Last Sunday I attended my first ever film discussion group, a group in our development that meets once a month to discuss classic films. This particular meeting was to screen and talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s ” Vertigo” ( 1958) . What particularly attracted me was the announcement that Alan Williams, a Rutgers University professor and film aficionado would be on hand to talk about the film. I only vaguely remembered watching the film , many years ago on TV, and it would be like seeing it for the first time.
The meeting was held in the Ladies Card Room and was attended by about thirty film fans, the majority of them women. After helping ourselves to the popcorn, cookies and snacks we settled down to listen to Professor Williams give us an introduction to Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Vertigo. ( He said) Hitchcock’s early career in England was an artistic success but he really hit his stride only after he came to America. Here, once WWII was over, he had much larger budgets to work with and was able to take his time developing his plots and shoot many more takes. Vertigo was shot on location in San Francisco, unlike most of his films which were filmed on studio sets. Today there are ” Vertigo tours” of San Francisco quite popular with Hitchcock fans and others.
As most of you will recall, Vertigo is based on a French short story; it is about John ” Scotty” Ferguson , a San Francisco detective who retires from the force when his fear of heights results in the death of a policeman colleague as they pursue a robber across the roof tops. Six months later, he reluctantly agrees to shadow Madeleine, the wife of an old acquaintance, Gavin Elster, a wealthy ship builder. Claiming that Madeleine has been acting strangely, Gavin tells him that he thinks his wife might be losing her mind and that he fears for her safety. Scotty does follow Madeleine and, after rescuing her from an apparent suicide attempt, falls in love with her. On an outing at an old mission, she climbs to the top of the bell tower and falls to her death as he is unable to follow her up the stairs. At the inquest, her death is ruled a suicide but Scotty is faulted for not having prevented it. But this is not the end of the story… Months later, Scotty runs into Judy Barton who bears a startling resemblance to Madeleine. Is she who she claims to be Or… ? The rest of the film deals with Scotty’s attempts to re-make Judy as Madeleine and the unraveling of the mystery.
Vertigo is a very complex film, heavy on symbolism, hidden meanings and multiple themes. In his post-film comments, Prof. Williams gave us insights into them and into Hitchcock’s favorite themes .He told us that most of Hitchcock’s protagonists are somewhat paranoid and suffer from psychological problems of one kind or another. Hitchcock often used Jimmy Stewart for roles where the main character is clueless , Cary Grant for lighter roles. Hitchcock’s wife Alma played an active role in the making of his films( particularly as film editor) but , though he loved her dearly, he never gave her any credit for her efforts on his behalf. Hitchcock was a vain and not very likeable as a person ; he was also a very shrewd marketer. His cameo appearances in his films started as a gimmick but, ultimately became a marketing tool; audiences loved them and used to wait for them. Some of these cameos were ingeniously woven into the movie. In Lifeboat, for instance, one of the characters is reading a newspaper and Hitchcock appears in a diet ad of the ” Before and After” variety in the paper. In the” Before” photo , of course.
In the discussion that followed the film screening, I was amazed at how much detail my fellow members in the audience had absorbed and dissected. For instance, there are two separate instances when Scotty and Madeleine are on their way to the Mission and are driving on the wrong side of the road, a harbinger that things are breaking down and bad things are going to happen. This happens for mere seconds each time and I missed them completely. Not so my friends. There were many other instances like that.
Both the pre-movie introduction and the post movie discussion were enjoyable but the movie itself was a disappointment. It may be a classic and it may have been avant garde in it’s day but to the modern movie-goer it appears outdated. The advances in cinematography have been so profound that the movie seems amateurish. As for all the layers of meaning and the symbolism, I wonder if they are not excessive. I do not think that anyone could have picked up on more than a small fraction of them at a single viewing. Is there a point at which a movie stops being art and becomes self -indulgence on the part of the director? One would have to see the movie many, many times to pick up on things like the director’s use of red and green and what the colors signify. For casual moviegoers like me who are interested in a movie for its story, this is all a bit too much.
I saw the movie while seated in what seemed a comfortably upholstered chair. I was mistaken. By the end of the movie my behind was numb and I was squirming around. To make matters worse, this was the enhanced edition of Vertigo and was almost three hours long. Next time I go to a film discussion, I will take along a pillow.