Friday, December 30, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Vertigo (1958) at the Egyptian Theatre

I enjoyed a wonderful evening at the Egyptian Theatre tonight seeing Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO for the very first time. The movie was fascinating, the 70 mm print was gorgeous, and the company, which included my fellow classic film blogger Deborah of Sidewalk Crossings, was most congenial. All in all, a perfect Friday night in Hollywood!

There probably isn't a whole lot new I can offer about VERTIGO, as so many classic film fans have already seen it. (That said, I'm still going to be as vague as possible about the plot, for the benefit of those who haven't seen it yet.) I found the film mesmerizing, with great mood, thanks to the acting, the beautiful shots of San Francisco, the color palette (lots of greens and yellows!), and the evocative score by the great Bernard Herrmann.

The story is somehow simultaneously simple and very complicated, leaving behind more questions than it answers.

And questions, I have lots of questions:

1) How did Scottie get out of his seemingly impossible predicament in the first minutes of the movie?

2) Midge is obviously hung up on Scottie, so why did she break their long-ago engagement? Did she think he wasn't serious enough about her? And why is he simultaneously a single loner yet always dropping in to hang out with Midge? There are seemingly as many mysteries in the characters' back stories as there are in the film's present-day storyline.

3) Wasn't there anything physical about Judy -- perhaps even the way she kissed -- that told Scottie her true identity?

4) So what exactly was Gavin Elster's motive? He wanted control of the money? His motivations and feelings of animosity are never clearly spelled out.

5) What was Judy's motive for the deception? If she loved Gavin, it's still not clear why she would love him that much.

6) Why did Judy back up to the table in the hotel? She looked as though she were either hiding something or perhaps going to grab the phone to dial for help, but knowing what she knew, why would she consider making the call?

7) What was the nun doing up there, anyway?

8) And the unanswerable question, what happened to Scottie next? Wow, talk about an abrupt ending!

Perhaps some of these questions will be answered in the Month of Vertigo blogathon taking place all next month, hosted by The Lady Eve's Reel Life. In her introduction Eve quotes critic David Thomason as saying the film is both "a masterpiece and an endless mystery," so perhaps I'm not alone in my questions!

An interesting point to consider: I felt that VERTIGO's use of colors and flashbacks seemed to set the stage for the later MARNIE (1964), another film about a chameleon-like woman of disturbed or questionable character.

Kim Novak and James Stewart made VERTIGO back to back with BELL BOOK AND CANDLE (1958). Stewart is superb as the obsessed detective; when it comes right down to it, he's not always a very nice man, yet the audience is completely caught up in his emotions and what he experiences. The fact that it's an actor who has so much audience goodwill at the outset helps prevent him from being perceived negatively, particularly in the closing scenes dealing with Scottie's total obsession. Novak excelled in a role that's difficult on many levels; like Stewart, she engages audience sympathy despite her character's actions.

I especially liked Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie's friend and old flame, Midge, whose appearances serve to jolt the film out of its melancholy mood.

I smiled when I recognized Bess Flowers, the perennial extra, dining in the first sequence in Ernie's. I was amused by what Jacqueline wrote about her in a recent post on MY REPUTATION (1946): "The inevitable Bess Flowers also plays one of the society friends at the party, but then she always shows up everywhere... I think I ran into her at the grocery store the other day." That gave me a big chuckle.

The highly stylized opening credits sequence, which foreshadows the story to come, was created by Saul Bass. There's a new coffee table book out on his work which I'd really like to get.

VERTIGO is available on DVD in a 2003 Collector's Edition and a 2008 edition in the Universal Legacy Series. It's also been released on VHS, including a widescreen edition I've been told is quite nice.

This film can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video; the DVD can be rented from Netflix.

VERTIGO was Movie No. 9 on my list of 10 "unseen classics" to finally catch up with in 2011. The other films on the list seen to date were SHANE (1953), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1941), BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), THE LADY EVE (1941), BALL OF FIRE (1941), and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955).

I'm pushing the final film on my 2011 list, SUNSET BLVD. (1950), to the very first day of 2012, when I hope to see it on the big screen at the Bay Theatre in Seal Beach, California.

2017 Update: Here are photos of some of the film's San Francisco locations.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I envy you the experience of seeing it on the big screen. It's a powerful movie.

