Vertigo

Vertigo

Itself, by itself, solely ONE everlastingly, and single. - Plato

We would have gladly pardoned Alfred Hitchcock for following the austere Wrong Man with a lighter work, more of a crowd pleaser. Such was perhaps his intention when he decided to bring the novel by Boileau and Narcejac, D'entre les morts, to the screen. Now, the esoteric nature of Vertigo, so they say, repelled Americans. French critics, on the contrary, seem to be giving it a warm welcome. Our colleagues have now given Hitchcock the place we [at Cahiers] have always reserved for him. As a result, we are now deprived of the pleasurable task of defending him.

There is therefore no reason to measure his genius according to someone else's standards. Hitchcock is sufficiently renowned to merit comparison with no one other than himself. I used as a preface to this critique a sentence by Plato, which Edgar Poe used at the beginning of "Morella" and whose argument, in certain respects, resembles that of Vertigo. I did this not because I mean to put our filmmaker on equal footing with Plato, nor even with Poe, but simply to propose a key that, in my opinion, is capable of opening more doors than others can. Too bad if it seems somewhat pretentious. We are not trying to make Hitchcock into a metaphysician. The commentator alone is responsible for the metaphysics, but he believes it to be both suitable and useful.

Vertigo seems to be the third panel of a triptych, the first two being Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much. These three films are architectural films, first, because of the abundance of architectural motifs, in the proper meaning of the word, which we find in all three. In this case, the first half hour is even a kind of documentary on the urban setting of San Francisco. The backdrop is furnished by a number of turn-of-the-century homes, on which the camera lens likes to rest, just as it rested before in To Catch a Thief on the Côte d'Azur. Their immediate, pragmatic reason for existence is to create an impression of disorientation in time. They symbolize the past toward which the detective turns, at the same time as does the supposed madwoman.

In the course of the film, we find an older architecture, that of an eighteenth-century Spanish monastery, which is linked, this time very directly, by the tower above it, to the major theme of the story, vertigo. And here we are one step further in the analogy with the two films mentioned. In each one, the heroes are victims of a paralysis relative to movement in a certain milieu. The reporter in Rear Window is in a situation of forced immobility, the milieu being space. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, the doctor and his wife, in conforming with the title, knew too much about the future but, at the same time, too little: Their paralysis is ignorance, and the field is no longer that of space, but of time. In this film, the detective, once again acted by James Stewart (who in his corset, reminds us of the photographer in Rear Window), is also a victim of paralysis, that of vertigo. The milieu in this instance is constructed by time, but not that of premonition, oriented toward the future. Rather, it is directed toward the past: reminiscence.

Like the two others, Vertigo is a film of pure "suspense," that is, it is a constructed film. The motive for the action is no longer the march of passions or some tragic moral (as in Under Capricorn, I Confess, or The Wrong Man), but a process that is abstract, mechanical, artificial, and external, at least in appearance. In these three films, man is not the driving element. It is not fate, either, in the meaning that the Greeks gave it, but, rather, the very shapes that the formal entities space and time acquire. We can, of course, quibble indefinitely about whether or not Hitchcock's films contain "suspense." In the general sense of the word - the ability to keep the audience breathless - we will always agree that they do, especially in this film, even though the detective's key (which closes the novel) is revealed to us a half hour before the end. We already knew that Hitchcock's secret passageways did not open onto the secrets of police machinations, clever as they may be. We wanted to know more and more, as we learned more of the truth. The important thing is always that the solution to the enigma not burst the whole of the intrigue, which up until the last minute was busy expanding, like a soap bubble (a criticism we could have made, for example, about To Catch a Thief). Here, the suspense has a double effect: It not only sensitizes us to the future, but it also makes us reappraise the past. For the past in this case is not a mass of unknowns, which an author has the divine right to keep in reserve and which, when exposed, will untangle all the knots. When it reappears, the past tightens these knots even more. As the smoke of the story clears, a new figure appears whom we did not know as such but who was always present: the Madeleine believed to be real, yet whom we never really knew, who was, in any case, a real phantom, because she existed only in the mind of the detective, because she was only an idea.

Just like Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo is a kind of parable of knowledge. In the first, the photographer turned his back on the true sun (meaning life) and saw only the shadows on the wall of the cavern (the courtyard). In the second, the doctor, who had too much faith in the police's deduction, also missed his mark, although feminine intuition succeeded. Here, the detective, fascinated from the start by the past (represented by the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, with whom the phony Madeleine pretends to identify) is continually sent from one set of appearances to the next: in love not with a woman but with the idea of a woman. But at the same time, just as in the two other parts of the trilogy, outside this intellectual meaning (I mean relative to knowledge) we can distinguish another one, a moral one this time. Here once again, Stewart is not only wretched and deceived but also guilty, "falsely guilty" as Hitchcock says, that is, falsely innocent. A tribunal accuses him of being guilty, by his blunder, for the woman's death. But although he did not in any way cause Madeleine" death, this time, because of his perspicacity and his recaptured dexterity, he will certainly be responsible for Judy's death, whom he falsely accused of complicity.

