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The Enigma of Alfred Hitchcock

Why was 'Vertigo' voted best film of the past century?

Dec. 27, 2016
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By what mercurial process did the acknowledged master of suspense gradually morph into one of the most-revered cinematic auteurs, beloved of critics and moviegoers alike and offering a constant source of inspiration as well as technical landmarks for new filmmakers? Perhaps the magic bullet that defined Hitchcock’s signature legacy was Vertigo.

When Sight and Sound proclaimed Vertigo as the best film of the last 100 years, it gave a new wrinkle to the Hitchcock legacy. Hitchcock was never concerned with social documentation or realism. Even his earlier movies contained an odd sense of mysterioso before psychological mysteries became fashionable.

The great Hitchcock films contain richly developed characters usually enveloped in delusions or fantasies, often of their own making. The characters are trapped in fascinating misperceptions that enhance the storyline. The majority of Hitchcock mysteries have less to do with solving a whodunit than with resolving the protagonist’s private obsessions. This tendency reaches its peak in Vertigo, but Hitchcock’s earlier output anticipates the later great films.

In Rebecca and Suspicion, Joan Fontaine questions her husband’s motives, failing to realize that her doubts magnify her own private insecurities. The care with which Hitchcock establishes the romantic motivation in both films reveals more than a little of the director’s own emotional tendencies. In Spellbound, Ingrid Bergman is so determined to prove that Gregory Peck is not a killer that their romance dominates the film. Bergman is likewise obsessed with Cary Grant in Notorious, where the steamy lovemaking would almost have obliterated the plot line had it not been for the Claude Rains character trying to dispose of his double-agent wife. His experimental films from the 1940s and ’50s include a misguided attempt at film noir realism with the ill-fated The Wrong Man and the long, continuous, uninterrupted tracking shots in the intriguing Rope.

After what seemed like something of a dry spell, Hitchcock emerged with a continuous string of first-rate masterpieces in the late 1950s rivaling his earlier films. The later films always inclined to a will-of-the-wisp sense of humorous irony. Hitchcock suddenly reengaged the elusive and sometimes ominous obsession that often defines screen fantasy and its unsettlingly pervasive effect upon audiences. The stunning and ever-popular Rear Window and the incomparable trio of North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho are uncanny films compounding the irony of cinematic fantasy by dealing with characters that do not exist except in the audience’s concept of screen time. North by Northwest plays mayhem with common sense and quickly becomes a whirlwind foray of incredible occurrences, compelling the unfortunate Cary Grant to take on the behavior of the non-existent Mr. Kaplan, which completely changes Grant’s persona in the film. The actor performs with an unaccustomed gusto even in his signature gray suit.

Psycho is the more-subtle achievement, a testament to Hitchcock’s ability to transform audience reactions by creating a horror-fantasy created solely by inference to non-existent events. There is no Mrs. Bates, but so strong is her persona that it becomes difficult to persuade the audience that it’s only Tony Perkins in drag. Psycho is a masterpiece of hidden fears that conjure suppressed childhood terrors. And what do children fear? Haunted houses. Flashing weapons. Witches and the threat of unanticipated danger. This unusual movie so brilliantly captures the suppressed insecurities that define our most basic fantasies.

Even before Vertigo was acclaimed as the greatest film of the last hundred years, Donald Spoto, Hitchcock’s biographer, called it one of the most beautiful films that cinema has given us. Leonard Maltin claimed it’s a masterpiece that requires many viewings. He doesn’t get it. In Vertigo, James Stewart accomplishes something that you and I cannot. He brings back from the dead a lost beloved, like Orpheus pursuing Eurydice in the underworld. Hitchcock gives us fair warning. In the middle of the film he reveals to us that the there is no Madeleine, the beautifully created dream wish that so haunted the James Stewart character. She is only ordinary Judy playing a role—and an accessory to murder to boot.

What’s disturbing about Vertigo is how we share his anxious anticipation. As he tries to transform Judy into Madeleine, our anxiety increases. Vertigo’s unspoken magic is that the audience waits expectantly for what Spoto calls “The Madeleine World” to reemerge. The transformation remains a shock.

Hitchcock’s greatest and most luminous film remains one of the greatest romantic fantasies on screen. Hitchcock has come full-circle and Vertigo seems to touch all bases. The fantasy has become real. There is a touch of film noir, French experimentalism, psychedelic illusions and a prevailing sense of beauty, which seems to haunt even the most cynical cinephiles of our increasingly cynical times. Perhaps fantasy is the key component to what we term virtual reality.

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