BFI Classics: Vertigo

Film historian Charles Barr is better known for his writing on British cinema; his best known book being his study on ‘Ealing Studios’. He is less known for any writing on Hollywood, although the connection here is that he had previously written a book on Alfred Hitchcock, ‘English Hitchcock’ in 1999, largely about Hitchcock’s early films from his silent films through to his move to Hollywood in 1940 (as well as a couple of later forays in Britain such as Stage Fright and one of his last films, Frenzy). In spite of Vertigo being one of Hitchcock’s most American and geographically specific films, Barr is still able to create the link with British cinema, and does so with some originality. He makes the links between a contemporary of Hitchcock’s – Michael Powell who in 1959, one year after Vertigo made Peeping Tom which makes the perfect link between two of Hitchcock’s most important films – Vertigo and Psycho (1960). What links all three of these films is the gaze and obsession, both of which Barr goes into great detail throughout the book. The obsession here is James Stewart’s character, Scottie with three women: Madeleine Elster, Carlota Valdes and Judy Barton who are in fact the same woman. The story of Vertigo is about a retired cop (Stewart) who is duped into following a crooked businessman’s wife, his subsequent obsession with this glamorous and enigmatic woman (Kim Novak) and her supposed suicide from a bell tower; the cop unable to save her due to his acrophobia and fear of heights. Months later he becomes fascinated by a woman who resembles the dead woman, unaware that they are one and the same woman. Powell’s Peeping Tom, in the meantime is about a photographer’s psychopathic sexual urges when he looks at women through a camera lens. Finally Hitchcock’s ground breaking slasher movie Psycho is about a woman on the run who arrives at a motel run by Norman Bates who obsesses over the woman, spies on her and becomes his alter ego, namely his mother and kills the girl.

Few film directors have been studied in detail by film historians, critics, cultural historians, feminists, philosophers or psychoanalysts as much as Alfred Hitchcock. Barr avoids the usual theoretical sub-text of books on Hitchcock and instead surgically breaks down in what ways Hitchcock uses his unique filmmaking vision to present and bring to the screen the vision and gaze. He does this throughout the book, as well as going into the method in which the script and original book were brought to the screen and how Hitchcock best used the scriptwriters, Bernard Herrmann’s music score and how the film would not have been the same without Novak’s blonde ice queen or James Stewart’s everyman. Stewart and Hitchcock worked together on four films and seemed to have understood the director’s vision in the films in which he starred. Barr also gives scene by scene breakdowns through figures and how Hitchcock uses the camera for POV from either the audience or Stewart and how none of this would engage the viewer as much as it does without Hermmann’s score, all of which was constructed with groundbreaking originality. 

As with many of the books in the BFI Film Classics series or the BFI Modern Film Classics series, it helps to read the book if the film has recently been viewed. Nerdy, it’s true, but the evidence regarding the value of such books for anyone interested in film is elevated by the quality of the writers who contribute to this series of books; that Vertigo is one of just a handful of Hitchcock films chosen for the series gives credit to the quality of the director’s films by those omitted and indeed has steadily become arguably the director’s most important work.

Chris Hick

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