Get ready for the effects showcase of your life! Well, effect.
Yeah, I know, it's a classic, it's the best movie ever, blah blah blah. I don't know. I just saw it for the first time recently, and ... wow. Talk about overrated.
Maybe it's just that I'm looking at it with the perspective of modern cinema standards (which isn't a snickering statement; not everything coming out these days is a Paul Blart: Mall Cop or a Gigli). But Vertigo is no match for other Hitchcock movies I've also seen recently, such as North by Northwest, which is to my mind a much finer example of its time, with genuinely interesting characters who actually feel believable, great International Intrigue style and architecture, and more skillful use of Saul Bass.
Vertigo seems like it's one great big cliché. I say this knowing full well that for something to become a cliché, it has to start out as a tried-and-true technique that people just come to rely on too much. But really: sitting bolt upright in bed in a cold sweat after a nightmare?
Whyyy, Ah-ah-I do believe I've soaked my sheets. And now there's a camera in my bedroom, for cryin' out loud.
Surely someone might have raised a tentative hand and said, "Um, sir, you do realize that nobody actually does that, don't you?"
I realize the movie is a product of the Fifties, and as such there are some conventions that more or less must be followed come hell or high water. But the fact is that they just make me angry. I can't believe this kind of thing was once considered "entertainment".
You've got Jimmy Stewart fixated on a willowy blonde dame who speaks in a breathy, posh "I don't want to leeeeve in a wuuuhld without laaaahve" voice and acts like a delicate china doll who must be pampered and worshipped lest a single hair in her sculpted 'do fall out of place. She doesn't say or do anything remotely interesting except pretend to be possessed by a dead Spanish lady, and yet that's enough to make Jimmy gee-gosh-willickers fall in love with 'er, and vice versa. Am I out of line for thinking there should have maybe been more basis for these two going ga-ga for each other than the fact that they both seem to look like movie stars? Or is that all there ever was a need for in the sainted pre-Eternal Sunshine Hollywood?
What, you mean this isn't what having a girlfriend is like? Damn movies!
Of course it turns out to be important (or at least convenient) to the plot, before they meet, that she at least pretend not to notice ex-cop Jimmy following her around all over town; but after six dozen low-speed chase scenes through light traffic where he essentially glues himself to her bumper for miles through side streets in San Francisco, you have to wonder just how good a cop can he have been if he always made himself so difficult to miss when tailing a suspect?
Yeah, she'll never see me all the way back here. I'm so sneaky.
Eventually she's overtaken by a severe enough gust of overacting in her role-within-a-role to cause her to cast herself into the Bay at Fort Point. She floats in the water for a whole ten seconds before she is dragged out, unconscious and at death's door, by a distraught Jimmy.
I guess this is how he knows she's not a witch.
It isn't until much later that evening that she finally awakens, confused and amnesiac, and this doesn't seem at all unusual. Apparently in the Fifties, five-foot-deep water was Lethe and Nepenthe all at once. Didn't people know how to swim back then? This is what I mean about how these clichés make me mad more than anything else: they're just accepted as part of the storytelling process, and plausibility is never really made a criterion for judgment. I can't even picture not instinctively holding my breath and floating if I were to jump into water. I've known college guys who can chug a gallon of beer in under a minute. Being so fragile that falling off a rock into the water is a life-threatening situation doesn't exactly speak well of the hardy haleness of our forebears.
(Aside: I find it hilarious how many movie sites and reviews gush over how well the famous bell tower at the Mission San Juan Bautista was recreated for the movie using "trick photography" and "special effects". Meaning, apparently, a matte painting:
Yeah, that looks great. Let's linger on THIS shot!
Not only that, a bad matte painting. Seriously, I thought this was the era when film disciplines were supposed to be regarded as high art. Shouldn't they have hired someone with, I don't know, a basic grasp of perspective to handle this fairly important shot? Or am I supposed to snort and harrumph and talk about how CG could have made the shot more convincing, but at the expense of soul or something like that? Not to say I don't sympathize with the idea, but this kind of thing sticks out at me so hard as to distract from the story.)
