BBC2: Saturday 9 May, 2.50pm
Alfred Hitchcock learned from the silent masters – montage from Sergei Eisenstein, atmosphere from Fritz Lang – and proceeded to refine and define film grammar for the sound era. He wasn’t interested in talking pictures, which he dismissed as ‘filmed plays’. He was consumed by the notion of ‘pure cinema’. Stories told in pictures, stories full of fear and desire. Emotion pictures. His joky assertions about ‘putting the audience through it’ were always taken at face value but in reality Hitchcock was a sly and thoughtful film-maker. Above all, his work was sincere. And none of his 54 features – the first 24 made in England – was quite so personal and emotional as the strange dreamscape that is Vertigo. A film so calm on the surface yet thrumming with perverse and disturbing undercurrents that it has the haunting quality of a rarefied dream. It lingers in the mind, impossible to shake off. In the last of his four films with Hitchcock, James Stewart – the Tom Hanks ‘everyman’ of Hollywood’s golden era – is a retired San Francisco cop hired by an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife. He fears she’s mildly deranged, perhaps possessed. She’s cool blonde Kim Novak and Stewart trails her around the Bay area, baffled by her uncanny actions. In one of several disorientating sequences, Stewart follows Novak’s car as it turns this way and that around Frisco’s hilly streets, ending up at his place. So much is ambiguous and casually odd about this picture that it was as coolly received on its release as Novak’s glacial demeanour. The story – it’s adapted from a novel by Boileau & Narcejac, the French authors of Les Diaboliques – was written with Hitchcock in mind. The English title is From Among the Dead, and that’s how the film began shooting. But Hitch ditched the book’s ‘twist’ ending, giving the game away by placing it halfway through the film. Because what fascinated Hitchcock wasn’t the mystery so much as the psychological depth of Stewart’s morbid obsession. He’s in love with a dead woman. Who he never knew in the first place. Who isn’t even dead. All the while we know what Stewart doesn’t, which invests the story with emotional mistiness and murky suspense, not mystery. (Although, believe me, the ultimate cumulative effect remains pretty mysterious.) Each VistaVision viewpoint is exquisitely rendered, every vibrant shade of colour and unearthly fog filter playing its part in a slow-motion tango that pulls us, giddily off balance, into the vortex. It was in Vertigo that Hitchcock introduced a camera effect, known as the dolly zoom, where the perspective shifts between stillness and falling into an abyss. It’s achieved by simultaneously zooming forward and tracking back and, being a technical trick, it greatly pleased Hitchcock. In typically evasive fashion, he dismissed the notion of Vertigo being inspired by his dreams: “My dreams are very reasonable.” In 2012, Vertigo was designated the greatest film of all time in the British Film Institute’s 10-yearly poll of international critics, displacing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which had held pole position since 1962. Long before its BFI annointment, Vertigo had made an indelible imprint on the cinematic mindscape. Key elements of Vertigo can be seen in films as diverse as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. In the lurid colour filters used by the Italian horror director Mario Bava and in Steven Spielberg’s dolly zoom on the beach in Jaws. And most prevalently throughout the career of Hitchcock devotee Brian De Palma: the art gallery in Dressed to Kill, the incapacitated hero of Body Double, most of Femme Fatale and all of Obsession, which makes use of Bernard Herrmann’s towering score. Obsession and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver were the last two films worked on by Herrmann, the man who scored Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Cape Fear and, of course, Psycho (the closest Hitchcock came to perfection). Herrmann died on Christmas Eve in 1975. Hitchcock died in 1980, fobbed off late in life with an honorary Oscar and a knighthood. You don’t always expect sensible pronouncements from the British Film Institute, but its creative director, Heather Stewart, made one at the time Vertigo usurped Citizen Kane: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.” In fact all truly great art is entertaining. If not, it wouldn’t endure. Citizen Kane endures. So too Vertigo. Because Hitchcock is a singular artist who lives alongside the giants of cinema. Fritz Lang, John Ford, Akira Kurosawa… Artists who didn’t make one or two great movies, but whole clusters. Further evidence for the national curriculum: Film4 has Hitchcock’s boldly experimental eco-nightmare The Birds, Monday at 11.05pm. Duck and cover.