Vertigo’s Trick

All that talk about the death of cinema gave me a reason to once again seek out Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s all David Thomson’s damn fault. In his obit (or, um, get well card) for the movies, he invoked this year’s Sight & Sound poll, the once-a-decade list to end all lists that finally (finally!) dethroned Citizen Kane and instead named Hitchcock’s flick as the top dog.1

My reading lists and social feeds have been flooded with takes on the Sight & Sound list, but for whatever reason I have waited until now to actually go the video store and rent2 Vertigo. Thomson’s ludicrously masked cynicism (“You see how positive I am being…”) pushed me over the edge.

Now that it’s fresh in my mind I thought I’d share some thoughts.

First off: it’s a crime that there isn’t a Vertigo Blu-ray available right now. Everything about this film screams big screen, from Saul Bass’s iconic opening titles to the lush San Francisco scenery. Worse, the best current DVD release is 4:3 letterboxed as opposed to 16:9 anamorphic, meaning the pixels are presently as constrained as possible. Vertigo demands a higher resolution on any sized screen.

So there I was, trying my damndest not to compare Hitchcock to Welles, a problem I never really had before the S&S list came out. All I could think for roughly the first 80 minutes of the film was “Is this really that much better than Kane?” The answer doesn’t matter because the question is, of course, flawed.

But then Vertigo becomes another film. The tale we initially settle into turns out to be a Macguffin for an altogether different type of mystery. To take an analogy a bit too far, Hitchcock not only holds his cards close to his chest, he also stacks the deck and shuffles it thrice. It’s brilliant and bold.

Modern films hinge heavily on twists, which tend to reveal themselves in the third act. That can be satisfying, but it isn’t the only way to surprise an audience. Hitchcock’s trick in Vertigo is to keep the audience focused squarely on the many twists built into the film while telling a wrenching tale of psychosis.

The reason we have become so obsessed with “Spoiler Alerts” is that so many of the films that make it to multiplexes today rely almost entirely on one or two surprises. Take them away and you are often left with nothing but a bland and straight narrative. Vertigo works on so many different levels that it is ostensibly spoiler-proof. No matter how many viewings you sit through, it will never be the same film twice.

Modern storytellers could learn a trick or two from Hitchcock’s masterwork. Hopefully, thanks to its newfound popularity, we’ll all be able to see it in an HD transfer soon.

  1. Maybe in the next round I’ll be able to participate. Or maybe by then cinema will be dead. (Finally!) ↩︎

  2. Yes, rent. We still have thriving video stores here in Austin. I own a box-set of public domain Hitchcock films plus a copy of Rope↩︎