"As an expression of racking emotion, and as a trip into an eroticized universe, 'VERTIGO' is nonpareil"
San Francisco isn't just the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo: It's the movie's muse. Along with composer Bernard Herrmann, who transforms convoluted psychology into resounding lyricism, and co-star Kim Novak, whose pheromones and otherworldliness give body and soul to tortured romance, San Francisco enables Hitchcock to conjure a nether world of amorous yearning. Of course, James Stewart is wonderful in the role of a retired police detective drawn into an apparent case of demonic possession. But he's not the movie's muse; he's its Orpheus. San Francisco is a fantasia made into flesh and blood and bricks and mortar. Cutthroat street history and cushy mid-'50s chic, theology, and murder rub up against each other--and then, improbably, merge in a seductive trance.
The movie breaks into two big chunks, as Stewart pursues Novak first when she appears in the guise of a socialite named Madeleine, and then when she reappears as a shopgirl, Judy. San Francisco seals the cracks. The story of the movie's current rerelease also breaks into two big chunks: It's a tale of one city and two obsessions--that of a preternaturally gifted imagemaker, and that of a couple of zealous film restorers, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who want to bring Hitchcock's vision back in glory.
Let's take Hitchcock's obsession first. The script's key writer, Samuel Taylor (who shares screen credit with Alec Coppel), is a San Francisco native; that may explain why locations from the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge to Novak's Nob Hill apartment and Stewart's flat near the base of Lombard Street inform and heighten the action. It was Hitchcock, though, who took the suggestiveness of the locations and ran with them creatively.
Long before Taylor finished the script, the director deputized his production designer, Henry Bumstead, to scout Bay Area shooting sites. One scholar has taken that as proof of Hitchcock's need to fold a "travelogue" into his movies as a selling point; after all, in 1957, wide-screen runaway productions in colorful, far-flung locations were winning audiences back from television, and directors were looking for ways to pop moviegoers' eyes.
But the precipitous urban hills with their unexpected perspectives and blind spots, the wind-swept trees of the Northern California coastline, and the misty pockets of the sequoias inspired Hitchcock to do what only a great director can do. He melded hypercontrolled studio artifice, as specific as a building plan, to spontaneous physical beauty. In Vertigo, Hitchcock's combination of natural and unnatural flirts with the supernatural.
This directorial wizard's brew was crucial for the far-out plot to work: Stewart plays John "Scottie" Ferguson, who, while hanging from a rooftop, discovers that he has acrophobia. After Scottie quits the San Francisco police department, a college pal, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now a shipping magnate, hires Scottie for an odd job: following Elster's wife, Madeleine (Novak)--who acts as if she were seized by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor. Scottie's best friend is Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his one-time fiancee, a commercial artist who's too much of a maternal force to be a lover. Madeleine has problems, but being maternal isn't one of them. The vertigo of the title refers to Scottie's acrophobia and to his vertiginous drop into amour.
When Novak and Stewart emote by a picturesque stretch of shore, Hitchcock goes from the pair's anguished parlay in front of a studio-built tree to a shot of them navigating an actual rocky hill, and then on to a process shot of the two stars avowing their love and tempestuously kissing just as a big wave tumbles and froths behind them. (A process shot is a visual sandwich whose ingredients usually include live actors and a canned background.) Hitchcock turns studio trickery into the highest of high styles; the shifting grade of the shoreline actually tweaks the emotions. Even as a movie-mad Eastern kid watching Vertigo on Saturday Night at the Movies 35 years ago, I recognized that the crisp outlines around Hitchcock's human figures related to the whirling geometric forms in the opening credits--and that the surface action had a subterranean pull that didn't connect with conventional thrillers.
