(Warning: this review contains spoilers.)
Using the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to accompany a movie screening is a bit like hiring a four-star chef to handle backyard cookout, even when the score is Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo, perhaps the greatest of all original American movie scores. The CSO accompainied the classic movie as part of their annual CSO Night at the Movies series. The movie’s reputation is higher than its musical score; what was once a failure upon release critically and at the box office was certified by the 2012 Sight and Sound poll of international movie critics as the greatest film of all time.
What distinguishes Vertigo from all of Hitchcock’s other works is the extent to which the film dispenses with the suspense mechanisms that are the signature of the director’s work. Rather, Vertigo is an intense psychological study of the all-pervasive nature of obsessive love. Though he doesn’t know it, the main character, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a San Francisco detective who opts for retirement rather than a desk job in the wake of a horrifying accident in which his fear of heights, which causes a colleague to fall to his death when he attempts to rescue Scottie, becomes an unwitting participant in the drama by which a duplicitous former college classmate, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore).
When Scottie is asked to follow Elster’s wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), he becomes, rather than a detective, an audience member to the scheme which Elster has devised, but he’s an active audience member; he’s attempting to get the drama to play out right, to help Madeline overcome the spiritual possession of the great-grandmother whom she’s never heard of but who has driven her to madness, presumably by spiritual/genetic osmosis. Jimmy, forever clad in a brown suit and a bulky brown fedora, is all too happy to play his role beyond perfection; he doesn’t realize how hammy Novak/Madeline is in convincing him that she doesn’t realize she’s never set foot in the art museum she sits in every day, staring at the painting of her ghoulish grandmother; that the rings on a fallen sequoia show when “she” lived and died, some hundred years before, and how she was in a trance when she attempted suicide in San Francisco Bay and was fished out by Scottie. Scottie’s college buddy is a convincing author; he’s plotting to murder his wife while Scottie plays hero to the double, the actress whom he falls in love with, until she scales heights in a church bell tower that they both know Scottie can’t reach because of his crippling phobia; the husband tosses out the dead wife and silences her double’s scream.
It’s in the second part of the movie, where Scottie, devastated by the death of the character in his personal movie, decides to take the next logical step of the obsessed audience participant and actually become a director. Wandering the streets of San Francisco, he’s able to find a replacement for Madeline in Judy, a flat-voiced, ordinary-looking shopgirl he somehow is able to identify as close enough to Madeline. At this point, the metaphysical elements of the first part melt away as Judy composes a note to the smitten Scottie that she was in fact Madeline’s double and Elster murdered his wife.
By viewing the film with the benefit of hindsight, Scottie seems to be an audience member in the drama that Elster has concocted, one who participates in the drama. He attempts to alter the drama of Madeline’s possession by the dead woman’s spirit to a satisfactory conclusion, but he fails. Once he’s given a second chance with Judy, Scottie becomes the obsessed filmmaker; no detail of the Judy’s altered appearance is too small to escape him. He has to transform her completely to give the story a happy ending this time around. Picking out the clothes Judy is to wear, he goads the people in the department story unrelentingly until she produces the exact outfit Judy is to wear. “The gentleman certainly knows what he wants,” the harassed saleswoman comments, certainly a line reflecting a director’s obsession with detail, particularly Hitch, whose obsession with his leading women was legendary.
Much has been written about Hitchcock’s handling of actors, but Vertigo contains some of the best performance he was ever able to get out of the actors, to whom he was normally indifferent. Kim Novak, in particular, excels both by giving Madeline a sheen that seems like a parody of refinement, down to her seductive wiggling of her eyebrows and her over-refined speaking voice. It was fortunate for Hitchcock that he was able to attract the most legendary stars like James Stewart to his films; his indifference toward actors was less detrimental when he had Stewart than when he had ones like Farley Granger, Tippi Hedren, or Grace Kelly. Though Stewart would probably like to have believed that all characters were as virtuous as Mr. Smith, George Bailey, or Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart’s dark side proved to be dramatically more attractive in roles such as Scottie Ferguson or the monomaniacal, cold, violent figures he played in Anthony Mann’s westerns, which probably informed his performance here.
Hitchcock’s style is almost certainly the reason for Vertigo’s lasting (and growing) appeal. The movie contains several impossibilities which you’re welcome to try to wrap your head around: Madeline goes into a hotel where she’s rented a room, opens the curtain to show she’s in the room only to be revealed not to be there a moment later when Scottie tries to find her, her car which was parked in front gone; how Elster was able to get his wife up to the top of the steeple (was she alive or dead? If she was alive, why did they go up to the top?); the odds of Scottie being able to tell from a glance at Judy how he was able to spot her as Madeline’s double, but implausibility usually doesn’t stop audiences from loving a movie.
The movie contains so many iconic moments it’s hard to pinpoint the greatest ones, but most of them are a tag team effort between Hitchcock’s close framing and Hermann’s Tristan und Isolde-inspired music: Scottie and Madeline’s embrace on the rocks, surrounding by cypress trees and crashing waves; their “final” embrace, before the impostor runs up the stairs to her death, overcoming the clichéd line “If you lost me, would you always know I loved you?”, and the moment where Judy is transformed fully into Madeline, as the music swells as she emerges out of the green glow that suggests an alien transporter. These are moments, in spite of any hackneyed or overzealous qualities that the movie may have, that make us want to believe in movies, a feeling that some of us don’t get these days.
No doubt the CSO felt handcuffed by the necessity to play the score to sync up exactly with the film, but along with the help of seasoned conductor Richard Kaufman, their playing gave Vertigo the dramatic thrust that Herrmann’s score provides, with a notable contribution from the CSO’s famed brass, whose emphatic playing helped to bolster what is in the mind of many (including myself) the best original score for any American movie.
Note: the images of the CSO's "Night at the Movies" series used in this article are from previous performances in previous years. Images of this year's performance of "Vertigo" were not available in time for this article.