Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Spiraling Death Wish of Vertigo

By Steve Evans

Having seen Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) at least 20 times, it only occurred to me today, on perhaps my 21st viewing, that maybe the entire film is a dream, the final hallucination of a man about to die.

The film in 2012 was famously named best of all time in the well-respected Sight and Sound Poll sponsored every 10 years by the British Film Institute. At the time, the accolades set off another round of academic dissection about Hitchcock's most perfectly realized film, from its troubling thematic concerns about the impossibility of fully realized human relationships, to the visual cues that link everything each character says and does.

I won't recount the plot, confident in the belief that if you've arrived here you've seen Vertigo more than once. Nor does my interpretation of Vertigo's opening scene in any way distract from or disagree with the principal themes that follow -- that love and human relationships are, at best, illusions we create to deceive ourselves such that life becomes bearable. All of that plays out in the film no matter how you interpret the opening.

No, my renewed interest in this densely layered picture has to do with the idea that Jimmy Stewart's detective falls to his death in the first five minutes of the film, though we do not see this, and everything that follows is a swirl of thoughts in the seconds before he is killed. Recall at the opening that Stewart and a uniformed policeman give chase to a criminal across San Francisco rooftops, leaping from one building to the next. Stewart slips, slides from the sharply angled, tiled roof and barely manages to grab the rain gutter, which immediately bends and begins to collapse under his weight. He hangs helplessly from a great height over the streets below. The policeman abandons the chase and returns to help.

"Give me your hand!" the cop implores, his arm outstretched, as the wild-eyed Stewart dangles at least 100 feet above the street. The policeman loses his balance, screams in horror and plunges into the abyss, falling past Stewart and striking the pavement with a final, sickening thud.

Hitchcock's famous "Vertigo effect" -- zooming the camera lens forward while dollying backward, creates the nauseating sensation of space stretching into the infinite. We get one final close shot of Stewart, still clinging to the metal gutter, and the screen darkens. After a long blackout, the action picks up in the apartment of Stewart's friend and ex-fiance, Midge.

From this moment forward, I suggest the remainder of the film consists of Stewart's dying thoughts. Resolution comes only with his death at the final fade, when he stands on the edge of the mission bell tower, staring down at the dead body of a woman who he loved because he believed her to be another. In that moment it seems Stewart may well throw himself off the tower to join his imaginary beloved in death. I say, he already has.

The plot of Vertigo is preposterous. Stewart's old college friend exploits him in an elaborate scheme to murder his wife and use Stewart as a patsy to witness a phony suicide. No one would stage these events to get away with a murder. No modestly competent detective could be fooled by the ruse that unfolds. As it happens, most of the film is a portrait of a sick and deeply delusional man. That Vertigo is often considered Hitchcock's most confessional film speaks for itself.

My interest goes back to that opening scene. We never see Stewart get down from that building nor does there seem any way possible that he could. It's the middle of the night. One man has just fallen to his death. It's implausible to think emergency responders could assemble and stage a rescue of Stewart before it's too late. He hangs by his fingertips, presumably in agony from the weight of his body stretching downward with each creaking lurch of the rain gutter pulling away from the rooftop. Letting go will bring the release of certain death. Hanging on literally for life means prolonged and intolerable misery -- and even that can be sustained for only so long.

But Hitchcock gives no easy resolution. The screen goes black, leaving Stewart in that opening scene forever suspended between life and death. Since there appears to be no way he could have survived, we must approach the film as a man's ruminations in his fleeting moments before death. I can no longer accept anything after the opening scene as a literal depiction of events; the movie is just too infused with dream imagery for that. I believe we are seeing the convoluted thoughts of a man confounded by the elusive and illusory nature of love. And an instant later, he is dead.

This twist-ending narrative technique of telling tales from beyond the grave dates back to the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It is used most effectively in several key horror films films made after Vertigo, including Carnival of Souls, Jacob's Ladder, Venus in Furs and, perhaps most famously of all, The Sixth Sense. It's a way of yanking reality out from under an audience to get them pondering your actual agenda.

