Vertigo & North by Northwest: Bitches Don’t Know ‘Bout My Hitchcock

by

It’s with some film grump shame that I admit my experience with Alfred Hitchcock is limited. My early exposure to film was basically limited to what my dad thought was good and entertaining, thus my history with all manners of sci-fi, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Deep Star Six. Once I became independent enough to pursue my own interests (Netflix lol) I began to culture myself in the filmmakers I wanted to see/thought I should see. Hitchcock wasn’t far from the top of the list. I’d only ever seen one of his films before, Rebecca, with Film Walrus and had a blast. It was an excellent movie with far-reaching influence, a fantastically twisted and layered story and even better acting. So I was definitely stoked to dive into the presumably warm waters of Hitchcock’s other work.

But was that really the case?

EYE-YI-YI

I started with Vertigo, since aside from Psycho it was the film I most associated with the director. It started with an incredibly cool title sequence with trippy visuals and a fantastic overture by Bernard Herrmann. I was SO fucking pumped to be wowed by the movie. But I ended up being underwhelmed by it after having to stretch out watching it over two nights because of how sleepy it made me.

Vertigo is about a former police detective (James Stewart) who left the force after his partner fell to his death while chasing a criminal over rooftops. During that incident he discovers he’s afflicted with vertigo, which the movie seems to define as a fear of heights. (Let’s not even get into the technicalities of this, shall we?) After that, he’s hired by an old friend from school to trail his wife, whom has been behaving very oddly as of late. She’s been acting as if possessed, disappearing with her car for hours on end with no memory of where she’s been and what she’s done. Skeptical, Stewart reluctantly agrees to follow her. During this period of observation, he sees her obsessed with a painting of her great-grandmother that hangs in a museum and witnesses her jump off a cliff into the San Francisco Bay. He jumps after her and saves her, beginning their attraction towards each other that ends in tragedy.

That’s all I can describe without spoiling the plot twists, which might be the only reason to see the movie. The rest of it is so fucking dull. Most of the first half is taken up by quiet passages of Stewart tailing the dame in his car or on foot with nothing but the Herrmann score to carry it. The plot tries to build up a sense of mystery, but it just never becomes dense enough to lift up the bloated running time. Did this movie REALLY need to be over two hours long?

A lot of this movie hinges on the central romance between Stewart and his love interest, the “possessed” wife. And I can’t enjoy the movie very much when I don’t enjoy that. I just found their relationship tiresome at first. Kim Novak, the actress playing the love interest, is sort of pretty in that generic Old Hollywood actress way, but doesn’t bring a whole lot of personality and charisma to her role. She seems like a zombie for most of the first half. And Stewart… I’m not used to seeing him look so old. Apparently, Hitchcock blamed Stewart’s age for the critical and commercial failure of the film and stopped working with him. A bit harsh, but I see where he was coming from. It doesn’t help that their romance just takes on an unnerving and disgusting tone in the second half that barely makes me want to call it a romance at all. I realize that’s what Hitchcock was going for, but it was just really unpalatable to me. What was much more interesting to me was the tension between Stewart and his “Girl Friday,” Midge, whom he shares a few scenes with. They had a shared romantic past that had some interesting stuff going on with it, but as Stewart becomes more obsessed with Novak, she sort of gets put to the side and forgotten about. Tsk.

I suppose my problem with Vertigo is that it hardly ever comes alive. Its whole “thing” is a sort of detached, eerie, haunting quietness with lots of repetition that isn’t a good vehicle for 2+ hours sitting in front of a TV waiting for something extraordinary to happen. Which isn’t to say it never does. The famous staircase scene with the now legendary “contra-zoom” vertigo effect was a welcome breath of, I dunno, TENSION. There’s also a splendidly spooky (I’d almost say Lynch-esque if it wasn’t decades before him) nightmare sequence about two-thirds of the way into the film that rekindled my interest, however briefly. I mean, I guess for a suspense movie it did keep me on the edge of my seat… waiting for something to happen. :|

LINES

So it was with trepidation I approached the next film on my queue, North by Northwest. I knew pretty much nothing about it aside from the fact it was another famous Hitchcock film. But now that didn’t mean much to me. If Vertigo was so lauded, I couldn’t trust anyone on him anymore. Eventually, after a few weeks of dawdling, I buckled down and sat down determined to give North by Northwest a fair shot. And once again the movie entranced me with its incredibly cool title sequence and amazing theme song, again by Herrmann. I was so pumped up to see the movie by the end of it that I nearly missed poor Mr. Hitchcock being denied his bus. {:3

