I find it fascinating to discover what films people can remember watching as children. In general, my childhood film festival was filled with predictable fare, such as Mary Poppins (1964), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Grease (1978) and Ghostbusters (1984), but there was also the rather incongruous presence of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in this mix. Even before I had reached double digits my mother had taken it upon herself to sit me down in front of many of Hitchcock’s greatest films. Although she is not particularly interested in cinema from an auteur perspective, my mother was – and still is – a die-hard Hitchcock fan. Because of this I had watched The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) even before I could really understand what it was that he knew. When I was in my late teens I revisited many of Hitchcock’s films with the capacity to truly appreciate them – something I sorely lacked upon my first viewing. The one film that I tend to return to is Vertigo (1958).
…with the help of television, murder should be brought into the home where it rightly belongs.
Hitchcock’s films are recognisable for a number of recurring motifs: his penchant for drop dead gorgeous blondes, the insertion of his own walk-on cameos, his precise framing, murder scenes and the theme of obsession. Undoubtedly what his films are most renowned for is his considered play on the slow burn of suspense. As Hitchcock commented, “I relish a story that is so full of suspense that the audience is clutching at chair arms…None of this quick, smashing excitement that lasts about ten seconds – a good six or seven reels of worry is what I aim for.”
Split into two parts, Vertigo begins from the perspective of detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart). Suffering from severe vertigo he retires, but later agrees to follow the wife (Kim Novak) of an old college friend (Gavin Elster, played by Tom Helmore) after Elster reveals that he believes that his wife is possessed by the spirit of her dead grandmother (who had previously committed suicide). What unfolds is a narrative of duplicity, betrayal, desire, anxiety and neurosis bordering on insanity, which is later told from the reverse point of view.
Visually, the film stands out in terms of its complex and symbolic palette. Harsh reds and greens are invoked at various intervals to increase the sense of atmospheric unease. There is something quite sickly and unnatural about the use of colour that constantly calls into question perception and the act of looking. Hitchcock takes the idea of doubles and deception to the extreme by utilising mirrors as blocking devices that further call into question what it is both the characters and the viewer are observing. Vertigo is also the film that established the filmic vocabulary for simulating the sensation of falling. By focusing on a fixed point the camera is pulled back while simultaneously zooming in to produce a disorientating effect. The shot that uses this technique at the beginning of the film, where Scottie looks down while hanging from a tin roof, sets the tone for the rest of the film. The anticipated feeling of free falling is woven into Vertigo as a whole, setting in motion a film that is arrestingly tense and constantly teetering on the verge of plummeting into a complex emotional abyss. Do watch this film if you haven’t already. It is truly a classic in every sense of the word.