When Blue Velvet opened, the people who loved it best didn't immediately take apart its narrative, but settled into the movie as into a Roman bath. I think that's probably the best way to enter Vertigo, too. As a thriller it abjures the momentum and cathartic release of Hitchcock's peak suspense film, Rear Window. But as an expression of racking emotion, and as a trip into an eroticized universe, Vertigo is nonpareil. The glory of the reconstruction Harris and Katz have done on Vertigo is that it allows you to be overwhelmed like a kid again while reckoning with Hitchcock's sophisticated artistry. In the 70mm prints, the sharpness of the imagery and the luxuriance of the sound help you realize afresh how much imaginative discipline went into this dreamscape, and help you to appreciate motifs, some of them major, that are diminished when the image loses clarity. Before I saw Vertigo projected, not just broadcast, I'd never fully registered the way the world outside Midge's window looks eerily black-and-white, or that whenever Scottie starts to trail Madeleine outside her apartment, he has to maneuver around a patch of torn street. Now these touches seem emblematic of the movie's booby-trapped romanticism and of the mixture of sentiment and decadence in San Francisco itself. Gavin Elster complains that what made San Francisco a potent place is gone--in 1957! Auras of tarnished and vanished glory are part of the allure of cities like Venice and San Francisco, whose bustling past gives them a sensual humanity beyond the realm of airbrushed picture books.
That ambience fits the story of Scottie and Madeleine like a glove, or maybe a gauntlet. Scottie follows Madeleine as she pays homage to a grave in Mission Dolores and relaxes in a rundown hotel; as she buys a bouquet and stares at a portrait of a striking senorita in the Palace of the Legion of Honor. He begins to feel that Madeleine could be the latter-day incarnation of a famous beauty from San Francisco's early days, Carlotta Valdez, who held sway in a grand house, but ended up roaming the streets wild-eyed when her millionaire lover abandoned her and took their child. Hitchcock and Scottie picture Madeleine as an exquisite bloom rising from volatile soil; when she's staring at Carlotta's headstone, she's framed as part of the cemetery garden. Stewart is amazing at expressing the mingled chivalry and desire of Scottie's white-knight fantasies, just as Novak is at insinuating behind Madeleine's masks her unique blend of carnality and intangible longing.
The notion that Scottie can be Madeleine's savior is a tease, even if Hitchcock does manage to get a whoosh out of the audience when their lips mesh and the waves crack. She is married to one of Scottie's college pals, and Scottie can't save her. To be euphemistic for those who haven't seen the movie, Madeleine disappears with a jolt that afflicts Scottie even worse than his acrophobia and sends him into the hospital with a case of "melancholia" and "guilt complex" that leaves him catatonic. When he emerges, he haunts Madeleine's preferred spots; the sole physical trace of her that he finds is her Jaguar. It's only when he's wandering the streets that he stumbles on a Madeleine look-alike--a salesgirl named Judy Barton, also played by Kim Novak, but this time as a wised-up, earthy brunette. The film takes its weirdest and most rewarding twist when Scottie begins reshaping Judy into Madeleine's image: turning a Kansas-bred working gal who toils behind a counter into royalty.
Academics treat Vertigo as a pure tale of obsession overflowing with metaphors for spiritual ascent and descent, sex and rot. But first-time Vertigo-ers, upon seeing the opening sequence end with Scottie clinging to a rain gutter, don't conclude, "Ah, this is a tale of pure obsession; that's why Hitchcock isn't showing us how Scottie gets down." They think, "There's something fishy about this opening; it's going to connect with the rest of the story." Of course, it does connect, but in terms of affect, not plot. Hitchcock is doing something riskier than announcing that he's making a mood piece: He's setting up thriller expectations and relentlessly skewering them. Viewers know that Madeleine looks posed and artificial in or out of her Carlotta mode, especially when she dives into San Francisco Bay; she doesn't lose her high heels in the undertow. But when the secret behind her stiltedness comes out, it isn't via detective work or tricky revelations: It simply spills from the screen. Even the movie's most celebrated special effect, the simultaneous zoom-in and track-out that makes Scottie's view of reality plummet like an elevator cab with a slashed cable, conjures a thrill and externalizes Stewart's psychic state. All through the movie Hitchcock tries to have it both ways--to create a thriller and an anti-thriller--and most of the time, he succeeds.
