I’ve done a review of courtroom crime drama classic Anatomy Of A Murder, starring James Stewart, for the Argumentative August Blogathon hosted by MovieRob & by Ryan of Ten Stars Or Less. AND… this doubles as one of my own reviews for my IMDB Top 250 Challenge! This movie was ranked 203 out of 250 when I started my project on 01/01/2013.
You can read my review HERE. Thanks for letting me take part, guys! 🙂
Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from James of Back To The Viewer. Thanks for the review, James! 🙂 Now let’s see what he has to say about Vertigo, IMDB rank 48 out of 250.
There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list of remaining films HERE. See the full list & links to all the reviews that have already been done HERE.
Also, if you’d like to add a link to your IMDB review(s) on your own blogs, feel free to use any of the logos I’ve used at the top of any of these guest reviews.
When I volunteered to take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo for ‘Cinema Parrot Disco’s ‘IMDB Top 250 Challenge’ I was hoping to have a better experience compared to my first viewing. I was willing to give it a second chance after my first experience consisted of yawns and animosity but it wasn’t to be. Usually one to see the good in almost everything I seriously struggled with this one but here goes.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of Alfred Hitchcock’s ability to navigate his way around the human psyche I’d like to start off by addressing the BFI’s decision to adorn Vertigo with top honours on the ’50 Greatest Films of All Time’ list in ‘Sight and Sound’ back in 2012. Sparking an incessant debate two camps emerged. Firstly, those who agreed with the decision, or were at least impartial. Secondly, those Kanites who, through an act of self-excommunication, refused to allow their holy grail in the form of one Citizen Kane to be associated with anything lower than top spot. Refusing to align with the critics’ choice a fierce debate ensued which thankfully has died down since. What worries me here is the day Vertigo falls from grace. Will it come quietly or will it put up a fight grappling with the bell tower banister drenched in sweat, fearful of the dizzying descent leaving in its wake a tainted throne for the successor? Naturally what Hitchcock’s Mystery Romance boils down to is not a detective story but an allegory of his own directorial style. Hardly a revelation in the film studies world but ever a significant point. However, little attention is paid to the subtleties that hide in plain sight. The past plays such an important role in Vertigo right up to the closing shots that it begs to wonder whether Hitchcock knew with some prescience of mind that his 45th feature was going to leave such a lasting and debatable impression on cinema culture.
On at least three occassions are the words ‘power’ and ‘freedom’ used in the same sentence. First by Gavin Elster when he recruits John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson to follow his wife, he mutters in reference to San Francisco’s colourful past “I’d liked to have lived here then. The colour and excitement…the power…the freedom.” But despite the colour Hitchcock employs, Vertigo makes for a dark mystery overtly presented in the second instance by the book shop owner and historian Pop Liebel. Also in reference to San Francisco’s past but specifically the dominant patriarchal society, “They had the power… and the freedom,” spoken as the room is gradually, masterfully consumed by darkness. Lastly, spoken by Scottie himself “the freedom and the power.” This last one has been sidetracked slightly through fear of revealing too much but the words stand alone and stand out, to me at least. Perhaps from my History education, or perhaps more likely from my curiosity. Why would Hitchcock make this point consistently throughout? Bringing it back to the earlier point that Vertigo is more about film direction then it could refer to the power and the freedom Directors enjoy in their choices and decisions. It’s no secret that Hitchcock had a very specific vision for his leading ladies and the efficacy with which he pulled it off is inarguably sublime, Kim Novak is just that.
Delivering a complex performance to say the least as Madelaine, Gavin Elster’s wife to whom Scottie is assigned, Novak moves effortlessly between the lines of vulnerable alluring damsel to tragic innocent caught in a web of deceit. James Stewart puts in a solid performance as Scottie and with Hitchcock at the helm it would have been rude to expect anything less. Outside players such as Midge, Scottie’s adoring friend, can only watch helplessly as he falls deeper and deeper into a spiral of psychological acrophobia mixed with a healthy dose of curiosity, passion, and obsession.