In using the term parable, I do not mean to accuse Vertigo of dryness or unreality. In no way is it a tale. At most, one discerns here and there, as in all of Hitchcock's films, small distortions of verisimilitude - one might say the disdain for certain "justifications" - that in the past often disturbed some people. If Vertigo is bathed in a fairytale atmosphere, the fogginess and blurriness are in the mind of the hero, not of the director, and do not affect the ordinary realism of the tone. On the contrary, we should admire the artistry with which the filmmaker creates this fantastical impression by the most indirect and discreet means, and especially how much, in a subject close to that of Les Diaboliques, he is reluctant to play on our nerves. The impression of strangeness is produced not by hyperbole, but by attenuation: Thus, the first part is almost entirely filmed in wide shots. The distracting satirical episode (the relationship between the detective and the designer) is treated with a no less subtle humor and prevents our feet from ever leaving the ground. These casual asides are not simply meant as a balancing act: They help us better understand the character, by making his madness more familiar, changing it from a state of madness to a certain deviation of the mind, a mind whose nature may be to turn in circles. The passage in which Stewart becomes Pygmalion is admirable, to the point that we almost lose the thread of the story itself. All of Hitchcock's depth is in his form, that is, in the "rendering." Like Ingrid Bergman's gaze in Under Capricorn, this removal of makeup - which is in fact an application - can be seen and not told.

Finally, in this silent, glossy film, which is actually a love story, more than the burning kiss between the detective and the woman he tries in vain to bring back from the dead, Stewart's breathless final speech introduces a dimension that until then is curiously absent: passion. It is not a rhetorical sermon in the least, but a digression to discourse, as is Bergman's monologue in Under Capricorn. So what if this outburst comes late, as this film is characterized by an alternating current: Future and past incessantly switch positions. In the light of this vibrant act of accusation, the entire film takes on a new color: What was sleeping awakens, and what was living simultaneously dies, and the hero, conquering his vertigo, but for nothing, once again finds only emptiness at his feet.

Of course, comparisons other than the ones I suggested can be made with the two films starring James Stewart. Allow me one more comparison, this time with Strangers on a Train. We know how much this film owed, not just in severity, but in lyricism, to the obsessive presence of a double geometrical motif, that of the straight line and the circle. In this case, the figure - Saul Bass draws it for us in the credits - is that of the spiral, or more specifically, the helix. The straight line and the circle are married by the intermediary of a third dimension: depth. Strictly speaking, we find only two spirals materially figured in all the film, that of the lock of hair at the nape of Madeleine's neck, a copy of the one worn by Carlotta Valdes that, one must not forget, arouses the detective's desire, and that of the stairway that leads up the tower. For the rest, the helix is suggested, by its revolving cylinder, which is represented by Stewart's field of vision while following Novak's car, by the arch of the trees over the road, by the trunks of the sequoias, or by the corridor mentioned by Madeleine and that Scottie finds in his dream (a dream, I admit, whose flashy designs clash with the somber grace of the real landscapes), and many other motifs that can be detected only after several viewings. The shape of the thousand-year-old sequoia and the traveling shot that pivots (in fact, the subject is pivoting) around the kiss still belong to the same family of ideas. It is a vast family that counts many relatives by marriage. Geometry is one thing, art is another. It is not a question of finding a spiral in each of the film's shots, like the men's heads proposed as a guessing game in sketches of leaves, or even like the crosses in Scarface (a bet magnificently kept, but a bet nonetheless). These mathematics must leave a door open to freedom. Poetry and geometry, far from crushing each other, travel together. We travel in space in the same way we travel in time, as our thoughts and the characters' thoughts also travel. They are only probing, or more exactly, spiraling into the past. Everything forms a circle, but the loop never closes, the revolution carries us ever deeper into reminiscence. Shadows follow shadows, illusions follow illusions, not like the walls that slide away or mirrors that reflect to infinity, but by a kind of movement more worrisome still because it is without a gap or break and possesses both the softness of a circle and the knife edge of a straight line. Ideas and forms follow the same road, and it is because the form is pure, beautiful, rigorous, astonishingly rich, and free that we can say that Hitchcock's films, with Vertigo at their head, are about - aside from the objects that captivate us - ideas, in the noble, platonic sense of the word.

(Cahiers d u cinema 93, March 1959)