North by Northwest is about an ad exec (Cary Grant) who, while out minding his own business, gets kidnapped by some thugs. Apparently he’s been confused with some sort of spy, and his captors assume all his attempts at denying this are part of his game. After a failed attempt at killing him (but ruining his reputation), Grant is put on the run trying to clear his name from being implicated in an assassination of a U.N. worker. While slipping aboard a train, he meets the lovely Eva Marie Saint, whom he immediately charms into bed helping him slip by police and track down the actual spy he’s supposedly being confused with. His enemies are hot on his tail, however, and he must outmaneuver their attempts at killing him before he can uncover the truth.

Holy fuck, if ever there was an opposite to the banality of Vertigo, it’s this. The premise simultaneously sends up Cold War espionage flicks while at the same time one-upping them in terms of twists and set pieces. Grant is an inimitable leading man, and his generous charisma oozes off of the screen at all times. It makes total sense that Eva Marie Saint is in the palm of his hand (or is it vice-versa?) within minutes of meeting each other. Or it might just have to do with the fact that the movie is packed with crackling, pithy dialogue that no real person is ever witty enough to think up or well-timed enough to deliver. I also found a certain satisfaction in seeing Grant blunder his way out of sticky situations, especially since basically everything he thought of was something I would also resort to doing if I were in the same circumstance. (Great minds think alike!)

The action set pieces are also brilliant. The really famous sequence, the crop duster attack, works even if it’s been spoiled for you. Hell, ESPECIALLY if you know it’s coming. The movie plops Grant in the middle of barren corn fields with no one around for miles, waiting for a contact that the viewer knows will never arrive. Cars whiz by until another man walks up. Grant strikes up a conversation, hoping it’s the guy he’s waiting for, but it isn’t. They talk innocuously until the man notes that it’s odd that there’s a crop duster in the background… considering there’s no crops to dust. The man goes on his way and Grant continues standing there like a fool. The crop duster starts flying towards him and it isn’t until it’s nearly upon him that he realizes, “Fuck, it’s trying to kill me” and flings himself to the ground to try to save his life. MMMMFFF, that’s good. I can’t even do it proper justice in words. Same goes for the thrilling climax at Mt. Rushmore.

The cinematography deserves special mention. I wish I’d taken screenshots before returning it because there’s some really striking shots in this movie. There seemed to be a sort of modern art feel that Hitchcock was going for, and there are a few instances where he transforms the shots themselves into pieces of art that the characters run around in.

Of course Cary Grant is superb in this movie and Eva Marie Saint is both beautiful and talented in her role, unlike Kim Novak in Vertigo. Their pairing makes total sense and the screen lights up with the sparks that fly when they’re together. Also deserving of kudos are James Mason and a shockingly youthful Martin Landau as the villains. Seriously, I just could not get over how young he looked. There are certain actors you are just always used to seeing as haggard, melting old men. Like Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The worst thing I could say about this movie is that it seemed to have some sort of allergic reaction to filming on location. They’ll be filming in a train station or whatever and then the camera will cut and we’ll see the actors walking in front of one of those screens they used in old movies for driving scenes. They do this multiple times whenever there’s an outdoor shot in the movie and it slightly cheapens the production. There’s also the personal pet peeve of filming scenes during the day and trying to make it look like night. Like, I get really annoyed when movies have things “movie dark” instead of how things would actually look in reality if things were dark. The next time you watch a movie, you’ll notice it when they cheat and make things incredibly light so the viewer can see things.

Also I think Hitchcock was allergic to falling action or something. Both movies end, like, mere seconds after the climax. It’s just “LOL THE MOVIE’S OVER GO HOME NOW.” Let a brotha down more gently, Hitchcock.

I really don’t think I could have two more opposite reactions to movies. Especially when these movies were produced only a year apart. Vertigo would have been more honestly titled Narcolepsy for how drowsy it made me. On the other hand, North by Northwest was purely invigorating. In all honesty, though, I must say that even though I disliked Vertigo, it certainly did stay in my mind after I saw it, albeit against my wishes. It leaves an impression, even if it’s not a particularly fond one. Any Hitchcock buffs out there want to enlighten me on what I was supposed to take away from Vertigo? Or how North by Northwest is populist trash that pales in comparison to Vertigo‘s perfection? Leave me a message at the top of the stairs.