Hitchcock's most daring gamble is to endanger the audience's identification with the hero. Yes, we understand that Scottie is the victim of awful circumstance (and, we find out, something more), but when he starts acting like a movie director and remakes Judy into Madeleine and forces her to change everything including her wardrobe and her nails and hair, his obsession becomes scary. (What you really wish is that Scottie would finally get rid of Madeleine-Judy's grotesque painted eyebrows.) When Judy decides that she's going after Scottie despite everything, we root for their love to be consummated against our better judgment, though there's bad faith on both sides. The reflex-feminist reading of the movie is that it's a paradigm of a man "objectifying" a woman. Yet the movie hardly celebrates Scottie's manipulative fervor. Feminist literary critic Louise DeSalvo writes in her rough-edged new memoir, Vertigo, that at age 15 she both identified with Scottie and saw through him; what she learned is that his type of ecstatic and consuming love is dangerous.
Hitchcock transforms his and Scottie's obsessiveness into a cunning perceptual game that repays reviewing. Part of the movie's seemingly inexhaustible wealth of detail comes from the coiled action in Taylor's script; part of it comes, impure and not so simple, from the director's vision. Taylor built observations of a woman's form and getup into the plot; most supporting characters rate less attention than Madeleine's hair, which she wears in an upward swirl like her doomed ancestor in the "Portrait of Carlotta" hanging in the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Scottie thinks the image of classy Madeleine with her hair down after she jumps into San Francisco Bay is sexy. So it's ironic as well as sick that when the declasse Judy finally looks like Madeleine would with her hair down, Scottie won't accept her as his woman until she pins it up. Still, starting with the opening credits that feature a woman with a motionless face and eyes scanning the corners of the frame, the movie's fabled hypnotic power derives from Hitchcock's ability to sharpen our vision against his. Forget the zoom-in, track-out: I can't think of another movie, by Hitchcock or anyone else, that uses odd-angled closeups to such penetrating effect. Of course, it's striking for Hitchcock to freeze Madeleine in profile when Scottie first sees her. But the shot that makes the sequence sting is the downward-pointing closeup on the back of Stewart's head--the composition that conveys Scottie reacting to Madeleine's presence with the hairs on his neck. It's the movie's visual exploration of sexual nuance that keeps you from wriggling at its sleepwalking pace or balking at its inconsistencies as melodrama. (Hitchcock himself felt qualms about the credibility of the story, which turns on Scottie's vertigo cropping up at a critical moment.)
Scottie's (and Hitchcock's) perfectionist idealism has links to Hawthorne short stories like The Birthmark and Rappaccini's Daughter, and what a literary critic said of Hawthorne's work applies to this movie's sneaky queasiness: "It will work upon you like a very weak and very slow poison." But Vertigo also works on you more directly. Its romanticism may be landmined, but it is romantic. Hitchcock knew how to create atmospheres in which offhand comments crackle. After Scottie has brought the post-dip Madeleine back to his apartment, undressed her, and put her to bed, he asks her if she has ever done this before. She responds with a "What?" that communicates: "Gone naked in a strange man's apartment? Or jumped into the bay?" And Herrmann's music has an extraordinary, plangent urgency that keeps Hitchcock's florid-in-the-best-sense approach from seeming overblown. Herrmann (who composed eight pictures for Hitchcock including an unused score for Torn Curtain) said shortly before his death that Hitchcock "has little or no interest in people's emotions," that the director was only concerned with music's power to heighten suspense. For Hitchcock, Herrmann said, "One has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of Psycho or the turbulence of a picture like Vertigo." Actually, the wonder of Vertigo is that, with the help of Herrmann, Hitchcock's stars, and San Francisco, the director was able to use his practical, thriller-honed craft to venture into surrealism and thereby capture emotional extremes (something he failed to do in Spellbound, even with the collaboration of Salvador Dali). It's that inward-outward, push-pull charge that gives the movie its pulse. The past 40 years of auteur criticism have convinced serious audiences that Hollywood directors could be artists. The reissue of Vertigo shows us is that even at his most artistic Hitchcock never ceased to be a showman.
