Vertigo (1958) starring James Stewart & Kim Novak

Hitch was quite upset at he failure of the film when it was first released; he blamed this on James Stewart for “looking too old” (nearly 50 y.o.) to attract large audiences. Bernard Herrmann’s musical score was inspired by Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde which is also about doomed love. This film was the first to use computer graphics. The second-unit cameraman (most likely) invented the famous zoom/out and track/in shot to convey the sense of vertigo to the audience. 

Let’s not probe too deeply into these matters, Kim. It’s only a movie. -Director Alfred Hitchcock explained to actress Kim Novak (when she asked for more info on her character’s motivation during a scene)

John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is a middle-aged/retired/detective who suffers from acrophobia. He is a bachelor who is still good friends w/ his former fiance, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), who works in fashion merchandising (being an artist). An old friend from college, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), calls Scottie to his office (in the San Francisco shipyards) and asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Gavin explains her unusual behaviors and fears she is losing her mind, though he hasn’t discussed the matter w/ any medical professionals. Scottie is skeptical, BUT agrees after seeing the beautiful Madeleine. 

Stewart would NOT be one you would think of portraying a voyeur and a stalker, yet he pulls it off so well. As one viewer commented (see #TCMParty on Twitter): “Vertigo shows how versatile Jimmy Stewart could really be. That’s the sign of a great actor.” Another movie fan tweeted: “This is where Jimmy’s ‘nice guy’ persona becomes so effective. It’s esp. painful to see him reduced to this.” He enables viewers to sympathize w/ him, even as we cringe at his character’s actions and decisions. 

Hitchcock set his film in San Francisco, a city well known for its unique topography and hilly landscape, in order to add a further torment to Scottie’s life and emphasize the debilitating nature of his vertigo. Location shoots were done at the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and the Spanish mission at San Juan Bautista. Hitch spent a week filming a brief scene where Madeleine stares at a portrait just to get the lighting right. After Judy has been made over into Madeleine, she and Scottie kiss; the actors were on a revolving circular platform (a la Gone with the Wind). 

Vertigo is full of scenes where the colors have been saturated or changed to create a special feeling. Hitchcock even went so far as to openly dye some frames is bright unnatural colors. He played around with colors in all his color films, but never as much as in this one. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Much is done with color and light in this film; you will notice it (even upon first viewing). I noticed more tonight- my second time viewing it fully. An astute viewer noted: “Am noticing for the first time that each scene is pretty monotone – yellow, red, redder, green, blue.” The lighting changes when important events occur. Here are some examples: 1) When Scottie first sees Madeleine in the restaurant, the light around her becomes unnaturally bright. 2) While Scottie is listening to the story of Madeleine’s ancestor in the bookstore, it gets very dark; once he exits, it brightens again. 3) When Scottie first sees Judy made over as Madeleine, she is lit by a ghostly green light (the reflected light from the neon sign outside). On this point, a viewer tweeted: “Bathed in the color green… the ghost of Madeleine is wiping out Judy’s identity.”

There’s a dark sexiness to the film that lends the film an air of mature and serious art. Barbara Bel Geddes’ tragic Midge practically throws herself at Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson, while Novak’s “Madeleine Elster” seems rather matter of fact when she realized that Ferguson had completely undressed her after saving her from death. Later, as Judy Barton, her real identity, she shows a frank knowledge of pickups, sizing Ferguson up as a masher. Judy, it seems, has been around the block once or twice. Where earlier Hitchcock movies played coy with sex, here he tackles the subject head on, and it adds to the film’s mature atmosphere. -The Hitchcock Report blog

The words “power” and “freedom” are repeated three times in the movie: 1) In the beginning, Gavin longs for the old San Francisco b/c there was more power and freedom. 2) At the bookstore, the elderly history buff explains that, in Carlotta Valdes’ time, a man could just throw a woman away b/c he had more power and freedom. 3) During the climax, John suggests that after the murder was completed, Gavin left Judy b/c he had more power and freedom (w/ his wife’s fortune). 

