An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A retired policeman is hired to tail a troubled woman but fails to prevent her from dying. Then soon afterwards, he spots her doppelganger…
Displaying a masterful command of both form and feeling, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is measurelessly wonderful. It’s one of the most exemplary films ever made – a profound piece of work that thrillingly encapsulates what the medium of cinema can achieve. However, there’s been such a wealth of material written about the film since its release in 1958 that a blog like this has no hope of adding anything new. So instead of a straight review, I propose to use the space for something else. It’ll be a personal – some might say self-indulgent – discussion of falling in love with cinema. But we’ll not be going totally off-topic, because above all else Vertigo is about obsession.
A whirling, swirling matrix of high emotions and dark, dizzying undercurrents, the movie tells the story of former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, giving the best performance in a career dominated by excellence). When he’s hired to spy on a disturbed woman called Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak, sensational), he soon becomes enthralled. She’s clearly troubled, and seems at times to be possessed by the ghostly spirit of her own great-grandmother, but Scottie is fascinated and enamoured in equal measure. He saves her from killing herself and they fall in love, but his acrophobia prevents him from stopping a second – and successful – suicide attempt. Weeks after her tragic death, he then spots a lookalike woman on the street and begins to purposefully manipulate her into being a replacement for his lost love…
Early in the film, Hitchcock presents us with lengthy, dialogue-free sequences: we watch Scottie as he watches Madeleine, and we’re sucked into the same kind of enchantment that he’s experiencing. The mood of the filmmaking – slow but graceful and enormously powerful, like an ocean liner – draws you in, seduces you, entraps you, and doesn’t let go. The effect is close to hypnotism. The actors’ performances, Bernard Herrmann’s never-betted incidental music and Hitchcock’s scintillating control of time and space create a trance state – both on screen and inside each viewer’s mind.
The film is addictive while you’re watching it and that sense doesn’t go away afterwards either. It demands attention and cultivates affection, just like Madeleine. The academic Charles Barr discusses this in his book-length analysis of Vertigo written for the BFI (highly recommended: seek it out if you want to explore the movie’s abundant subtexts). In the opening chapter, aptly called Obsession, he recounts several instances of people being drawn to the movie again and again over several years. It’s such a rich film that it not only stands up to being seen more than once, it grows with meaning exponentially. You appreciate so much more with each viewing: the symbolic use of reds and greens; the telling references to San Francisco’s heritage; the subtly of Scottie’s platonic friend Midge; the intricacies of the mystery plot (ie, what’s *really* happening); the way the cutting creates rhythms and conveys narrative information… The more you look the more you see.
But that’s true of cinema as a whole. If you become hooked, you become obsessed. There are, no doubt, many people who are quite content to watch a film once, take in the surface details, and then move on, never giving it much thought again. (Poor sods.) But some of us – and if you’ve read this far, that probably includes you – realise something deeper. We know that movies are not disposable or ephemeral. (Well, admittedly some of them are: I’m talking the good, the great and the interesting here.) They’re more like the people in your life: each one has a unique personality; they have characteristics and psychology and moods.
Many are like lifelong friends you relish hanging out with again and again, nostalgically riffing the same old jokes and simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are extrovert and brash and shout their glories for all to hear; others are introverts who only reveal their secrets after several encounters. There can be challenging films that require patience and understanding, but you sense they’ll ultimately be worth the effort, while some are objectionable little shits you catch sight of once and then avoid forever. Vertigo is that one-in-a-million soul that evokes love at first sight and total devotion.
In the kind of coincidence that makes life worth living, I was considering writing a blog about how Vertigo could stand as a metaphor for my love of cinema when I stumbled across an astonishingly relevant book in an Oxfam charity shop. Written by a retired insurance broker called Norman Olden, Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan was published in 1991. It’s an incredible example of cinematic obsession in action.
In the mid-1920s, Olden was a teenager living in London who spent much of his spare time in cinemas. Partly as an aide-mémoire, he began methodically keeping track of not only which films he’d seen, but in which venues he saw them, and who accompanied him, and who the leading actors had been, and which studio had produced the film. Before he knew it, he had comprehensive records and anal statistical lists charting *years* of cinema-going. Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan is based on those copious notebooks, cataloguing a habit involving thousands of trips to hundreds of cinemas from 1927 until 1989.
Reading the book now is a thing of wonder, especially if you adore this kind of trivial minutia – it’s one part history of cinema, one part social snapshot, one part trainspotter’s ledger. The story is told year by year, beginning before the introduction of talkies, passing through in the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in the blockbuster era of the 1970s and 80s, and ending with the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Dead Poet’s Society. Because he was going to the pictures so often, the number of films he saw seriously began to mount up. Olden was occasionally featured in the press (‘Has Seen 1,890 Films’ ran a small item in the Daily Mirror of 2 February 1934) and he eventually developed an ambition to see 10,000.
This was a tough task, especially as he grew older. British cinemas began to eschew double-features of new releases and, instead, showed the same films for longer. Olden’s free time was taken up by getting married and watching more and more cricket. And, perhaps inevitably, he found that fewer films each year were to his tastes. In one of the book’s more oddball moments, he records a bizarre tactic to reach his self-imposed quota: ‘I was forced to the sad conclusion that if I were to reach my goal of 10,000, I had better attend some double features of sex or porno films. To be truthful, they are not as bad as all that.’ He found German porn films ‘funny rather than vulgar’ but found British equivalents ‘quite pathetic’. He’s quick to mention that he stopped this habit once he’d crossed the 10,000 threshold.