Harris and Katz have a perfectionist reputation, but they're showmen, too. Most "restorers" merely locate an original negative (or even a well-worn dupe), clean it, strike new copies, and call it a restoration. Harris and Katz aim at something higher: nothing less than capturing for present-day viewers the magic a movie had on opening night. They will painstakingly repair an original negative that has faded and broken after hundreds of printings--in effect, creating a new original negative (and new printing negatives in both 65mm and 35mm formats). Their quest to bring back a film's past glory can get as obsessive as Scottie's to bring back Madeleine; they conduct archaeological digs and oral histories in search of guidelines on everything including color shades and sound design. But their goal is healthy: to give moviegoers a chance to experience the full power of a classic and feel it in their bones the way audiences did before it was ever dubbed a classic.
Harris and Katz's modest two-room headquarters at Universal Studios has the jumping air of any new movie's command center. (The usual base for Harris' company, Film Preserve Ltd., is Bedford, New York; Katz commands the Film Preserve West from Universal City. For Vertigo, Harris inspected the elements and came up with a game plan back East, then flew west to supervise the work with Katz.) Along with the expected--strips of celluloid, stacks of film cans, and an inspection table where Harris can eyeball the goods--their rooms are filled with relics of Vertigo as a theatrical production. Some are precious curiosities, like a version of the "Portrait of Carlotta" that features Vera Miles--Hitchcock's first choice to play Madeleine-Judy--and an advance publicity shot of Miles in Madeleine's clothes and makeup. (As Hitchcock famously told François Truffaut, "She became pregnant just before the part that was going to turn her into a star. After that, I lost interest; I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again.") Some are functional, as well, like the green dress Novak wears as Judy that is one of the touchstones for their color values. (Another: a circa '57 paint sample from Jaguar Cars.)
Harris and Katz have designated one strip of wall their "Wall of Shame." When rights for a handful of Hitchcock's films (including Vertigo) reverted to the director, orders were sent out to destroy the three-channel masters (containing dialog, music, and sound-effect tracks) and related material in Paramount's possession throughout the world. Harris and Katz have copies of the sad sequence of letters commanding and confirming this aesthetic annihilation. (Put in unscientific storage were a mere eight 35mm and six 16mm prints.) Harris and Katz unearthed those letters after inspecting available materials for more than a year; luckily, they decided they could use what they had to restore the film anyway.
Harris has been a film collector, distributor, and producer (notably of The Grifters), while Katz has worked every angle of the business, from publicity and marketing in United Artists' '60s heyday to running Universal Classics and spearheading the release of five long-unavailable (but unrestored) Hitchcock films in the mid-'80s: Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, and Rope. (Katz also has produced diverse low-budget films, including Three Sisters and Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.)
"We never lose sight that we're doing these things for an audience and trying to make the most palatable and exciting presentation possible. That's where we get whatever clout we have with the people who own these movies, because we're in the position of selling someone else's trousers. We're saying, 'Michael, we really like your jacket, but it's got a hole in the back, and we want to fix it, but it's gonna cost you 50 bucks.' And it's very hard to convince you of that. So we have to tell you what a great jacket it is, and how it's never going to go out of style." Harris adds, "And how a lot of other people want to see it on you." And, caps Katz, "You've got four others we think are just as good in the closet!"
Harris first contacted Katz about Vertigo more than a dozen years ago, when Katz was overseeing Universal's Hitchcock reissues. Harris had an ambitious vision of transporting it from city to city in VistaVision, its original format. VistaVision was an imposing but doomed big-screen option that doubled normal frame size while generating images of outstanding resolution--and unfortunately requiring expensive projectors. (Few theaters bought them, so most movies using the process were reduced to standard wide-screen 35mm.) "We struck the first reel off the VistaVision negative," recalls Harris, "and it was faded." Harris and Katz called off the VistaVision tour; but this was the catalyst of their strategy to revive Vertigo.
