Saturday, September 4, 2010

Film # 69: Vertigo: 70 mm (Sept 3)


1958, 128 min.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Friday marked the closing party for The Summer Film Series, even though there are still four more films left. It was the beginning of the bittersweet conclusion to my summer at The Paramount. I gotta be honest, I don't want this to end.

There was a private party for Film Fan Members, and we got there early so that we could enjoy all that it had to offer. And what a fun time it was! There were artists drawing profiles of guests, Hitchcock-style. I contemplated getting one done myself, but I didn't need a reminder of the ol' double chin. There were also complementary drinks and, for once, I took advantage. I had a drink with vanilla vodka, and my girlfriend had some peach schnapps thing. Tasty!

After a few drinks and some socializing, I decided to go have a look around at the crowds. Glancing around, I found it exciting that there were so many people in attendance. Even upstairs, chairs were hard to come by. Yay for people with good taste in movies. Hmmm. It's filling up in here pretty quick. Looks like it's time to go find our seats.

I was surprised that I recognized so many people in the audience. Lots of familiar faces from the entire summer. It was like the end of Pee Wee's Big Adventure when all the characters showed up at the movie screening. I used my acquired knowledge of fellow patrons to determine the proper place to sit for Vertigo.

"Don't sit here. There's that kid and his dad that talked all the way through Prizzi's Honor."
"Let's keep moving. That's the gal that annoyed me with her blind date during Psycho."

After a few warnings of that sort, we found near perfect seats. Before the film began, Ken Stein came out and thanked everyone for another Summer Series Season. After giving a warm shout out to the film fans upstairs, he provided an update on the tunneling beneath the lobby and reminded us that every little bit helps maintain this old but beautiful theatre. Ken also asked us to keep voting for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's "This Place Matters" campaign. He then drew a winner from the people who had filled out their votes already. The prize was two tickets to a show, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, performing at The Paramount in April. Well, as luck would have it, the winner was sitting right next to us. No joke! I snapped a photo of the joyous film fan member, which is included at the end of the following slideshow chronicling the night's events.

After a hearty round of applause for the winner and for Ken, he exited the stage and the film began. Vertigo, in restored 70 mm and DTS sound. Ahhhh.

I've seen Vertigo countless times, and my appreciation for this classic film grows with every viewing. I'll admit that it actually kind of bored me the first time I saw it, but it's because I couldn't understand any of the nuances or the more mature subject matter. In my defense, I was about 8 when I first saw it, so I guess I shouldn't have been able to comprehend what was going on. As the years went on, and I learned more and more about the complexities of the choices we make and the obsessions that drive us irrational, the movie became more textured, more rich, more artistic, more genius.

Vertigo is a ghost story about, wait- check that. It is a story about hauntings. Yet there are no phantoms, no poltergeists, no Bill Murray yucking it up or Bruce Willis talking with Haley Joel Osment. It's about ghosts purely in the sense that we can succumb to nostalgia. About how all the mechanisms for our hauntings are internal, and can escalate our flaws into a spiraling tower of obsession.

The plot is a winding road. John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is a retired detective dealing with his acrophobia (fear of heights). His condition resulted in the death of a colleague during a rooftop chase, which resulted in his sudden resignation. He's contacted by an old college friend Gavin Elster, who hires him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). She has been behaving oddly, and as Ferguson follows her, he begins to piece together a far-fetched scenario where she is possessed by the spirit of her late great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes (complete with suicidal tendencies). When Mrs. Elster flings herself into the bay below the Golden Gate Bridge, Ferguson dives after her and saves her life. That sparks the beginning of a romance between the two that ends tragically.

Distraught by his loss, John sinks into a deep funk and haunts the locations where he had initially followed her around San Francisco. Things get increasingly bleak (and surreal) for him until he happens upon a young lady (also played by Novak) who reminds him strongly of Mrs. Elster. He begins a relationship with her that progresses from slightly unnerving into a full-on creepshow of obsession. Himself haunted by the memory of Madeleine, John descends deeper and deeper into a madness all his own, trying to recreate the young woman into the image of his ideal... his beloved... his Madeleine. Surely I needn't tell you this will not end well.

The characters of Vertigo are an interesting bunch, each with obvious and overt neuroses tethered to their lives. The three major characters all give outstanding performances. Kim Novak does a great job in her dual roles, keeping the audience just as discombobulated as she does John. Also of note is Barbara Bel Geddes as Ferguson's best friend, Midge. More than just comic relief, she's accessible for audiences in a way that relieves much of the tension and weight of the heavier scenes. Yet she's also harboring issues of her own, hinting at character depth with a mere glance or a posture shift. Over the years, Midge has become one of my favorite characters in all of the Hitchcockian universe, and her story (particularly her hinted past with John) is the one I wish I could learn more about.

For me (and probably most audiences), the revelation in acting is likely to be Jimmy Stewart's performance as Ferguson. Most are probably most familiar with his "sunnier" performances in Frank Capra movies and several Westerns. Even at age 8, my image of Stewart was from It's A Wonderful Life, a movie the family watched every holiday season. While a darker brand of Christmas story, nothing ever hinted at the type of character he would portray in Vertigo. To put in bluntly, Ferguson is a sick, sick man. Oddly, he's a very structured man, with a belief that adaptive behavior can curb his maladies. But as the story progresses, we begin to see the truth. Far from the model of mental health, John is consumed by his inner demons.

Although I realize a great deal of credit must be given to the film's restoration team, I now find Vertigo to be one of the more visually striking films of Hitchcock's career. Since I am used to his films being mostly black and white, I am surprised by his thematic use of the color palette.

One of the more striking elements is his use of the color green in this movie. In this film where warm hues are prevalent, the appearance of green (particularly the emerald shade used) pops out in its vibrancy. Bear in mind that when "green" is used in this movie, it's not to evoke the same feeling it does today. Hitchcock wasn't trying to sell us reusable bags, after all. Long ago, I recall reading an article (or perhaps I heard a DVD commentary) where green was discussed as the color of evil. Later research reinforced this claim, underlining the pigment as the color of poison and illness. With that in mind, it becomes apparent when watching the film that green is the hue-based equivalent of a stop sign, indicating malicious intents or actions. Once this mindset is established, Vertigo becomes a haunting beautiful movie where the appearance of this color underlines the decay of one's mental health. See? This is why the film is such a masterpiece! It operates on so many different levels, and the magnitude of its greatness varies with each moviegoer and what they perceive. That, my friends, is geeeeeenius. Pure genius.

After the film, my girlfriend and I exchanged most of these points as I walked back to the car. Every time we see it, the topics of discussion focus uncover something new. We had last seen the movie on TCM about a year ago, and were astonished to notice that night's experience seemed a little different than we remember. Perhaps it was due to the audience, but I'm sure the venue had an effect also. The combination of the 70 mm print and the big screen seemed to amplify everything in the film. Drama was more intense, the surreal was even more bizarre, and the moments of levity were more effective in this psychological thriller. Once again, I couldn't help but think that the venue often makes a world of difference. A movie palace is the best place to enjoy a movie like this, and for those who saw it for the first time that evening... I couldn't help but be green with envy.

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