Below I reprint the review of Vertigo published in the influential British journal Sight and Sound upon its original release in 1958, but first a brief introduction.
Hitchcock in the 1950s
I am very interested in how the reception of films change over time, and how their initial reception relates to their standing today. One of the single most interesting cases is Vertigo (1958), a film that has become embedded in the consciousness of serious filmgoers.
By the time the film was released in 1958 (1959 in Britain) Hitchcock was the most high-profile Hollywood director of them all. No doubt this was galvanised by his appearance on television as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-61) in which Hitchcock was cleverly cementing a clearly-defined screen persona – the slow drawl, the black suit, the sense of humour, the portly figure, and the famous profile. It was Hitchcock himself who had transformed his profile into a neat logo, which then went on to open every episode of his TV show. Hitchcock had become an unlikely but powerful brand.
The 1950s saw key changes in how films were written about. Influenced by the politique des auteurs promoted by the French critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, British film critics of Sight and Sound focused more on the role of the director and the director’s responsibility for the film as a whole, then they ever had before. The combination of this shift in film criticism and the strong Hitchcock brand meant that Hitchcock’s role as an auteur was indisputable. In the review below Houston talks of a ‘typical Hitchcock joke’, for instance. Indeed Hitchcock is seen as perhaps the ultimate auteur: the precise visual style of his films suggest to the viewer that he knew what he wanted and achieved it. The controlled movement and pacing of his visuals suggest control behind the camera.
So when Vertigo was released it was clearly seen as another ‘Hitchcock film’. At first glance his films of the 1950s were clearly Hollywood products, as was the case with the glossy star vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with James Stewart and Doris Day, or To Catch a Thief (1955) with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. He made a couple of grittier movies in the 1950s, notably I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956), which had the feel of film noir and neo-realism, but Vertigo was clearly aligned with his bigger releases: vivid colour, Vistavision, and a star name in James Stewart. But again Hitchcock seems to smuggle dark themes into these studio movies, with Vertigo being a particularly bleak emotional journey concerned with loss and obsession.
Today the film is revered by critics and film lovers, and during the last Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll in 2002 the film almost beat Citizen Kane to the number one spot – it was only 6 votes away. The fact that Vertigo, along with Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) were quickly removed from circulation only to be seen again in the 1980s may have contributed to their appeal when re-evaluated (pirate black and white copies circulated for those desperate to see them during that dark age).
Below is the full review that was published in the Spring 1959 issue of Sight and Sound, written by Penelope Houston, which offers an interesting perspective on how the film was received on initial release. She believes that the film suffers from a plot of ‘egg-shell thinness’ and that one of its key problems is that of pacing: ‘this time he is repeating himself in slow motion’. She does not seem to have sensed the repressed passion that drives as an undercurrent throughout the film. This may be due to the fact that Vertigo is ultimately defined by its repeated viewing. The first viewing is only an introduction, but it is in the re-watching that the film starts to take hold and become an obsession.
Please let me know your thoughts on the review and leave a comment.
Penelope Houston, ‘Vertigo’, Sight and Sound, Spring 1959, p.319.
VERTIGO (Paramount) finds Hitchcock toying weightily with a thriller by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, authors of Les Diaboliques. As with their earlier novel, the mystery is a question not of who done it but of whether it was really done at all–in this case, how can a girl who has fallen spectacularly to her death from a church tower reappear a few months later in the streets of San Francisco, and is she in fact the same girl? This question of identity, central to the novel, is disposed of by Hitchcock in a brisk and curiously timed flashback, leaving only the secondary problem of how the hero, a detective who first trails the girl, then becomes obsessed by his memories of her, will react to discovering the truth. But in a story of this kind, a sleigh-of-hand affair built on deception and misdirection, mystification counts for everything; to introduce questions of motivation, to suggest that the people involved in this murder game are real, is to risk cracking a plot structure of egg-shell thinness. Only speed, finally, could sustain the illusion that the plot hangs together–and Hitchcock has never made a thriller more stately and deliberate in technique.
If the plot fails to work, there are still some good suspense diversion. These include a macabre, misogynistic sequence in which the obsessed detective (James Stewart) enlists dressmakers and hairdressers to make over the lightly disguised Kim Novak number two in the image of the lost Kim Novak number one; a typical Hitchcock joke, in which the detective tracks the girl down an alley, through a dark and dingy passage-way, and finds that this sinister approach is the back door to an expensive flower shop; and a single shot of stunning virtuosity, with a corpse spread-eagled across a church roof at one side of the screen, and the detective slinking out of the church door at the screen’s opposite edge. A roof-top chase, decisively opening the picture, a struggle in the church belfry, some backchat in the manner of Rear Window with a cool, astringent second-string heroine (Barbara Bel Geddes) are all reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve. One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion.–PENELOPE HOUSTON