Between then and now, Harris achieved pre-eminence in the field of restoration with his labor of love on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia; he and Katz teamed up on Kubrick's Spartacus and George Cukor's My Fair Lady. The pairing worked: Katz defers to Harris' technical mastery, Harris to Katz's instinctive navigation of film-world politics and bureaucracy, and they share a good-natured, goading sense of humor. (Katz insists that his greatest accomplishment since they partnered up was getting Harris to stop combing his hair over his bald pate.) While they were still refurbishing Cukor's lavish version of Lerner and Loewe's musical, they discovered that Vertigo's original music tracks were sitting at Paramount and deteriorating into vinegar. At their own expense, Harris and Katz sent the tracks to the sound restoration department at Warner Hollywood. The movies were on death row. Katz told Universal Pictures head Tom Pollock, "The Hitchcocks we rereleased in the mid-'80s are in bad shape, and if we don't do them right away, starting with Vertigo, there won't be anything to restore." Once Universal renegotiated terms with the Hitchcock estate, Pollock gave the go-ahead to Vertigo. It was probably the last project he signed off on before leaving the studio. (Katz and Harris are now preparing to rescue the rest of the Universal Classic Hitchcocks. Next up: Rear Window.)
Says Harris: "When you're working on a movie by a live director, everything is easier across the board including dealing with the studio. On Lawrence, when we needed something, David Lean would pick up the phone and say, 'Do it!'" With Pollock's departure, they lacked both director (Hitchcock died in 1980) and studio protector. "There wasn't a lot of interest here initially," says Katz, "but that's always the hardest part of selling a movie--selling it internally." The restorers had to fight not only institutional inertia but also confusion: As Harris says, "The problem was to get someone to sign the order for certain things we wanted from Paramount when they weren't on anyone's inventories, so officially they didn't exist." But restoration crusader Martin Scorsese lent his support--Katz calls him "the best layer-down of guilt trips in the business"--and Harris and Katz were resourceful when it came to creative decisions. Doing anything to the work of a revered master craftsman like Hitchcock arouses the ire of idolaters. But Harris and Katz decided that there was no way to make use of the existing sound effect tracks--they had to rerecord what's called "the Foley." For guidance they relied on Hitchcock's voluminous notes and the recollections of his collaborators on the production. A key figure here was Herbert Coleman; he was listed as associate producer but, Katz says, "really did every kind of thing for [Hitchcock]. We tried to learn how Hitchcock conceptualized each reel; what he wanted the city sounds to be like. Basically he didn't want too many. Basically, he thought less was more."
Coleman had firsthand knowledge of the kind of behind-the-scenes chaos audiences never think about (and thanks to men like him don't have to). It was Coleman, for example, who located a place to finish recording the score when a musician's strike prevented Herrmann from conducting it himself in Los Angeles. "The conductor, Muir Matheson, worked with the London Symphony for a day or so, then was told to stop because the British unions were sympathizing with the American strike; so Hitchcock went home and gave Coleman the command to complete it somewhere, and he ended up taking Matheson to Vienna." Some 40 years later, this left the film's restorers a tangled legacy. Harris and Katz were working with 70 percent of the music recorded in three-track stereo in London and 30 percent done in mono in Vienna on inferior recording stock. To get an idea of the complexity of reconstruction: When big musical holes emerged in one sequence, the restorers ransacked their inventory (including material from Germany and Italy) and found a 1983 Spanish print using a music and effects tracks made for Spain in 1958; they took 1 1/2 minutes of mono music off that print, spread it, equalized it, and made it sound seamless.
