It doesn’t seem so very long ago that Alfred Hitchcock was considered not much more than a superior craftsman specialising in slightly glib movies the public liked. A superior craftsman, perhaps, but scarcely a real artist.
Now, of course, we see things very differently. Hitch is dubbed a master and a round dozen of his films are regarded as classics. One of them, made in the late 50s, is Vertigo, the strangest, most perverse movie he ever created. It was never really popular except with the critics. But for once one can confidently say they were right.
The story has James Stewart as Scotty, a private eye cursed with a pathological fear of heights since being held responsible for the fatal fall of a fellow officer in the days when he was in the police. Hired to protect a threatened woman (Kim Novak), his “weakness”, as the coroner puts it, stops him saving her from a suicidal leap. We know he was also in love with her.
When he comes out of the institution in which he is undergoing treatment, he meets another woman who reminds him of his dead love (actually it is the same one, since her death was fabricated as cover for a murder). Obsessively he tries to make the woman resemble her previous incarnation. “Couldn’t you like me, just me, the way I am?” she says after an uncomfortable shopping expedition.
What he wants seems to be what Hitch himself always wanted – a blonde ice goddess. And the film seems to fit perfectly into its director’s own view of sexuality, which seldom reaches beyond an unrequited obsession that virtually deranges those in thrall to it. But the film isn’t just about that. Scotty and his woman are caught up in more than their slightly lunatic affair. The plot twists and turns around the original murder with almost Gothic abandon until its famous, and superbly shot and edited, climax in the belltower.
You could call Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho an unequalled trilogy about voyeurism or, if you want to be more orthodox, a set of films forcing ordinary audiences to admit their unordinary fears. Hitchcock’s great films, as the critic David Thomson says, are only partly his. They also belong to the minds of those who interpret them.
However you look at them, they do at least prove that Hitch was a director whose art consisted of considerably more than a vast knowledge of the tricks of his trade and a consuming ambition to play with the susceptibilities of his audiences. There is a coldness alongside his calculations, it is true. But the essential greatness remains. You can see it as well as anywhere in Vertigo, made all the more noteworthy by Bernard Herrmann’s ghost-ridden score, Robert Burks’s sharp-etched cinematography and, above all, the scaled-down eloquence of James Stewart’s central performance.
Vertigo is a great film. But for me it couldn’t stand comfortably beside something like Renoir’s Rules of the Game. Conjurors are not comfortable as philosophers.