The reason Scottie is hired to follow Madelaine on her day to day travels is revealed by Elster during their first conversation on the matter. Elster informs Scottie that Madelaine of late tends to leave this world for another, her eyes cloud over and she is somewhere else. Eventually coming to and having no recollection of her whereabouts. Enough to fuel Scottie’s intrigue he tentatively agrees to report on Madelaine’s activities. In a warped plot that seems as ludicrous to us as it does to Scottie Elster believes his wife has become possessed by the ghost of Carlotta Valdes. Tragically befalling to her own maddening sickness Valdes committed suicide at the age of 26. Madelaine is 26 hence Elster’s apprehension over her mysterious activity. However, the relationship between Carlotta and Madelaine forged by Hitchcock seems strained and forced whereas the symbolic relationship between Carlotta and Scottie burgeons throughout, initially unnoticed but retrospectively significant.
What Hitchcock has produced with Vertigo is a timeless tragedy perpetually spiraling, perplexing, and intriguing viewers. My first viewing of Vertigo was tainted by the anticipation of a gripping masterpiece. I left feeling a little unsatisfied and bemused, much like the original audiences upon its release way back in 1958. Despite what others have said in retrospect Vertigo will unfortunately never take the crown in my top 10 and the same can be said when put up against Hitchcock’s other features. North by Northwest and Rear Window do it for me, sorry Alfred. Given the resurgence of critical attention since its original re-evaluation in the 60s and even more so since 2012 with ‘Sight and Sound’s controversial decision my reaction to Vertigo remains unimpressed. It has some defining features, the iconic nightmare scene, psychedelic title sequence and the famous film making technique, dolly out-zoom in, but for all this auteuric style Hitchcock subdued his thrilling archetypes for the sake of a farfetched mystery that just doesn’t cut the mustard. Having said that I’m not one to discredit Hitchcock’s mastery behind the camera and these rare moments have warranted Vertigo a better rating than I care to get across in my review.
It was Worth my timeto give Vertigo a second chance, and who knows perhaps with time it will grow on me. But that says it all really, if the greatest film of all time doesn’t do enough to impress me after two viewings then I’m going to need some of Scottie’s medicinal Brandy if it ever comes to a third.
Today’s IMDB Top 250 Guest Review comes from Niall of Raging Fluff. Thanks so much for contributing to these IMDB reviews, Niall! 🙂 Now let’s see what he has to say about Alfred Hitchcock classic North By Northwest, IMDB rank 42 out of 250…
There are still some movies up for grabs if anyone wants to do a guest IMDB Top 250 review. You can find the list HERE. See the full list & links to all the films that have been reviewed HERE.
North by Northwest (1959)
Number of Times Seen: Too many to recall
Synopsis: A Madison Avenue ad executive, Roger Thornhill, is mistaken by enemy spies as CIA agent George Kaplan, a man who doesn’t even exist. Or, as the publicity had it, “it’s a deadly game of ‘tag’ … and Cary Grant is ‘it’!”
My Take: Should obviously be seen by Hitchcock completists and fans of Cary Grant, but should also be essential viewing for anyone interested in editing and scoring.
First, let’s get the film’s flaws out of the way. At 136 minutes, it’s far too long. James Mason as the villain is unfortunately given far too little screen time. The famous finale at Mount Rushmore is, for me, not as exciting as I think it could be, and several of the effects shots are rather shoddy. The filmmakers were prohibited from filming on top of the real Mount Rushmore. The plot itself doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, and the famous crop-dusting scene – brilliant though it is – is the most ludicrous way to dispose of someone: wouldn’t it be easier to just drive by and shoot him?
All that aside, it is still wonderfully enjoyable and holds up to repeated viewing. It’s a great piece of romantic suspense cinema. Director Alfred Hitchcock turned down the suggestion of Cyd Charisse as the girl, casting Eva Marie Saint instead, and we should be happy that the hero is played by smooth Cary Grant instead of drawling James Stewart, who was the original choice.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was originally hired to adapt The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes, but finally admitted to Hitchcock he simply couldn’t do it without turning it into “a boring courtroom drama”. Hitchcock told Lehman they would simply work on something else; the studio brass couldn’t believe their luck, thinking they were going to get two Hitchcock films for the price of one. In the end, Hitchcock passed on the Innes story to others, and he and Lehman focused on North by Northwest. Film fans should be grateful: we got, in Lehman’s words, “the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films”, and The Wreck of the Mary Deare is seldom remembered.