Did they do any vocal rerecording? Katz takes a roundabout route to admitting...just a little, and for a footnote at that. He divulges, "There was not an alternate, but an extended ending to the picture that Hitchcock never wanted shown," he says. (Those who haven't seen the film should skip the remainder of this paragraph.) "There's a fade-out to Midge's apartment. Midge is sitting there listening to one of those big old Blaupunkt radios--and coming over it we hear that Gavin Elster has been spotted in Paris, and so-and-so says that he will be apprehended in a short time, and [in an unrelated item] that students in Berkeley were seen leading a cow up the stairs. Then Scottie comes in, she clicks off the radio, mixes him a drink, goes back to the window, hands it to him, and that's the end of the picture, leaving you to think that something may happen after all with him and Midge. It was shot because in French Canada and Scandinavian countries, the bad guy couldn't get away." Some Vertigo fans contend that they've seen this ending on TV, but Harris and Katz don't believe it. They didn't even think that an English track had been recorded until a producer at San Francisco's KPIX-TV informed them that longtime anchor Dave McElhatton had been the original voice on the radio. When Harris and Katz got word that the Hitchcock estate didn't want that scene used, "In order to minimize its importance, we did the radio broadcast ourselves," says Katz. (The scene will probably show up on the laser disc.)
For the crucial visual elements, the restorers had a faded negative and black-and-white separations. The separations record the blue, red, and green patterns that combine to make the final full-color image. The problem was, the separations didn't fit together (they had shrunk at different rates) and were riddled with contrast; without correction they would produce the kind of image you see in newspapers when printing plates haven't been properly aligned. And, to top it off, says Harris, "They were dirty. They didn't have wet-gate printing; all the scratches, all the dirt showed through." Restoring Vertigo required a painstaking process of getting the registration right on the separations and then going through the film frame by frame. "There are 1300 feet of process shots in this movie," Harris says. "There's not a scene you can look at where you can say, 'This is real!' And you take a scene that looks simple, like Madeleine jumping in the water, and you've got fully exposed shots, and shots made with water fog filters, and with half-fog filters, full fog filters, then you go back to no fog--and every time you use a different filter, the exposures are different, the look of the film is different; you have less contrast, and the less contrast and the lower the color saturation, the more it's faded; so you have to compensate using different methods for each shot, not each scene, each shot."
"We're always trading off qualities, like color for sharpness," confesses Katz. They failed to get either in one of the film's critical patches: Judy's flashback explanation of the plot. Harris and Katz are frankly abashed that they can't hide the deterioration of the image. I watched the film with two movie-savvy buddies who didn't notice; since the content is jolting anyway, the abrupt alteration seems natural. And once the flashback is over, Harris and Katz's theatrical instincts come into play. Rather than immediately resume with their prime material, they ease back into it with footage of an intermediate quality--as Katz says, "We didn't want the audience to be traumatized by sudden changes in picture and sound."
When Harris and Katz showed parts of the movie to a Herrmann scholar, he was initially outraged: "He said, 'There was no triangle here, no oboe there; why are you tampering with the score?'" They didn't do any such thing: The state-of-the-art presentation had brought out previously hidden details. The restorers are reconciled to "half a dozen purists" complaining about their work. But friends and critics emerged from the first screening, on September 20--held, aptly enough, at the Alfred Hitchcock Theater on the Universal lot--shaken and stirred. For viewers who have seen worn-out revival prints or the dark old MCA-Universal Home Video tape or the new, artificially sweetened and brightened tape, the Harris-Katz version will be a revelation for its luster, keenness, and scale, for the magnificence of the score, and most of all for its clarification of Hitchcock's intentions. Even the makeup on Stewart and Novak seems less obtrusive, more persuasively stylized: entirely fitting for a story about the games ghosts and people play. The background noise is well judged, at times eloquent: When Scottie and Gavin Elster confer at a club, the amplified masculine rumble conveys the complacent power of men in a men's world.
I ask Harris whether he'd achieved any profound insights into Vertigo as a work of art. He demurs. "You've got to realize," he says, "when we're in the middle of a project like this, we're not dealing with a movie, we're dealing with pieces of film." He speaks as if he were a Renaissance mason intent on polishing every bit of filigree before he would judge his cathedral. Post-screening, he is pleased to proclaim, "It's a great film."
Vertigo is playing at GCC NorthPark 1-2, 1100 NorthPark Shopping Center, North Central at Park. Call 363-7541 for times.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston
- Just in Time for Thanksgiving Travel, Love Field Breaks Out New Parking System