Sunday, January 22, 2012



Because yesterday I saw The Artist and Rachel's blog brought to my attention the Month of Vertigo blogathon going on at The Lady Eve's Reel Life, I've been thinking recently about mediums inspired by Hitchcock's trippy 1958 movie.

Most cinephiles already know Vertigo's plot, and could probably recite it backwards. We follow the deteriorating life and sanity of a once steady, sardonic detective (James Stewart in his greatest performance) who becomes crippled by vertigo and his guilt-induced obsession with a tortured femme named Madeleine. Madeleine, of course, is hardly anything more than a hallucinatory dream, first consumed by the conviction she is becoming her dead, mad ancestor Carlotta Valdez, then instead is replaced by the less mysterious and brassier Judy Barton, who merely acts out Madeleine's mannerisms and looks, in order to please the increasingly lizard-eyed, desperate Stewart.

No, I'm not going to re-type that summary backwards just to prove my point.

Vertigo's reputation might be doing better now than when it was first released some fifty-four years ago, but it's still a polarizing film. You can either be like me, and love it with the giddy abandon of a girl who always loves with a giddy abandon any stylish, well-acted film about high-flown love, obsession, and madness. Or you could be like my brother-in-law, and recall Vertigo as that overrated Hitchcock movie where James Stewart follows a car around for two hours.

Whether you dismiss Vertigo as overblown and draggy or embrace it for its ambience and impeccably executed melodrama, there's no denying the atmosphere, the music, the themes of Vertigo--driven so mad by lost love you become crazed with the need to recreate it--have inspired many. The first most direct homage came in 1976, with Brian DePalma's Obsession.

 The movie drew a lot of angry criticism when it was released, most notably from the man himself, Alfred Hitchcock, who considered DePalma a cheap imitator. Many critics and filmgoers already labeled DePalma as such before Obsession even came out, so when the film was released they took it as confirmation of their opinions. The negative press and convoluted plot sunk the movie's chance of success.

Like many DePalma films, the movie may have started out with a similar Hitchcock vibe, but takes a more violent, kinkier turn--no small feat, considering Hitchcock's penchant for both. Cliff Robertson's Michael Courtland is a successful, happily married man, until his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and young daughter are kidnapped for ransom. Because he's manipulated by the police and his business partner (John Lithgow), he bungles the ransom and both wife and daughter end up murdered, incinerated in a car crash. Fast-forward many years later to Italy, where the broken and numb Courtland is on a business trip, and just happens to see a woman who looks exactly like his beloved lost wife....

The exact minutiae of the plot of course differ from Vertigo, which follows a shamed detective's love affair with a woman who he thinks is married to his friend, but the essential themes are the same: lost love, guilt, doubles, reincarnation maybe?, reveals, confessions, deceit, badda boom. The big plot twist at the end has even more...unsettling implications than Vertigo's, and maybe where DePalma slipped up was in not realizing this to the twist's full potential, and he glosses over the obvious ickiness.  You might as well play up the ick-factor if you're going for it.

And yes, DePalma may have tried too hard copying the atmosphere of Vertigo, such as the dream-like cinematography by the renowned Vilmos Zsigmond, which includes replicating the infamous circling shot of the embracing couple at the movie's end. Yet this stealing of tricks does make the movie memorable, even if the stodgy characterizations and stylized shots keep the audience at a distance.

But the biggest coup for DePalma was securing Vertigo's original composer Bernard Herrmann to write Obsession's score. Herrmann and Hitchcock had apparently suffered a falling out at this point, so one can only imagine the glee Herrmann took creating Obsession's magnetic, delicately gorgeous score, whereas poor Hitch had to resort to such incongruous and brash compositions as the one Ron Goodwin wrote for 1972's awful Frenzy. 

Vertigo's score may have been more powerful, sweeping, and tragic, and it will always rank as one of my favorite film scores of all time, but Obsession's music is more intricate, more subtle, more eerily beautiful. Both scores capture that terrifying feeling of love and humanity frozen by trauma, only whereas Vertigo's music throws you tumbling headfirst down that rabbit hole of tragedy, Obsession's teases you, rocks you back-and-forth gently as the madness simmers beneath the chords.

Because Bernard Herrmann is possibly the greatest movie composer of all time and Vertigo's score is a principal ingredient in why it's so memorable, there's no surprise that when people imitate Vertigo, often they imitate through music. Therefore, it's no coincidence some rock groups have taken to Vertigo's messy and dramatic storyline, maybe pulled in by Herrmann's hypnotic soundtrack.

Therefore, one of the best, trippiest songs to come out of the early '90s was "Carlotta Valdez," by one of the best, trippiest bands from the early '90s, Harvey Danger. Since like Vertigo Harvey Danger's songs are often melodramatic, brilliant, and eerie with cheeky knowing humor, the band is a perfect modern counterpart for the style and flair you get from Hitchcock's best. They get Vertigo's insanity and dark humor, and so they're ideal for commemorating the mysterious Carlotta.

More intense and perhaps more grating to the ear (though I still find the song appealing for all its gravelly punkishness) is the 1997 music video to Faith No More's "Last Cup of Sorrow." This might be my favorite music video ever. The ringing bells throughout the song remind me even of Franz Waxman's haunting score for Bride of Frankenstein, and the creepy tune goes well with this skewed visual retelling of Vertigo. Filling in for Novak is the stony-faced, radiant Jennifer Jason Leigh, and various members of the band play other key roles gone a little wrong and wickedly funny. See the hilarious stand-in for the nun at the end of the video, the stand-in for Carlotta in the dream sequence, and Leigh's punk-rock take on Bettie Page--a good homage draws from many different sources, after all.