I also think it's a movie that's best appreciated after a few viewings. There's so much to look at, you need time to catch it all and think about it. Some of your questions may be answered watching it another time. The use of color, imagery, and musical score are so pervasive, we need perspective to appreciate them.

Jeez, I missed Bess Flowers. Now I have to look at my copy again. Thanks for the link.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jacqueline!

I suspect you're very correct about gleaning more on future viewings. Last night was my son's second viewing and he said he was really glad he came because he got a lot more out of it and understood more the second time.

Fortunately we have a DVD so I can easily go back to it -- but it will sure be hard to top the huge, beautiful picture from last night, which really helped make it such an overwhelming viewing experience.

When I saw Bess Flowers, I thought of you! :)

Best wishes,

9:02 AM  
Blogger Judy said...

I also saw 'Vertigo' for the first time on the big screen a few weeks ago and found it very powerful - though unfortunately I was upset just before the start by a young man in the cinema who loudly accused me of rustling a (non-existent) piece of paper!

Anyway, once I got over that incident I found the film itself compelling and thought James Stewart was excellent. I do agree with you that the character of Midge is puzzling, as she still seems to be in love with Scottie, despite being the one who broke off their engagement.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

There is a look on Midge's face when Scottie says she broke off her engagement that speaks volumes. It may be one of the many things one notices more on repeated viewings though Midge does get a closeup here. It plainly was not so simple as he says--I always thought if she did break it off, he made it impossible for her to do otherwise.

Along those lines, I'm sure anyone would agree that there was a lot of mystery around the narrative the first time and even the second time--and I've seen it many times and there is still some, though it's the kind of mystery that works beautifully in a film like this one. I think people rightly come back to it because they are captivated by the mood, atmosphere and emotion, which are so rich and haunting. The narrative does work well but on another level than the usual one of prosaic believability.

This is one of the greatest movies ever made--for me, it is surely Hitchcock's masterpiece even if THE BIRDS and MARNIE are not far behind. These three films, and the last two especially, seem to reveal the depth of Hitchcock and what was really in his heart more than his others (brilliant as many of them are)and I believe would have been confirmed if he made MARY ROSE instead of those weaker last four films he did make. He could not get a go ahead for that dream project.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Judy, what a wonderful coincidence that you just saw it on a big screen recently! Fortunately it's such a powerful film that it can sweep aside surrounding annoyances (grin). One of the things I love about the film is that I'm still contemplating it 24 hours later. That strikes me as one of the marks of a really good film. :)

Best Wishes for a Happy New Year,

8:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...


Your perceptive comments are always greatly appreciated. I'll watch for that look on Midge's face next time. It was an interesting scene.

I believe I'm going to put THE BIRDS on a new list of 10 "unseen classics" for this year, along with another title you recently mentioned, BLACK NARCISSUS. I may do a post this year and list the 10 films in advance! It's interesting to me that you rank THE BIRDS and MARNIE so highly. I greatly enjoyed MARNIE and would probably put it in a list of my favorite 8 or 10 favorite Hitchcock films, but it seems to be considered lower-tier Hitchcock by many fans.

Best wishes for 2012!

9:00 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Reactions to MARNIE are indeed mixed and always have been, but its many admirers are passionate and I know many who would rate it as I do. I was partly motivated to mention because I knew you liked it. I hope you will put THE BIRDS on your list for the year--it's hand in glove with MARNIE, and not only because of Tippi Hedren, who is so good in both films and especially in MARNIE.

The original plan was for Ms. Hedren to star in AH's adaptation of James M. Barrie's MARY ROSE he so much wanted to make--a kind of romantic ghost story (but that description is probably a simplification--there's good writing about this project in Bill Krohn's HITCHCOCK AT WORK). While I try to take the attitude filmmakers make the films they were meant to make, Hitchcock is kind of an exception. I don't believe his last four were as deeply personal as the two just before--the two spy films surely were not--and if he made MARY ROSE, three thematically linked movies with the same actress would have made a great end for his career if he had chosen to wind it up. I also believe that, unlike in the case of TORN CURTAIN, he would not have lost Bernard Herrmann with MARY ROSE--it would have called for the kind of music Herrmann did best, along VERTIGO and MARNIE lines.

Laura, I am complimented that you would consider two films I've mentioned for your list of 10--they'd be good choices, and both happen to be great color films so have that in common.

Happy New Year to you as I write this.

10:37 AM  

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