“Are you watching closely?”
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige'." (The Prestige, 2006)
Recently Sight & Sound magazine caused a stir when it announced dramatically that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has booted Orson Welles’ long serving Citizen Cane, which reins (or perhaps reined) almost all lists of this kind, from the first place in the top however many critic’s poll list the magazine carries out annually. While I agree that Vertigo is a better film, in my view Citizen Cane is not even Welles’ best film, and I’m always happy to see a Hitchcock at the top of lists, these type of lists are usually quite meaningless to me, and I use them as a check point for how many films have I seen and what films I still need to see. Choosing a favourite film of one filmmaker is difficult enough, having to choose between Wells and Hitchcock, Felini and the Cohen brothers or Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg and declare one as the all time best film is inconceivable.
Luckily I never had to face this choice, but the critics who took part in the Sight & Sound poll chose, for the first time, Vertigo. The result of this polls came at the height of the Hitchcock season following the amazing restoration work the BFI have done on some of his older films and with the genius' birthday on August 13th (I'm sure conspiracy theorists would find this timing suspicious). I have decided to ride this wave of hoopla around Vertigo and while I shall not attempt to rank it on any kind of list, I would like to take a moment and point out why Vertigo is indeed a masterpiece.
A while back on another kind of list (alas it is for Hebrew readers only) I was asked, as a renowned Hitchcock obsessed, to write a few words about Vertigo, which made the ninth place together with seven other films (amongst them Citizen Cane). I chose to use the above quote from the opening monologue from Christopher Nolan’s brilliant film The Prestige for I could not have written anything better sum up Vertigo in a few words. Indeed what is Vertigo but an astonishing magic trick and Hitchcock its conjurer?
I have read so much about Hitchcock and Vertigo in particular, I’ve studied and discussed the film to death and back, yet trying to write about it, I find myself unable to express the effect this film had over me and its importance. Everything I have to say seems so redundant when you can just watch the film and experience its magnificence. Or perhaps it’s because François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock himself have already said it all, and so passionately, from Truffaut no doubt, and beautifully, in Truffaut’s brilliant book Truffaut Hitchcock.
In Truffaut’s book, Hitchcock tells how he explained to his leading lady Kim Novak that the visual impact was more important to him than the story, which is one of the reasons for his obsession with her clothes and hair. Apart from being still relevant today, when the story worship trend often tends to push cinema aside, Hitchcock statement is radical and one of the things that sets him apart as a genius of filmmaking.
Indeed, after exhausting the discussions about necrophilia, the dressing and undressing of Hitchcock's latest blond and the comparison between Hitch and his leading male characters, you are still left with such a powerful visual experience its images have become so iconic.
It's funny, Hitchcock says in Truffaut's book that he was always bothered by a flaw in the story: how could the husband be sure that Scotty wouldn't make it up the stairs? It seems quite a gamble for someone who plans to murder his wife. This never bothered me, nor did it seem to bother Truffaut, because the murder story is almost insignificant. Instead Vertigo offers two very thrilling, yet quite different films within one.
The first is a romantic film with added ghost story flavour and a tragic ending that makes it almost mythic. Hitchcock’s preference of suspense over surprise meant that he deviated from D’Entre les Morts, the book Vertigo was based on, and reveal the twist at the beginning of the second part of the film, and made it, quite suddenly, into a different kind of film, which at the same time changes and strengthen the nature of the story that preceded it.
Scotty, his vertigo and consequently his inability to prevent the falling of the people around him, are the thread that goes through the film and tie it together into the powerful masterpiece it is. While it is true that Scotty repeatedly fails to stop the people close to him from slipping away from him, quite literately, it is a different Scotty at the beginning of the film hanging to dear life, having to watch his colleague fall to his death as he tries to save him, to the Scotty who couldn't save the woman he loved and has to live with the loss for the rest of his life, perhaps he was trying to redeem himself for that first incident through her, to the Scotty who watched the woman who damaged him fall into her death at the end.
So much has been written and said about Scotty's obsession with turning Judy in to the dead Madeline and various meanings of it, all interesting and generally add even more value to this film. However, if I put those aside for a moment and go back to the first time I watched Vertigo, to my instinctive fist reaction to the reappearance of Madeleine on the screen, I felt, in correspondence to the opening quote from The Prestige, like I watched an unbelievable magic trick. Knowing and seeing how it was done made it, all the more astonishing, because as a great fictional character once said: "The fun is in knowing [...] If the wonder is gone when the truth is known, there never was any wonder." And for me Vertigo is a cinematic wonder.