[1] Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s most discussed, dissected and critically reappraised film…

[2] This movie is so deep that you could write a thesis on it and keep adding to it from time to time… Hitchcock really gave his all in this picture… it’s about the ultimate love… wanting to achieve the ultimate love, and, as happens in life, never having love turn out to be the way we want it to be…

[3] If a flaw is to be found, I would say that the script developed for the film was probably not the most friendly for the audience. This film is certainly not for everyone, as it’s slow pace and heavy darkness in the subject may turn off people familiar with Hitchcock’s lighter films as his usual dark humor is not present here…

[4] Hitchcock is in his very best form creating hypnotic scenes and a general sense of unease and dread in even the most banal of situations. A particular favourite of mine is the extended (largely silent) segment where Stewart follows Novak for the first time. Nothing much happens, but the atmosphere of these scenes is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat!

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

 

 

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Rear Window (1954) starring James Stewart & Grace Kelly

This month (July) TCM has been showing Hitchcock’s films every MON & WED; Rear Window is probably my fave of his films. (Strangers on a Train would come in second, b/c WHO could resist the devilish Robert Walker!?) This is a simple story, BUT there is a LOT going on (once you watch it a few times)! Most of you know the synopsis (below from IMDB): 

Professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries breaks his leg while getting an action shot at an auto race. Confined to his New York [Chelsea] apartment, he spends his time looking out of the rear window observing the neighbors. He begins to suspect that a man across the courtyard may have murdered his wife. Jeff enlists the help of his high society fashion-consultant girlfriend Lisa Freemont and his visiting nurse Stella to investigate.

When two people love each other, they come together – WHAM – like two taxis on Broadway. -Stella tells Jeff her view of relationships

The relationship between Jeff (James Stewart) and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is a BIT complicated; they are VERY attracted to each other, BUT have different lifestyles and personalities. Jeff thinks that Lisa is TOO good for him; you can tell by the way he describes her (to others and also during their evening dates at home). Lisa is (obviously) waiting for him to settle down (note the comment about the art gallery) and ask for her hand in marriage (b/c she loves him a LOT, putting up w/ his quirks). Straight-talking Stella (Thelma Ritter- always a delight) bemoans the fact that courtships have become SO complicated (LOL- a LOT of modern/single people would agree).

Stewart gets to flex his acting muscles in this darkly comic role. You can’t help but laugh at a LOT of Jeff’s lines, the way he looks, and generally expresses himself. He doesn’t have the luxury of much movement, being confined to a wheelchair (though is still VERY effective). Lisa is willing to make their lives work together, though he has doubts. And when she faces danger, Jeff realizes just how much he loves her! 

[1] Alfred Hitchcock is considered by most to be the master of suspense. I believe he was also a master of understanding human nature. He intuitively understood that human beings are voyeurs by nature, not in the perverted sense, but in the curious sense. 

[2] The acting is superb in this film. Jimmy Stewart is unabashedly obsessed as the lead character. Photographers have an innate visual perceptiveness and the ability to tell a story with an image and Stewart adopts this mindset perfectly. Grace Kelly has often been accused of being the “Ice Maiden” in her films, yet in this film she is assertive and even reckless. Though cool at times, she is often playful and rambunctious. 

[3] The main characters are wonderfully portrayed and full of life. The apparently simple setting in an apartment complex is developed into a world filled with intriguing and sometimes unsettling possibilities, and this apparently average neighborhood comes to life with a wealth of lavish visual detail and interesting minor characters.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

 

 

Rebecca (1940) starring Laurence Olivier & Joan Fontaine

INTRODUCTION

[1] The first thing that you notice is the outstanding cinematography. 

[2] …Joan Fontaine is just perfect as de Winter’s new bride. I can’t spot an unconvincing moment in her performance and can’t imagine any other actress in the role. 

[3] Her [Judith Anderson’s] presence is as dark and foreboding as that of the deceased Rebecca herself, and Fontaine is evidently cowed by her icy stare and unnervingly formal manner. The dynamics between the two actresses are wonderful. 

-Excerpts from various reviews on IMDB

Alfred Hitchcock often claimed that this film wasn’t his own. It belonged to Daphne Du Maurier because she had created such vivid characters and such a complex and exciting story. I disagree. You can’t deny his hallmark in all areas of this expertly crafted film. -Bette’s Classic Movie Blog

It is said that director Alfred Hitchcock encouraged the cast to shun Joan Fontaine (sister of Olivia de Havilland), even going as so far as to tell her “everyone here hates you” (in order to making her performance even more self-conscious and nervous in the lead role). Laurence Olivier was already upset w/ the fact that Vivien Leigh (his then-girlfriend) wasn’t chosen for the role. A gothic romance (inspired undoubtedly by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), Rebecca is a suspenseful study in guilt and anxiety, exploring themes of love, obsession, and power. This is a moody (atmospheric) film which draws in the viewer w/ its music (by Franz Waxman), superb use of light and shadow, and (most importantly)- characters. The Grapes of Wrath was a fine film (and a great contender), but Rebecca won the Oscar. 

