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Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s most mesmerizing, haunting, and complex films I’ve seen. There are many layers at work simultaneously, and the more you probe, the more fascinating it becomes.
A short intro shows past events that led to ex-Detective John Ferguson developing an acute sense of vertigo. An old acquaintance Gavin asks John to tail his wife Madeliene, who he believes to be losing her mind, apparently possessed by the spirit of a woman, Carlotta. After a few days of watching her, they fall in love, but it is short-lived. During a visit to a church, John is unable to save Madeleine from falling from the church bell tower, because of his vertigo.
After recovering from his trauma, John happens to encounter Judy, who is an exact look-alike of Madeleine. While John attempts to control, shape, and model Judy to fit the image of his dream woman Madeleine, Judy starts to pity and care for him, and eventually falls in love. What John doesn’t know is that Judy is the real woman who played the role of Gavin’s wife in a murder plot.
When John suspects the truth, he takes Judy back to that church bell tower, and accuses her of being an accomplice in the murder. While doing so, we also see how John’s (the hero’s) attempt at re-making Judy into Madeleine was exactly the same as what Gavin (the villain) did. An emotionally shattering climax has John twice falling in and losing his love.
Two scenes in Vertigo represent great heights (no pun intended) in Hitchcock’s film-making. The first is to show John’s point-of-view when he looks down the square-shaped staircase of the church bell tower towards the bottom while pursuing Madeleine. This is a famous shot for its technical brilliance and innovativeness to achieve the mesmerizing effect of vertigo. Hitchcock pulls the camera back (reverse dolly-out) while forward zooming in with the lens. The effect is visually stunning.
The second is a more profound sequence after Judy reluctantly accedes to John’s obsession with remodeling her exactly like Madeleine. Her hotel room is bathed in green from a neon-light, and John is waiting for Judy who is getting ready in the bathroom. He is apprehensive as well as hopeful, yearning for his dream woman. When Judy appears, it is a dream-like sequence where she appears re-incarnated as Madeleine. (Her appearance is similar to how Madeleine had entered his bedroom in his apartment earlier in the film.) Judy yearns for his love and is desperate for it, even if it means she has to act like Madeleine. Both are slaves to an illusion created by a man, not even present in the room, to murder his wife.
When they embrace and kiss, the camera pans and revolves around them. Without any cut in the embracing sequence, Hitchcock alters the background as the scene revolves. It changes from the hotel room, to a livery stable where he had tried to cure Madeleine’s hallucinations, back to the hotel room. The hopelessness of the situation and the futility of desire is eloquently expressed as we experience the vast chasm between reality and illusion that always prevents any attempts to achieve happiness by distorting reality.
This sequence is a profound philosophical statement as well as the most psychologically revealing scene by Hitchcock. Earlier, feminists derided how Hitchcock used, feared, humiliated, and tried to control blond stereotypical women in all his films, but this changed over time. In ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory’, Tania Modleski analyzes Hitchcock to be neither misogynist, nor sympathetic, but rather ambivalent towards women:
Throughout his work Hitchcock reveals a fascinated and fascinating tension, an oscillation, between attraction to the feminine… and a corresponding need to erect, sometimes brutally, a barrier to the femininity which is perceived as all-absorbing.
By withholding his films from circulation for rerelease many years later, Hitchcock showed a resemblance to his characters who exert influence even from their grave – like Carlotta and Madeleine in Vertigo. Some scholars contend that like his other films, Vertigo was influenced heavily by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Staying true to its title, the movie suggests the ‘falling’ concept in additional ways. Falling in love, and completely losing one’s self-control by giving in to obsession. The three levels of Carlotta-inhabiting-Madeleine-emulated-by-Judy forms a ‘vertigo of love’. And driving in the hilly streets of San Francisco, John is always shown driving downhill, never uphill. Also self-referential is the parallel of the car’s window-screen to widescreen cinema – just like us, John is a spectator. The distinctive red-green color schemes, and the long passages without dialogue beautifully held together by Bernard Hermann’s brilliant score that perfectly calibrates Hitchcock’s craft. A romance, a murder mystery, and a thriller, Vertigo is as complex and psychologically deep as Hitchcock himself.
I saw Von Ryan’s Express as a very young kid on the big screen. Only the gist of the movie remained in my memories, not the specifics. Except the ending. An unforgettable ending.
When I watched it again a few years back, I enjoyed the movie again. Unlike true-story based WWII films, this is a purely fictional, action-adventure movie. It is not constrained by any moral statements about the futility of war, or any historical accounts to not deviate from, and hence is thoroughly entertaining.
American Colonel Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is forced to collaborate with a British Major Fincham (Trevor Howard) in an Italian POW camp when WWII is nearing an end with Allied forces causing the Germans to retreat. The Germans pack the POWs in a train headed back to Germany’s concentration camps, and Ryan schemes an escape plan that results in a series of hair-raising escapes and near-misses. Real trains on location were used except in the most difficult scenes, and the technical craft is impressive for its time.
The battle scene at high altitudes in the Italian alps, with their train pursued by German troops and planes is nail-biting, leading to that wonderful climax.
I have heard that V For Vendetta is a good film, but I have not seen it.