And last but not least is the current controversy surrounding The Artist--a controversy, I think, created entirely by Kim Novak, apparently suffering from temporary Norma Desmond Syndrome. First of all, let me discuss a little what I thought of The Artist, a beautiful, fun movie that lived up to its hype, though not without its minor flaws. I felt like a little more character background was needed, such as finding out where Berenice Bejo's Peppy Miller came from, and I would have liked going more in-depth into the relationship between James Cromwell's touching chauffeur Clifton and Jean Dujardin's George Valentin, and Valentin's relationship with Uggie the dog. I know you're supposed to show and not tell (particularly in this movie), but a wee bit more backstory might have helped anchor it more. I also think the film lost its center a bit in focusing so much on the abasement and misery of Valentin once he has his fall from grace, that that section could have been tighter. And perhaps they shouldn't have dyed Penelope Ann Miller and Missi Pyle's hair platinum blonde and given them similar characters, because I was constantly getting them confused. Also, Malcolm McDowell? Totally wasted, I am afraid.

But as I said, these are minor nitpicks (sorry, Malcolm). The worst I was afraid of was that The Artist would be too "cute," which it certainly was in parts, but you forgave the movie because of the nonchalant yet rambunctious tone. And there were more than enough serious moments to counterbalance and contrast to the cute. The dream sequence where Valentin grows hysterical in his dressing room because of all the cascading sounds was chillingly brilliant, though I almost would have preferred it as not a dream, but as a surreal, stand-alone episode foreshadowing Valentin's future. Yet this moment has such a perfectly nightmarish tone that you experience Valentin's hysteria right there with him. And I enjoyed the subtle little nods to movies like Citizen Kane, such as when Valentin's standing backlighted against a projector, much like Kane's intrepid reporter, and we get the full view of Peppy's room full of Valentin's auctioned belongings, echoing the endless storeroom of Charles Foster Kane's abandoned objects at the end of that masterpiece.

You couldn't ask for more effective leads. I am now madly, irretrievably in love with Jean Dujardin, who looks like Gene Kelly and has his sparkle, but with an imposing, strong presence all his own. Berenice Bejo has a beautiful face created for the sole purpose of smiling, and is likably scrappy from the word go. To pull off this material, you need leads capable of personable comedy and realistic tragedy. Dujardin and Bejo excel at both.

So I really don't give a rat's ass if Kim Novak clutched her pearls in despair or that her monocle popped right out into her wine-glass because The Artist's composer Ludovic Bource quite legally bought the rights to Herrmann's Vertigo score for only one key scene where the music flowed perfectly with the tense action on-screen (culminating with the best use of the title card "BANG!" in cinematic history). But remind me, Kim. What do you think about it all?

""I want to report a rape. I feel as if my body -- or, at least my body of work -- has been violated by the movie, The Artist."

Uh-huh. Your body of work? Honey, you were great, but you replaced Vera Miles, fergawdssake. Obviously given Hitchcock's cavalier attitude toward his cattl--actors, I doubt he or anyone else connected with the movie would consider Vertigo Kim Novak's masterpiece. This isn't to belittle Novak's presence and chilling beauty, which is indeed part of what makes Vertigo such a classic--they really don't make faces, bodies, or presence like that anymore. 

But not only does such an attitude show unearned pomposity on Novak's part, but I really don't see why we should let her "rape" comment slide just because she's a classic actress from Hollywood's Golden Age. After all, look at how Johnny Depp was attacked because of his comment in Vanity Fair, where he said constant paparazzi scrutiny feels, well, like rape. Both dumb comments, but Depp was absolutely crucified by the press and was subsequently contrite, whereas Novak hasn't even apologized and her rep is even defending Novak's use of the word. Uncool. Thankfully, I think we're past the point of cutting her slack based only on the unhealthy worship we attach to the surviving stars of yesteryear, letting them get away with insensitivity and ignorance.

Still, that more than half a century later Vertigo is causing artistic unrest is beyond neato. Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the peculiar tale met Hitchcock and Herrmann's unique showmanship and energy in exactly the right way to make it a timeless, unique piece that will continue to haunt and inspire many other mediums for many other years.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to the Last Cup of Sorrow video; I loved it. You know, your comment about Vertigo's musical homages made me think that Vertigo really does seem like it could be remade as an opera. If you only raise Herrmann from the dead and get him to adapt the score.

    I still haven't seen The Artist, but I did have to smack my head over Novak's comments. While it's hard to say for sure until I've seen how The Artist utilized Vertigo's score, it just seems rather misguided to me. I get that the director is trying to pay homage to classic cinema but when you throw in one of the most famous movie scores of all time, well then yeah, I think you leave yourself open to charges of piggybacking. But Novak's comments are just so over-the-top and for no other reason than that The Artist is getting so much publicity right now. As far as violations go...count yourself fortunate that your digitized image is not being resurrected for the J'adore perfume ad.

    Always glad to hear your thoughts, Laura.

  2. Heh heh, yeah. Let it be said there are downsides to being a legend, and digital resurrection is one of them.

    And dang, where is that Way-Back Machine! If resurrection is to be utilized at all, it should be for reviving Herrmann so he can compose this Vertigo opera! Anna Nicole Smith got an opera, why shouldn't Hitchcock? He's almost as classy.

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