CHARACTERS

Narrator/Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine): A shy, self-deprecating young woman working as “a paid companion” (an assistant/friend). Her mother and father (who she said people didn’t understand) are deceased, so she (as a single woman) has to make a way for herself in the world. Sometimes you will relate to her; at other times, feel sorry for her predicament. 

It’s just that I, well I’m, not the person men marry.

Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier): A middle-aged, handsome, aristocratic widower from Cornwall, where he owns an estate- Manderley. He can be witty/charming one moment, then angry/brooding the next (like Mr. Rochester); he is trying to forget his past.

Happiness is something I know nothing about.

Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates): Rebecca’s wealthy/widowed/high-maintenance employer. The two ladies are vacationing in Monte Carlo at the start of the story. She is shocked when she discovers that her companion and Maxim are engaged; she asks:

Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson): She seems to be as much a nanny-figure and a controlling mother figure, as a sinister housekeeper. She is creepily devoted to the memory of her former mistress, Rebecca; we are left to wonder just what sort of relationship they had. In the pivotal bedroom scene, she asks the second Mrs. de Winter:

Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?

Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper): Maxim’s older sister who is surprised to meet the new Mrs. de Winter, but eventually warms up to her as a family member. She lives nearby w/ her somewhat comedic husband, Major Lacy (Nigel Bruce). Cooper is perhaps best known as the domineering mother to Bette Davis’ character in Now Voyager (1942); she also played Rex Harrison’s mother in My Fair Lady (1964). It’s nice to see her in a more lighthearted role here.

Jack Favell (George Sanders): A clever, charming cousin of Rebecca’s who we sense has a shady side. He shares secrets w/ Mrs. Danvers and feels contempt for Maxim. Jack acts like he feels sorry for the new Mrs. de Winter when he meets her by chance. Sanders has a pivotal role in All About Eve (1950), where I first noticed him and became a big fan. He was in another (gothic-inspired) film- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney. 

Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny): The manager of the Maderley estate; he is cordial to everyone in the household, including the new mistress. This is NOT the type of guy who makes (or likes) drama, unlike others in this tale.

Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith): He is a no-nonsense elderly aristocrat in charge of the court case (inquest). This actor played Mr. Laurence in Little Women (1949) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh (another of Hitch’s players).

Dr. Baker (Leo G. Carroll): He is a medical doctor in London. This prolific character actor appeared in several of Hitch’s films: Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959).

THEMES

Food

Mrs. de Winter has trouble with eating. The long lonely dining room table separates her and her husband. Food is heaped up around characters: Jack tears into cold chicken, Mrs Van Hopper wolfs down chocolates, and “Oh! What a plateful!” exclaims Beatrice. 

Clothing & Hair

At the beginning, Fontaine’s character is dressed like she made terrible selections at a Macy’s basement sale. Later, as she tries to fill the role of the “great lady”… her clothes always appear too big and out of character. Note the black evening dress with the absurdly large flowers across the front and the overwhelming gown at the costume ball. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Mrs. de Winter is repeatedly subjected to adverse comments on her hair. When she tries for a new more sophisticated look, Maxim hates it. Hair (confined, unbound, luxurious, neglected) is mentioned several times in the film. We hear that Rebecca had long dark hair.  

Scent

Scent is as suspect and degenerate as all of Rebecca’s luxuries: a trap, a snare and a betrayal. -Les Senteurs blog

Mrs. de Winter talks of storing up her memories like perfume. Maxim comments that those little bottles “sometimes contain demons that have a way of popping out at you just as you’re trying most desperately to forget.” He prefers his new bride to smell natural. 

Innocence 

He had a theory that if you should find one perfect thing, or place or person, you should stick to it. Do you think that’s very silly? -The narrator says about her father to Maxim

The main thing that attracts Maxim to the narrator is her innocence (including her inexperience w/ men, unassuming manners, and youth). When she woefully wishes she were older and elegantly dressed, Maxim stops the car and solemnly replies: “Please promise me never to wear black satin or pearls… or to be 36 years old.” We can sense that Maxim has emotional baggage, but the second Mrs. de Winter doesn’t see the warning signs, or she overlooks them, being so much in love.