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“Vertigo” One of Hitchcock’s Best & Now Best Film of All Time

I just HAVE to write more about “Vertigo”s great ascendance to being named “The Best Film of All Time” by the British film mag “Sight and Sound.”

I first saw “Vertigo” in college. At a special stand-alone screening. That was introduced by a film “expert,” a professorial type, who made sure everyone got “notes.” It was like he was TEACHING this film. This I thought was ludicrous. Since when did they TEACH movies? Movies were just something you went to and enjoyed or not enjoyed. That was it.

Yes, that shows you how long ago this was. Back, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back before the dawn of film schools. It was my first film lecture. And I was eager to go, because it was a Hitchcock film that was new to me, that I had never even heard of.

And this eager older gentlemen seemed so earnest in his presentation, I remember. It was like we HAD to understand “Vertigo” HIS way.It was a “Very special film” and it “was not received well by critics when it first opened.”

And I remember he laid special emphasis on the scene in the bookshop where James Stewart and Barbara Bel Geddes went to find out about the history of Carlotta  Valdez, the mystery woman from the past, whose portrait Kim Novak’s character, Madelyn, keeps returning to gaze at, at a museum.

This guest lecturer, who was brought in from elsewhere, and who was NOT a teacher at my school, wanted us to particularly note how increasingly DARK that scene became, as the bookstore-keeper who reveled in San Fransisco history, kept talking and talking about just how tragic Carlotta Valdez’ life was. And the darkening room lighting, when it was not dark at all outside,( It was the middle of the afternoon. Out the window you could see bright sunshine),was Hitchcock’s way of ominously emphasizing how dark the film was going to get. And of course, it did.

He wanted us also to notice how Midge, the Bel Geddes character, was always surrounded by light. indicating mental and physical health and common sense. This meant(I can’t believe I remember all this!) that she, Midge, was the one we were supposed to listen to.  And Stewart and Novak, of course, were not, and they were often enveloped in fog.

I think it was unequivocally both Stewart’s and Novak’s career-best performances.

I remember that lecture situation to this day.It was such an anomaly back then. To see a film, as a subject for a lecture. It was treated as a Special Event, and it was shown at night. It was not part of my theater curriculum.

I guess it made a lasting impression, remembering it all these years later. I guess I was a cinephile even then. I didn’t know that but I knew I always loved Alfred Hitchcock’s scary movies.

And I remember that it was the first time I had ever seen “Vertigo.” And so when the climatic turn of events began to unfurl, and the TWO dives off the Spanish mission, San Juan Bautista’s bell tower occurred. I was utterly shocked and screamed bloody murder. Especially at the end. For those two of you who have never seen it, I’m not going to reveal it here.

But I guess suffice it to say, that that incredible short scene that ends the film is like being scared to death by nuns.

In one of the interviews which I started to look up last night on You Tube on Hitchcock, it was revealed that Hitchcock was taught by Jesuits. So he must have been Catholic. Something I did not know, and something that is barely mentioned in the immense amount of scholarly film criticism that has been heaped upon him and his ouevre and rightly so, since then.

And since I came to that first screening of “Vertigo” back at URI, the University of Rhode Island, where I had the misfortune to be an undergraduate in THEATRE(but that’s ANOTHER story) I remember how profoundly moved and shaken and absolutely scared to death I was by that double-twist ending.

I remember feeling just awful for Kim Novak’s character, Judy. And for James Stewart, too.

In his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, of which there are podcasts available online somewhere…or there WERE…I remember Hitchcock not wanting to talk about “Vertigo.” I think he said something like “Mistake! Mistake! The film didn’t work!” and Truffaut asked in French through the translator “Why?” and Hitchcock said “The man was too old.” Meaning James Stewart, the policeman who had to retire because he had vertigo. Hence the title.

How wrong Hitchcock was!

I Always liked “Vertigo”Best! Now Named #1 Film, beating “Citizen Kane!”

I always liked “Vertigo”. I always liked it better than “Citizen Kane.” I never liked “Citizen Kane” THAT much. I saw it first in London at the National Film Theater around 1970, or so. I had stayed on in England, trying to get into the Drama Schools there, and become a British Actor, which is what I always thought was the best kind of actor you could possibly be.

And I was rejected by every single one.

Although I did get a call-back to the  Bristol Old Vic, and spent a lovely weekend, or at least an over-night in Bristol…and then was rejected by them, too.

I was always unimpressed, unmoved by “Citizen Kane.” It was named, at that time “The #1 Film of All Time” and I thought I was really going to see something when I saw it at the National Film Theater. But it left me sort of cold.

I loved and related to the Susan Alexander character, his second wife, who he tries to turn into an Opera Singer. But Kane? No. A bully. A blusterer. A millionaire. Who cared? Orson Welles was good. But when you’re supposed to care about him when Susan Alexander walks out on him, and he tears up her room, I just didn’t care ~ that much.

I was glad she left him.

And “Rosebud”? I thought that was always a very contrived device. One word to sum up a whole man’s life? Nonsense!

And Orson Welles. Well, there was “Citizen Kane” and that was about it.

Whereas Alfred Hitchcock was always my main movie idol, in terms of a filmmaker, whom I constantly revere, engage with, and watch and re-watch, on an almost daily basis.

I always thought “Vertigo” was very, very good. And it was grown in my estimation of it, as I have seen and re-seen it over the years. And “Citizen Kane” no matter how many times I have tried to watch it, and tried to love it, as “The Greatest Film of All Time,” I still can’t really warm to it.

I admire Gregg Toland’s amazing camera work. And the Bernard Herrman score. He wrote the “Vertigo” score, too. The one thing the two films now battling it out at the top of the Sight and Sound Best of All Time List, have in common. I have always loved Dorothy Cummingore’s bitter drunken Susan Alexander.

And as I became familiar with Orson Welles’ back-story, you can’t help but feel for him. And the talent stopped and wasted by his ostracism from the Hollywood community.

Whereas Alfred Hitchcock who made “Vertigo” so beautifully, made many, many, many films. In many eras spanning the silent films all the way up to the 1970s.

He was the ultimate craftsman. And I have mused for years on how someone so obsessed with the technique side of films could have made so many movies that have moved me so deeply, and not just scared me to death. His characters are really quite unforgettable, too.

I mean, Norman Bates in “Psycho”? An iconic name, too. And the Bates motel? That has passed from being a movie set into common parlance. Janet Leigh’s performance as Marion Crane earned her her only Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress(She didn’t win)

And no matter what, Alfred Hitchcock kept making and making movie after movie after movie. He was NOT outside the studio system. Never. Like Welles became so quickly after William Randolph Hearst’s powerful press machine, the mightiest, it was said, at the time, decided to virtually halt his career in America…

Hitchcock never did anything like that. He NEVER challenged the studio heads. He worked with them, and bent them to his will.

And it’s so strange to me that “Vertigo” was never until rather recently considered the great film that it is now acknowledged to be.

That LONNNNNNG car driving scene through the streets and up and down the hills of 1950s San Francisco, with the Bernard Herrman score pulsing underneath it as James Stewart  wordlessly follows Kim Novak’s car, the essence of “pure cinema” as Hitchcock himself would call it.

And since this “Vertigo” annointment, I’ve gone back to You Tube to search for just what people thought of it then. Interviewers like Tom Snyder never mentioned it. Never asked about it. Dick Cavett at least lists it…

What can you attribute the rise of “Vertigo” to? Well, for one thing, Francois Truffaut, and the Cahiers du Cinema, who recognized it and touted it long before others did.

More about this endlessly fascinating topic of Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, who I just called The Master soon.

And you know, he never won an Oscar?

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