If we take Vertigo literally as a dying man's final thoughts, the implausibility of the plot becomes moot. Suddenly, we are left to consider Hitchcock's themes on love and obsession on their own terms. We may never know if Hitchcock was fully aware of what he was doing, of how much he was perhaps unconsciously revealing about himself. But if musing on the power struggle inherent in human relationships is the goal, then killing off your lead character in the opening scene creates plenty of freedom to play around with these existential follies we call love and devotion.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Reservoir Dogs at 25

By Steve Evans

Reservoir Dogs is 25 years old, which makes me older still. A vicious little brute of a film. Also hilarious. The corkscrew plot is a stew of ingredients from other movies, like Kubrick's The Killing and Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, both made in the 1950s, though especially Ringo Lam's City on Fire (1987). Naming tuff-guy characters after colors ("Yeah? Well Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy") comes straight from The Taking of Pelham 123 -- the 1974 original, naturally, with Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau. Maybe that's why Tarantino's film is so good: he pilfered from the best. It was his first completed and released picture, and today is still his second best. This movie is sly.

Even the title is a smartass hipster joke. Years ago, when Tarantino clerked at a video rental store, a couple of hicks came in and began browsing. One of the customers picked up the Louis Malle film Au Revoir les Infants (Goodbye, Children) and asked Tarantino, "Hey, what's this movie reservoir dawgs?" 

In the early 1990s, Tarantino's acting coach was Harvey Keitel's wife. She took Tarantino's script to Keitel, who put up some money to produce and leveraged his casting in the film to raise more funds. The whole project came in around $1.2 million and earned back slightly more than twice that at the box office. But the film became a cult hit, spurring $22 million-plus in home-video sales.

What other fun facts can I share? The jewel robbers in this heist flick all wear the same black suits and skinny ties, a fashion statement also made in an obscure Jayne Mansfield crime film, Dog Eat Dog (1964). That film's title served as the name of the production company set up for Reservoir Dogs. The Mansfield picture is delightfully trashy. Insane, really. Read more about it here.

I was in grad' school when I saw Reservoir Dogs on its original 1992 release at a long-gone arthouse cinema in Virginia. My first reaction was "wow." And then I thought, yeah, he's cherry picked from films throughout cinema history to make this one, but this Tarantino knows how to meld music and image like nobody else. This was before he fell so in love with his own dialog he forgot when to cut a scene. That's a shame because his two Oscars for screenwriting suggest he's one of the best film writers alive. Tarantino just doesn't know when to shaddup -- and that's my only real criticism. Well, and he's derivative far beyond the blanket excuse of paying homage. He's still one of only two directors whose films I always see in a theater proper, Scorsese being the other. Tarantino films are entertaining as hell. Half the fun of watching them is dissecting the collage of influences he's slapped together. 

Reservoir Dogs almost single-handedly brought about the resurrection of the indie film, even though it polarized viewers at Sundance. You love or you hate this film. These dogs do not elicit a ho-hum response.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Remembering TCM's Robert Osborne

By Steve Evans

Was saddened yesterday by the death of film historian Robert Osborne at 84. Took me some time to reflect on my admiration of Mr. Osborne. For the last 20-plus years he had the best conceivable job in the world as host of TCM. I learned a lot. Variety describes him as "effervescent" while conversing leisurely about the great films. Yes, he had that champagne personality, and it was backed up by erudite knowledge of the classics. His television presence extends back to the 1980s when he hosted The Movie Channel. Before that, he was a Hollywood Reporter columnist. Years later, at TCM, he played host to a great Saturday night program, "The Essentials" also with Alec Baldwin, whose own knowledge of classic cinema is impressive. Osborne was so good that he set the standard and maintained it until stepping down early last year for the sake of his health. Today TCM is the only network that precedes a film with a moderated discussion. And boy howdy, they sure are a joy to experience.

As I feel about many hundreds of interesting people throughout the world, I had always hoped one day I'd get to have coffee with Mr. Osborne though our paths never crossed.