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19 Responses to “Vertigo & North by Northwest: Bitches Don’t Know ‘Bout My Hitchcock”

  1. Rick Says:

    That Maggie Gyllenhaal line cracked me up. For true. But I would be lying if I didn’t see it coming. =P

    I haven’t seen North by Northwest, but I can basically agree with Cary Grant in anything, and I keep meaning to watch it, but it always falls by the wayside. =/

    Vertigo, however, I completely agree with. It’s not necessarily a boring movie, but it’s yawn-inducing while you’re waiting for the linchpin moments that bring the whole thing together. Which I’m not sure they really do. Lackluster acting sorta ruined the film for me.

  2. Film Walrus Says:

    I’m sad you didn’t like “Vertigo.” I think it’s a masterpeice, with lots to recommend it and a great deal of depth. It does run slower than the hundreds of thriller that it inspired, but I’ve never thought of it as boring.

    “North by Northwest” is also quite good, though I agree with hating Hitchcock’s crappy rear-projection. A couple weeks ago there was an exhibit I went to on “California Cool” that featured 1950’s furniture and architecture. It was so kitschy and space age and awesome. One of the house designs looked really familiar and then I read the caption and, lo and behold, it was the villian’s house from the end of “North by Northwest.”

    I didn’t realize you hadn’t seen much Hitchcock previously, but you’re sure to find others that you like. He’s made more films worth seeing than any other director, and that’s not just my opinion. Even his early silent films, his late return-to-Britain ones and his stagy comedies are pretty good. Some other ones I’d recommend are “Rope,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Marnie” and “The Trouble with Harry.”

  3. Rick Says:

    Strangers on a Train is a given on most lists, Hitchcock or not, but I find The Trouble with Harry to be pretty good as well. Haven’t yet watched Rope and Marnie. =(

  4. John Mora Says:

    Yeah, I couldn’t really find a way of fitting in how awesome I thought the house at the end was. Sorry about disappointing you on Vertigo. Perhaps it will become more palatable with age?

  5. Rick Says:

    Found this a few minutes ago, thought it neat and worthwhile and fun in a Hitchcockian sense.

    http://up.youngruffians.com/vanityfair/

  6. sirtmagus Says:

    I understand how Vertigo can frustrate. It’s not a movie I love but it’s one I appreciate for all its thematic malarkey. James Stewart was great though. So sad. And Kim Novak, UNF. Absolutely gorgeous, man. When he starts to recreate her in his idealized image… ugh. Bizarre. De Palma and the Silent Hill 2 guys (and about a dozen other artists I’m sure) were taking notes.

    North by Northwest is great fun of course. James Mason’s voice is fun to imitate. :3

    You definitely gotta see more of Hitchcock’s stuff. Walrus’ recommendations are spot-on: Rope and Strangers on a Train are terrific murder stories with plenty of homoerotic overtones (undertones?) to sink your, uh, teeth in!

    I really like that Vanity Fair link. Terrific-looking photos, I’d love to see some of those remakes actually get produced, especially Lifeboat. Ben Foster, Wei Tang, Josh Brolin, Julie Christie, Casey Affleck … THAT’S a cast! And I think I’d be happy to see Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow together in anything now. Naomi Watts, Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson are all beautiful blondes so of course they’d fit in the Hitchcock aesthetic… everyone else is okayyy (Renee Zelwegger? Jodie Foster? ehhhh…) and Seth Rogen, the polar opposite of Cary Grant, is good for a laugh. For once. Ba-dum-psh!

  7. Happy Holidays - Fievel Goes West: MOUSEBURGERS!! « Grump Factory Says:

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  8. glucode Says:

    “Most of the first half is taken up by quiet passages of Stewart tailing the dame in his car or on foot with nothing but the Herrmann score to carry it. … I suppose my problem with Vertigo is that it hardly ever comes alive. Its whole ‘thing’ is a sort of detached, eerie, haunting quietness with lots of repetition that isn’t a good vehicle for 2+ hours sitting in front of a TV waiting for something extraordinary to happen.”

    I’d like to be in your world where detached eerie haunting quietness is only ordinary… The point slips from you like soap you never knew you were holding.

