American Film of the 50s- Vertigo, by Aaron Pinkston
What is there to say about Vertigo that hasn’t already been said? Even given the context of this film series, looking at films from the 1950s in their historical and sociological context, I simply feel dwarfed by the film and its reputation. I do really love the film — it’s not my favorite of Hitchcock’s work (I’m probably in the minority of which of his films is my personal favorite), but I’m genuinely satisfied that it has received its praise. Part of my hesitation may also be the film itself, with its many narrative and thematic complexities. Sure, the other masterpieces I’ve looked at in the three previous weeks are complicated, but nothing compared to the mulitples of readings and viewpoints of Vertigo. Well, anyway, here goes.
My first thoughts on watching the film within this new context was as a direct comparison to last week’s Kiss Me Deadly. Vertigo really isn’t a film noir, at least in terms of its style, which beautifully displays Technicolor (more on that later), but I couldn’t help but be struck by Scottie’s similarities and differences to Mike Hammer. Scottie is a cop who retires after the tragic opening scene, but is hired on by an old friend to do a bit of private investigation, the occupation of so many noir heroes. The first act of the film mostly involves Scottie following his friend’s wife, who has been acting peculiar. Though this section of the film is a brilliant detective narrative, basically told without dialogue while still developing so much about the two characters, you can see that Scottie is a much different type of sleuth from the Mike Hammer archetype. Most notably, he is a passive spectator (again, more on that later), keeping his distance from Madeline. Through this first act of the film, we’d characterize Scottie as a mostly harmless fellow — he definitely has the demeanor of his star, Jimmy Stewart. It’s only after he makes direct contact with the world he is observing that his troubles begin. As the investigation goes on, Scottie becomes more morally ambiguous, much more like Mike Hammer, as if he has become corrupted by the storytelling. Scottie never displays the violent nature of Hammer, but in the second and third acts he becomes a much more ominous, dangerous sort of character.
This dangerous side is shown mostly in (surprise!) his control over women characters. Though this is very much done through his actions in the film’s narrative, the style “captures” women in an interesting and monumental way. In her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey coins the term “the male gaze” and she uses Vertigo specifically in defining and characterizing this new theory. This essay is mandatory reading for anyone in film school, and is almost always referenced when talking Vertigo. In the most simple of terms, the male gaze is the theory that the viewer is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man when watching a film. This is done either through the narrative visually connecting the leading male with female characters, often through point-of-view shots, or based on how the filmmaker chooses to shoot female characters, emphasized by lighting, music, etc. In essence, even when we aren’t seeing female bodies through the eyes of a male character, the camera takes on a male quality in looking at these female bodies. Vertigo is a pretty perfect film to flesh out this theory (pun most definitely intended), though that doesn’t necessarily mean it is of the most misogynistic films — it probably isn’t even the most misogynistic of the four films I’ve seen thus far. As long stretches of this film involve a male character following a female character, observing her movements, the male gaze is inevitable.
Stylistically, Hitchcock plays with a lot of point-of-view shots, which certainly contributes to this theory in practice. We see the world from Scottie’s point-of-view, often literally through shot-reverse-shot, which is one of the most effective ways to connect us with the leading character. When a lot of his time is spent looking at a particular woman, and with lighting effects to emphasize a particular thought, as Scottie begins to lust after this woman, effectively the audience should, too. There is nothing gratuitous or lurid in Vertigo, no shots of near-nudity or sexual violence, but there may not be a better representation of how filmmakers (consciously or subconsciously) trap women on screen in order to be looked at by a male viewer.
This effect obviously relates to the second half of the film, where Scottie begins to lose it and sets out to control a woman for his own satisfaction. When we first meet Judy Barton in the third act, we can’t quite be sure if this is the same woman that Scottie fell madly in love with, but the film uses its point-of-view style to give us that indication. By framing Judy in the very same way in which we met Madeline, the two women are connected through the eyes of Scottie. Even if this woman isn’t Madeline, we get the visual clue that Scottie thinks so, making his descent into compulsive madness more tragic.
Through Mulvey and others, Vertigo has perhaps become the most important film in its relationship to film criticism. This is perhaps most apparent with its newly crowned status of greatest film ever made by the recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll. There are many reasons why Vertigo has reached this status, and maybe its location in film history has a part in that. Released in 1958, this was on the cusp of one of the most important times for film criticism as a profession and, more importantly, as an art form. By the time of its release, this was already the case in France, where the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma was changing the way people looked at film, talked about film, and even guided the tastes of many. It’s probably not a coincidence that many of the American films Cahiers championed in the 1950s, films which were often overlooked or underappreciated in America, are among the most critically praised films still today. Influential American critics like Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael began their writing careers in the 1950s, their work crucial in defining the profession and showcasing just how great criticism could be. Of course, not every contemporary critic loved Vertigo (Kael was a famous opponent of the film, calling it a “shallow masterpiece”), but as film writing began to grow right along with this great film, there were many people writing great commentary, keeping it in the social and artistic consciousness.
Another interesting marker of Vertigo to the 1950s comes with the psychological profiling of the characters — from what we as an audience do and what characters do to each other within the film. I’m not a psychology scholar, so I may be completely wrong here, but I just have this sense that the 1950s were a big time for psychology and the treatment of mental illnesses, which are big parts of Vertigo’s subtext. Of course, the entire course of the film starts with Scottie being diagnosed with acrophobia, an intense fear of heights, and then his investigation of a woman who may be experiencing some sort of multiple-personality disorder. These, especially the latter, probably weren’t understood correctly prior to the 1950s, and popular culture’s depictions of the decade’s treatment of the mentally ill aren’t too positive. Still, around this time, people began to become more aware of mental illness, less afraid to talk about it, and that put us in the right direction. This also affected the rise of the diagnosis, opening the gate for the current pharmaceutical culture we currently live. One particularly odd scene is when Scottie’s doctor diagnoses him after an incredibly traumatic event — he notes that he is suffering from “acute melancholia with a guilt complex,” which puts him in a silent funk for possibly up to a year. I’m no doctor, but just by our current societal standards, I would say his diagnosis is a bit odd.
Those who saw Vertigo with me at the Gene Siskel Film Center this week were treated to a rare archival print. The film was originally shot and released in the process of Technicolor, but most surviving prints were not developed with this landmark coloration. Technicolor was invented in the early stages of filmmaking and was first used for cartoons and short films, but became the predominant coloring process for feature films when color films became the norm. In the mid-1950s, however, the process was abandoned with improved camera technology, and Vertigo, from what I can tell, is one of the last films to be produced with the process. As I’ve said before, filmmaking in the 1950s was at a number of crossroads, with many technical advances, and so many films of the decade can be directly associated just by their look — and Technicolor is a big signifier of the 1950s, particularly in the periods many melodramas (some of which will be covered later in this series). I really don’t know anything about the technical process, but seeing a Technicolor film is distinct — the colors are ultra-vibrant and sharp, sometimes otherworldly. Vertigo uses the process to the fullest effect, with particular scenes highlighted by colors in the environment and an important dream sequence that uses color tints to focus on a character’s psychological state. I hadn’t seen Vertigo on the big screen before, though I don’t quite remember the DVD transfer having such an impact. I couldn’t imagine seeing the film any other way — Hitchcock’s awareness of Technicolor and using it to its full extent is just another layer that makes Vertigo a cinematic masterpiece.