July 10, 2007 at 2:18 pm (Horror, Movies)

Alfred Hitchcock is widely recognized as one of the greatest suspense-film directors ever. Since my early “education” was remarkably deficient in Hitchcock’s work (outside of North by Northwest and references to him in The Three Investigators series), I’ve made a point in my “adult” life of hunting down his best known, most critically acclaimed works, on the assumption that I would not only be entertained, but also educated, in the process. So far, I can’t complain: I finally saw Notorious, Psycho and Rear Window, and since my wife has no idea what Hitchcock’s best known films are (old films aren’t really her thing), she’d also pick up for me any Alfred Hitchcock movie she could find, and I’ve ended up watching a number of his less well known films, with (sadly) less memorable titles, from his early days as a director. But I’d never gotten around to seeing Vertigo, in large part because our local Blockbuster didn’t have a copy, and it bothered me. Well, we broke down last week and started the Netflix free trial, and Vertigo was the first film I chose.

Much like The Maltese Falcon, the movie was nothing at all like I’d expected. I’ll do my best to explain it without completely spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen it, but please bear with me if you have. I was prepared for a straight suspense film, like Rear Window or North by Northwest, where you accompany the main character on his journey to figure out the truth. In Vertigo, however, your trust of the main character is constantly called into question, for example when Jimmy Stewart glimpses Kim Novak in the McKittrick Hotel, only to find out a minute later that she isn’t there, and then when he insists on turning the shop girl, her look-alike, into a replica of her, you doubt his sanity. Further, much like psycho, the story actually shifts dramatically halfway through the film: You think that you are watching one story, and then it abruptly ends, which opens up the real story of the film.

The ultimate effect, for me, at least, was a film that wasn’t so much suspenseful as creepy. In suspense, it seems to me, you’re worried about what’s behind the door that the hero is about to open. In this film, you’re at least as worried about what the hero is going to do when he opens the door as you are about what is behind it. Further, the ghost story element of the beginning (Carlotta’s vengeful ghost), so well played by Kim Novak, got underneath my skin, to the point that my initial belief when Jimmy Stewart’s character started having nightmares was that the evil spirit has been passed on to him!  In this way, I was so much more exquisitely pleased with Vertigo than I expected to be.  Certainly, I love a good suspense thriller.  North by Northwest, for example, is a great film with lots of action and snappy dialog.  But Vertigo is a haunting mystery, that isn’t so much solved by Jimmy Stewart, as survived, and by the end of the film, I felt the same way.


  1. Darshan said,

    Hitchcock, and indeed Vertigo, is cheap film school for anyone with an interest in learning about filmmaking. Everything Hitchcock does is intended. Look at where he places the camera, look at the choices he makes in production design, casting. . . Hitchcock left nothing to chance. In certain ways, Vertigo is the best example of this. If you go back now, as an educated viewer, knowing the full journey he’s taking you and Scotty on, you can watch how he’s playing you both from the first frame of the movie.

    If you ever have a chance, and want a good education about Hitchcock, check out the book Hitchcock/Truffaut which is a conversation between Hitchcock and fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut. It’s another great education in directorial intent and the choices made by world class filmmakers!



  2. Mom said,

    Hi John, I would like to watch some Hitchcock sometime. But first I have to revisit Star Wars and see all the Harry Potters! My film education is sorely lacking! Love you!

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