    I didn’t read past Vertigo except for that Maggie Gyllenhaal line, which is exquisite, kudos for that (peanut butter kudos too).

  9. John Mora Says:

    “I’d like to be in your world where detached eerie haunting quietness is only ordinary… ”

    Why would you wish for that :c

  10. glucode Says:

    ::taps nose:: if it’s not extra, you must have it all the time… lucky atmospheric person you

  11. Toaster Says:

    Just got done watching the movie (North by Northwest). I loved every minute of it. It started out slow, all right, but it quickly grabs your attention and it never let go. I loved the dialogue. I loved how expertly crafted it all felt. The only thing that pissed me off is how the movie just “ends” and then the credits start rolling. Not like the movie had anywhere else to go, but in this movie the good guys arrive in the knick of time to save Grant’s ass when it seemed like all hope was lost. What made the movie so great is Grant’s ability to turn a seemingly hopeless situation in his favor. But when it comes down to the wire, lo and behold, OUTSIDE FORCES SAVE THE DAY. Kind of felt like a cop out on Hitchcock’s part. Despite this complaint, I really liked the movie.

  12. megawfa79 Says:

    You folks are missing the point with Vertigo. The plot slowly evolves to help the audience be lulled, then James Stewart has his episodes, which are a shock to his system and gives the audience a bit of a jolt. With Vertigo, you have a confidant man with everything going for him. The discovery of his vertigo is unnerving for him, slowly transforming him from confidant and self-assured to skitish and nervous, and, finally, a bit psychotic. Hitchcock loves to tell tales about the human mind. Remember, this is suspense and not horror. Hitchcock is all about developing the plot. That’s why some films are slow moving at the start. It’s not supposed to come alive right away.
    Hitchcock had a thing about blondes (Doris Day in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, Kim Novak in “Vertigo”, Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”, Tippy Hedron in “The Birds”). I like Kim Novack. She doesn’t bowl you over with classic Hollywood beauty.

    I’d recommend : The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stangers on a Train, Rear Window. All classic

  13. John Mora Says:

    But Vertigo starts out with Stewart already aware of his problem. You never see him for any real amount of time pre-vertigo-episodes. I felt his psychosis stemmed more from an unhealthy obsession he formed with the woman he thought he was investigating.

  14. Rick Says:

    North by Northwest was pretty fantastic. ~

    Lately I’ve been watching all of Hitchcock’s movies, the good and the bad, the well-known and really obscure, and I think it has not only opened up my eyes to some of the classic films out there I used to scoff at simply because they were old movies, it’s also helped me appreciate the good Hitchcock films all the more when I slog through the lesser ones.

  15. John Mora Says:

    Another gem: Dial M for Murder. Such a perfect, taut thriller~~~

  16. Rick Says:

    I started with Dial M. It did not prepare me for the deluge of bad ones that followed immediately after. =V

  17. Giuliana S (@bassavina) Says:

    Herrmann’s score for Vertigo is a wonder, it continues virtually without candence except for a short break when Stewart’s character is hospitalized. The subject is indeed obsession, and even when Hitch fails, Hermann succeeds. I hear you can watch the DVD with no dialogue, only the score. I’d like to see that. Still, Herrmann’s work on NbNW is even better, it has more wit, even as it covers similar musical ground. And of course Hitch self-references when Cary Grant accomplishes the rescue Scotty (James Stewart) could not—or did he. Lastly, NbNW’s abrupt ending is also, well, peurile.

  18. MIKE Says:

    “IF” Psycho was filmed in living “color”,then alfred hitchcock would have accomplished perhaps the greatest 1 2 3 punch in the history of motion pictures with Vertigo 1958,North By Northwest 1959 and Psycho 1960,all made back to back,with perhaps 3 epic David Lean films also made back to back,maybe being able to equal them,but none the less,North by Northwest is in my top 10 greatest color movies list and is easily Alfred Hitchcocks best film and keep in mind that the vast majority of b/w movies were made that way because of budgetary restraints,not for artistic expressions…

  19. MIKE Says:

    I just wanted to mention that i think some people are interpreting the dream world suspense of Vertigo as being boring,but thats probably because so many of us have been relentlessly assaulted with an endless barrage of mindless slam bang action films for so long now and they have greatly injured our ability to appreciate what true art in motion pictures really is,or should i say,really was…

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