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.

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