Hitchcock 1958

Plotlines season: Mistaken Identity
Sunday 4 November 2012
Dada Bar, Trippet Lane

This Hitchcock classic starring James Stewart and Kim Novak recently topped the BFI’s Sight&Sound magazine greatest films poll, finally usurping Citizen Kane.

The legendary status of the film was enhanced by the fact that until quite recently it was not legally available to screen in this country. Representing a ‘mistaken identity’ plotline, it’s a bizarre story of obsession and pursuit, a stylish thriller with twists, turns and dizzy heights. See film notes below.

The DAda bar was a great place to gather after the film, have a drink and talk about the film. We also asked members to fill in their own top ten greatest films poll, with some fascinating results…

Film notes for this screening:

Vertigo is a film that has elicited continuing debate amongst film theorists and critics. It is such an odd film, and such an anti-love story as the hero’s behaviour seems nothing short of abusive. As he bullies his girlfriend into dying her hair and changing her looks to resemble the woman he loved and lost, with fetishistic attention to detail, we wonder how much more she will take. It’s disturbingly close to the relationship portrayed in “Tyrannosaur” – a study of control and co-dependence. In Vertigo, both characters are in love with a fragment, the idealized picture of another person rather than the real thing.

Pauline Kael famously disliked it – “a shallow masterpiece”, while a Time review of the day said “The old master has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares.

So what is the fuss about? Perhaps it’s the sheer power of the dreamlike quality that takes it into a different realm, makes it an extraordinary piece of cinema and a huge stylistic influence for years to come. Recurring themes of identity and falling are explored as the camera travels restlessly through a dreamlike San Francisco. The film begins and ends with James Stewart’s Scottie watching helplessly as someone falls to their death. Oh, and it happens in the middle of the film too…

Falling in dreams is such a well-known experience, we hardly need the psychedelic nightmare/hallucination sequence to create the sensation of the whole film being a dream.

The haunting music by Bernard Herrmann enhances the weird, uneasy atmosphere (just as his soundtrack did for the New York streets in “Taxi Driver” – another story of a man possessed)

 As for identity, we can never be sure just who the hero and the heroine are. The James Stewart character is known by different names, while the woman he loves shifts her identity from unattainable blonde goddess / ghost to the flesh-and-blood but ultimately duplicitous Judy. In the end, we’re not sure exactly whom he loves or what he is really chasing. There is an increasing desperation in Stewart’s eyes as he pursues an ideal that lives somewhere beyond his reach, and probably not even in this world.

There is a recurring motif of the spiral: the curl of Carlotta’s hair, the concentric rings of the ancient tree, the spiral staircase of the bell tower and the endless circling of the camera as the action moves from external scenes to internal ones, as if constantly returning to the subjective inner world of the dreamer.

 Critic Roger Ebert has watched it shot by shot and come to the conclusion that it does indeed deserve the award of greatest film. “For years people have been telling me they just don’t see what’s so great about ‘Citizen Kane.'” Now they tell me they just don’t see what’s so great about “Vertigo.” My answer will remain the same: “You’re insufficiently evolved as a moviegoer.” Or, more simply, “You’re wrong.”

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