Thursday, May 09, 2013

Hitchcock's Most Personal Work

It's my understanding that Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" was mostly dismissed by critics when it premiered 55 years ago today.

But over the years, it has evolved and been elevated in the eyes of those critics and their successors — to the point that it is often mentioned as at least one of Hitchcock's best, if not his absolute best.

I'm not sure I would go to that extreme. There are two or three of Hitchcock's movies that I would pick over that one — but I certainly would concede that it is perhaps Hitchcock's most complex movie. It is certainly one of his most psychological movies — and that's saying something when you consider Hitch's body of work.

And it is "Vertigo," more than almost any other Hitchcock movie, that is cited as an influence for Hitch's directorial descendants in the genre.

As I say, it must rank as Hitchcock's most complex movie. It's got to be one of his most experimental.

Other movies were at least as psychologically complex as "Vertigo," but it was visually complex, too. It was the first noteworthy use of the dolly zoom technique that created the sensation of the condition that gave the film its name.

Stewart was the main attraction for moviegoers in 1958. He'd been a familiar star for more than 20 years, almost as long as his co–star, Kim Novak, had been alive. Moviegoers knew what they were getting when Stewart was in a movie, much as they knew what they were getting when the star was Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy or Henry Fonda.

But Novak, who was 25 the day "Vertigo" premiered, was no newcomer. She had already been in 10 movies, including parts in "Picnic" and "The Man With the Golden Arm."

I get the feeling from having seen many of the movies Novak made before "Vertigo" that, rather than viewing her beauty as a blessing, she regarded it as a burden. That probably came in handy when she took on her role in "Vertigo." I've always felt that character was a bit shy, a little hesitant and, in some unexpected ways, vulnerable — and, yet, she was dangerous.

Novak was already conditioned to play a role that way. (Her simmering passion and cool intellectual quality served her well in "Bell, Book and Candle.")

Maybe Hitchcock knew that.

Funny thing, though. Novak wasn't Hitch's first choice; Vera Miles was. But a series of twists of fate allowed the role to practically fall into Novak's lap. First, Hitchcock had gall bladder problems, then Miles became pregnant. Hitchcock was not willing to postpone filming any further so he gave the role to Novak.

In hindsight, it's hard for me to imagine Miles in the role. Novak always seems ideal for it. Perhaps it is because I am conditioned to think of her as Judy — and my mind associates Miles with the roles she played in two other Hitchcock films, "The Wrong Man" and "Psycho."

Maybe Novak played the role so well I can't imagine anyone else playing it.

I know there was a great chemistry between Stewart and Novak, as there usually was between the male and female leads in a Hitchcock movie. Such chemistry was especially important in "Vertigo," which had a complex plot — even for a Hitchcock movie.

I guess the chemistry didn't help much when it was first released. I've been told "Vertigo" wasn't too successful at the box office.

But, as I say, in the years that have passed, "Vertigo" has come to be recognized as one of Hitchcock's best film achievements.

Hitchcock himself said it was his most personal film. I'm not sure what his reasoning was, but there is no questioning the quality of the movie.

The American Film Institute ranked it in the Top 10 of all time.