So eventually the Dainty Breathy Dame falls out a window in the tower and dies, and after being absolved of responsibility Jimmy moons around for a while ogling random women through binoculars until he happens to see one leaning out a hotel balcony who just might possibly pass for the previous Love of his Life—I don't, of course, mean his office assistant, who is smart and funny and clearly crazy about him, but the one who's shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens and doesn't wear glasses or use contractions.
So of course he has to go invade her privacy and force himself into her unwilling life for no reason I can fathom other than a complete lack of anything better to do.
OH HI COULD YOU PUT THIS ON AND DANCE AROUND I'LL PAY YOU MONEY
This new girl turns out to be nothing like the one he had in mind; but don't worry: with enough neurotic and creepy primping and coiffing and dress-buying on the part of Jimmy, why, the resemblance turns out to be downright uncanny!
NO NO NO THATS ALL WRONG THE MOLE WAS ON THE RIGHT SIDE YOULL NEVER BE PRETTY
And this is what really irks me about this nutso part of the movie: he's going about this out of a combination of the aforementioned creepiness and some actual suspicion that she's really the previous woman in disguise and he's been made some sort of patsy, which actually turns out to be true; so that I'll deal with. But she—she is going along with all his directives because she is so madly in love with him. She actually utters words to the effect that "If I let you change me, then will you love me?" Blaugh! What kind of deranged mind would write a character with these kinds of motives? Sure, she's all conflicted and trying to balance her irrepressible attraction to Psycho Jimmy with putting on a great show in order to stymie his search so she can sever ties with the absurdly convoluted plan of the man who hired her to impersonate her wife so he could kill her with impunity. But honestly, who could put up with the man through all this, let alone actively want to play along with his dress-up fetish, as though at a word she wouldn't be mobbed by several dozen other guys with far less baggage and far more appreciation for her character as it is, who hadn't met her as a result of tailing her around San Francisco as part of an elaborate murder plot? By what mechanism do beautiful women in movies develop such psychotically low self-esteem that this is the best they think they can do?
Eventually he gets the proof he needs that she's the same woman, and he manhandles her up the bell tower again and forces her confession, which she could have avoided at any time by breaking it off with him on the grounds that he's a) a creepy psycho puppetmaster or b) a hard-boiled cop whom she's been spending the past few weeks diligently trying to snow. But no, for some reason she felt she had to play along with him and do just what he said because then he would love her. Honestly, it takes one hell of an imagination to come up with a characterization like that, and I don't mean that in a good way.
I fail to see how modern movies can get such a bad rap for implausible premises or intelligence-insulting plot points, when stuff like this is considered a masterpiece.
And if I may continue just a little further to harp on clichés, I can't help but look at the whole movie as one giant one—a protracted love letter to a particular camera trick:
The third time you see this same shot. It's scarier if you aim it into a toilet bowl.
One that's become so famous as to be referred to these days as "the Vertigo effect". Sure, it's eerie. Sure, it's a decent way of conveying a feeling of vertigo or other unease in movies. But that doesn't mean it doesn't get tiresome to have a whole gosh-darn movie centered around it, by golly. Before I saw Vertigo, I hadn't realized what in particular Brendon Small was alluding to in the Home Movies episode where his character was obsessed with shooting everything through a fisheye lens. But now I know; and I empathize with Jason, who told him quite reasonably that directors who use such tricks are "hacks who are looking for a hook".
So, yeah, I don't know. Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe films like this shouldn't be judged by the same criteria that I'd use for, say, No Country for Old Men or The Lord of the Rings or Office Space. Maybe there was a different standard by which stories were told in this era, and the things I consider "cliché" today were just par for the course at the time, even avant-garde and engaging. But I sort of expected a movie of this purported stature to hold up a little better than to seemingly require a viewer to be a misogynistic film student in order to properly appreciate it fifty years later.