject of  innumerable learned books and articles; entire books have been written about a single film (Vertigo, Psycho), art installations have recently been devoted to the same two films, and there was  even a 100-page magazine article on the somewhat esoteric subject of Oedipal references in North by Northwest

A career of over 50 films is bound to have produced a few turkeys (Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case), and others about which critics have disagreed (such as Rope and Under Capricorn, both of which I personally admire). But few will doubt that Hitchcock created half-a-dozen masterpieces: take your pick from The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. Some would go for his two ‘heavy’ films on Catholic themes, I Confess and The Wrong Man, and others for very early or late films like Blackmail and Marnie

Tippi Hedren with the
                    Master looking for birds?

To my mind Vertigo is the supreme achievement not just of Alfred Hitchcock, but of the whole of Hollywood cinema, not excluding the critics' favourite Citizen Kane. Unlike Kane it is not a seminal film; it didn't lead cinema in new directions. Based on a French novel (by the authors of Les Diaboliques) which, it is said, was written specially in the hope that Hitchcock would take it up, it is a haunting, hypnotic flash of supreme brilliance which demands to be seen over and over again and which can reveal new depths of meaning at each viewing. Here I just want to add a few rather random comments to all that others have written about it. I'm assuming that readers of this article are familiar with it; if not, and if you don’t like knowing plots beforehand, stop reading now!

The initial impact of my first seeing Vertigo made an indelible impression, partly because of the circumstances. This was at its first ( legal) screening in Britain for 14 years, at the 1983 London Film Festival on a big screen in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. It received prolonged applause, and many of us emerged shaking into the night after what is arguably the bleakest ending of any major film, with the possible exceptions of Kiss Me Deadly and Dr.Strangelove. As one critic has said, Psycho is a rich comedy by comparison. 

It was only after about four viewings that I realised what, as much as anything, makes Vertigo so exceptional: Bernard Herrmann's superb score, partly based on themes from Wagner. Vertigo without the music would be a far inferior product. The only other film scores which, for me, bear any comparison are Morricone's for Once Upon a Time in the West and Preisner's for the last few films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. 

Like other films of Hitchcock's, Vertigo's plot is, frankly, ludicrous and full of holes. For example, how could Elster possibly have known with confidence that Scottie (James Stewart) would attempt to chase Madeleine (Kim Novak) up the tower and fail to make it to the top? How does Scottie escape from what seems to be certain death at the end of the very first scene? And how is Madeleine's mysterious disappearance from McKittrick's Hotel, even to the extent of not being seen by the woman at the counter, to be explained? In Hitchcock these things don't matter; he always said he had no interest in plot niceties or in mystery, just in suspense. 

On first viewing, we are within James Stewart's consciousness virtually throughout. On second viewing, we are instinctively within Kim Novak's, knowing that she is really the rather brash Judy pretending to be the totally different dreamlike Madeleine until her first ‘death‘, and then towards the end pretending to be Judy-playing-at-being-Madeleine. Snatches of dialogue take on a whole new meaning second time round: (Madeleine's "it wasn't meant to be like this" just before her fake death), as do actions (Scottie's undressing and putting to bed of the apparently unconscious Madeleine). 

Scottie is, of course, something of a deranged character for allowing himself to become so totally besotted, to the extent of wanting to recreate, or ‘clone’ as we might say today, a woman who is not just dead, but never actually existed (which he doesn't know). Even after discovering the truth he is able to say "I loved you so, Madeleine". The main theme of the film might in fact be taken as the dangers of romantic obsession. Hitchcock's own private obsessions have, of course, been extensively written about by Donald Spoto and others, and Kim Novak was one of dozens of icy blondes who populate his films. 

The acting in Vertigo is outstanding. Stewart, one of the true ‘greats‘, proved that he was not restricted to the ‘simple nice guy’ roles of his early-films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, nor  even to the controlled anger shown in his Anthony Mann Westerns. In Vertigo he really gets beneath the skin of a deranged romantic obsessive who develops acute melancholia. Novak was not Hitchcock's first choice (he wanted Vera Miles from The Wrong Man, and probably still hankered after Grace Kelly from Rear Window), but she is perfect as the dreamlike Madeleine, while her Judy is a sufficiently brash contrast. Also ideal is Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge, Scottie's one-time girlfriend who now sees herself as a mother-figure to him (listen to the dialogue for proof of this). 

This disturbing, voyeuristic, dreamlike film demands repeated viewing and repays extended analysis. Few who are familiar with it will disagree. 

Quentin Tarantino on Alfred Hitchcock:
I'm not really that reverential about Hitchcock at all. I mean, I'm not saying I don't like him - I'm not saying he's a bad director, okay, but you know what: f*** him. I don't care. He's not a religious icon.

Quoted by Ariel Leve in 'Tarantino's Rant', Sunday Times Magazine, October 5, 2003.

Jack Cardiff on Alfred Hitchcock:
He was the most meticulous person in preparing a picture and everything in the script had to be absolutely perfect.

Conversations with Jack Cardiff, Batsford, London, 2003, page 93.

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