North by Northwest is a marvellous, breezy and confident retread of the best of Hitchcock, combining parts of The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much. It has many of Hitchcock’s great touches: a fantastic score by Bernard Hermann, a brilliant title sequence by Saul Bass, an ice-cold blonde, a suave villain, a powerful mother-figure, and a shallow, sophisticated big-city hero caught in a story of intrigue that will put him in peril in a sequence of masterful set-pieces.
He’s a shallow, possibly unlikable character, Roger O. Thornhill: R.O.T. (“What does the O stand for?” “Nothing.”) He begins the film as a man in total control, a 1950s movie idea of success, a smooth-talking, twice-divorced adman, dapper in his grey suit, without conscience or guilt, dictating instructions to his secretary that include buying kiss-off gifts to girls. For reference, let’s say he’s closer to Roger Sterling than Don Draper. By the end, he’ll have been almost killed several times, start an affair with a beautiful double agent, beginning with one of the sexiest conversations in cinema, have hung off Mount Rushmore (a working title for the film was ‘The Man in Lincoln’s Nose’), and finally be successfully married.
It wouldn’t work if the man wasn’t handsome and charming Cary Grant, but because it’s him, and because many of the dramatic scenes are played as high comedy, the film bounces along on its own sense of ridiculousness. He’s abducted by a couple of heavies and transported to a Long Island mansion. “Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theatre this evening.”
They pour a vat of bourbon into him and put him behind the wheel, hoping he’ll drive off a cliff. He doesn’t, and when the police arrest him for drunk-driving, he calls his mother from the jailhouse. “They poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me … No, they didn’t give me a chaser.” Thornhill’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis, in real life the same age as Grant) doesn’t believe his abduction story. She’s almost as joyously reckless as he is. When they’re in a lift beside the thugs, she turns to them and cheerfully asks, “you gentleman aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”
Of course Thornhill calls his mother. He still lives with her. He is still essentially a child, even if he is a ladies’man. Mind you, he’s the one who gets seduced by the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie-Saint). She turns out to be the mistress of the chief villain, but also a double agent. Their romantic meeting on the train has been copied several times, most recently in the forgettable The Tourist with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
The villain, Van Damm, is James Mason, and to watch he and Grant together, trading witticisms in their beautiful voices, is one of the great pleasures of film-watching. Mason casually says, “the least I can do is afford you the opportunity of surviving the evening.” Van Damm’s chief henchman is played by a nervous-looking Martin Landau, who plays the role with a hint of homosexuality: at one point he asserts his “woman’s intuition.”
The villains think Thornhill is a man called George Kaplan, who it turns out doesn’t exist. He’s a fiction created by the CIA as a decoy so the bad guys don’t realise that the real CIA agent is right under their nose. The McGuffin – only revealed at the end – is some microfilm they’re trying to smuggle out of the country. Having failed to kill him in the car, they try again, luring him to an Iowa cornfield, where they try to kill him with a crop-duster. The reasons for the scene makes very little sense, but it’s so brilliantly conceived and constructed – nearly six minutes of silence before anything happens – and the fact that it’s urbane Cary Grant in a nice suit being chased by a plane in the middle of nowhere, make it unforgettable. If you want to study how effective direction, editing and music score can be when combined correctly, watch that scene repeatedly.
As with much of Hitchcock, the film has to do with his own fears. He distrusted authority and was afraid of the police. The crop-dusting scene works in part because its setting induces agoraphobia: no matter which direction you look, all you see is a flat expanse of nothingness extending to the horizon. The film also has a lot to do with the suave and charming persona of “Cary Grant”. It was their fourth film together. He was 55 when he filmed North by Northwest – getting up there, but still something of a romantic lead – and some have read his journey in the film as a journey through his career. It’s an interesting idea: at times you can see the Grant of Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. There’s a wonderful moment where he breaks into a hospital room and wakes up a woman. She screams “Stop!” Then she gets a good look at him, melts and breathes “Stop…?”
Some other moments worth noting: the opening shot of the side of a skyscraper reflecting the traffic; the incredible overhead shot of the plaza in front of the United Nations building; the schoolboy joke of the train going into the tunnel that ends the film.
As enjoyable as North by Northwest is, I’d probably still choose to watch Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps first. It treads similar ground with verve, wit and economy (a mere 81 minutes), and is beautifully filmed in black and white, instead of the rather lurid technicolour of the 1950s.