As well as the relentless recitations of – and opinions given on – films seen across more than six decades, Olden (pictured above) also peppers his book with details of his personal life. We learn about his parents, his jobs, his girlfriends, his wife, his experiences during the war, his holidays, and his love of theatre. He comes across as gentlemanly, old-school and politically conservative (he admits to being thrilled by films like Death Wish because they depict criminals getting what they deserve!). The overwhelming impression, however, is one of enthusiasm. He’s just generally wowed and thrilled by cinema of all forms, of all genres, from all countries; he’s willing to give anything a go, and his enjoyment is infectious.
That doesn’t mean that Norman loves everything he sees, however, and he holds some unorthodox opinions along the way. The rare movies he doesn’t like, for example, include Citizen Kane (‘tedious and pretentious’), The Maltese Falcon (‘my number-one disappointment in all my film-going’), Some Like It Hot (‘another Monroe failure… I have never thought men in drag the least bit funny’) and All the President’s Men (‘it left a nasty taste in my mouth, maybe because I believe Nixon will go down in history as a good American president’). As he passes through middle age he’s also nonplussed by violent or provocative films, disliking fare such as A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Omen.
Given the era his book covers, it’s no surprise that he mentions seeing several Alfred Hitchcock films. His movie-going odyssey, after all, begins in the year that Hitchcock’s debut was released in the UK and ends a decade or so after Hitch’s death. He was generally a fan, and from an early age. Impressed in 1929 by Blackmail (‘England’s first talking picture’), he made a mental note to keep an eye out for its director’s future work. He records seeing Rebecca in 1940; four years later he thought Lifeboat was marvellous: ‘Who can wonder that Hitchcock became a name with which to conjure; he had an unerring flair for filmmaking.’ He says he would have guessed Strangers on a Train was a Hitchcock film and was charmed by the innovative Rear Window. Cary Grant ‘played out an improbable story with immense panache’ in To Catch a Thief, while The Trouble With Harry was delightful and Dial M for Murder ‘an intellectual treat’. Olden was ‘duly shocked out of my seat by the bloody murder in the shower’ in Psycho and found The Birds startlingly realistic.
Sadly for the purposes of this blog post, if he did see Vertigo he failed to mention it in Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan.
One of the reasons Olden’s book struck such a chiming chord with me was that I have my own equivalent record of cinema visits. I assembled it a few years ago, basing it initially on annual lists I’d been keeping in appointment diaries since I was 18 years old. For films seen before I was 18, I’ve had to rely on my memory so those years may not be complete. There won’t be many missing entries, though. I fell in love with films on VHS in the 1980s and trips to the cinema were rare treats indeed. It was only once I went to university in 1997 that I started going more often – hence the habit of keeping records. I now update the list after each trip.
If I look over the list now, it brings back so many great memories. I can vaguely recall, as a three-year-old, starring up at the huge vastness of a cinema screen when my parents took me to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during a rainy Lake District holiday in 1982. (I’ve always been very proud that my ‘first’ was such a wonderful movie.) A few years later and 1989 was a sensational time to be a young film fan. Seeing a sequel to Back to the Future was almost unbearably exciting (to this day I have an enormous soft spot for Part II), while I can clearly remember the hearty laughter that the gags in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got from a packed house in Southport.
The film doesn’t need to have been a classic for my memories to flood back. For some unfathomable reason, I can remember seeing comedy Nuns on the Run with my mother in 1990. I enjoyed it more than she did; I imagine the same would be true if we both watched it again. We used to go to the cinema together quite often, me being an only child and she being a single parent. I owe her a great deal – just generally of course, but certainly in terms of my love of film. As a young child I saw violent and sweary movies such as Aliens and Commando and Die Hard at home on video and my mum never objected because she knew I could handle it. She even occasionally sneaked me into cinemas with her to see 15-certificate films when I was underage. We went to Oliver Stone’s JFK twice because we both adored it so much. We watched Schindler’s List together and were blown away. When I’m on my deathbed and asked to cite the greatest things that have ever happened to me, very near the top of the list will be the fact I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a big screen when I was 12 years old.
The cinema wasn’t always a wonderful experience, of course. I remember being confused by the Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker because it had no real storyline. Ghostbusters 2 was vaguely disappointing. My friends and I all thought Drop Dead Fred was dreadful. White Fang was incredibly boring. But the positives far outweighed the negatives.
A year before I entered into my teens, my mother and I moved from Lancashire to Derbyshire. At my new school I soon became pals with two boys called Stuart Oultram and Andy Fisher – the three of us are still friends today – and we began to hang out together, including occasional cinema visits. We adored the caper film Sneakers (pictured above) so much that we went back to see it again the following week. (It’s still one of my favourite movies – easily in my top five.) Three years later, I caught a Bond flick at the cinema for the first time: the amazing GoldenEye, seen with Stuart. I’ve not missed a 007 film since. In 1996, he and I also tried an obscure, low-budget, black-and-white horror called Nadja, which became one of his favourites. It was on at the Metro Cinema, an independent housed in a building on Green Lane in Derby that dates from 1876 – and a place that would soon come back into my life…
In 1997, I moved away to university in Leicester and had a fairly miserable year. Homesick, lonely and not keen on the new friends I’d made, I took to going to the cinema on my own as a way of escaping the darkness. With a National Union of Students card, I could get into the local UCI multiplex for just £3 so ended up seeing some films more than once. I watched As Good as It Gets and The Devil’s Advocate at least twice, Tomorrow Never Dies and Alien: Resurrection about three times each.
I also saw what instantly became my single favourite film of all time: LA Confidential (pictured above). I was so enraptured by this sassy, stylish, sinister, film-noir masterpiece that I raved about it to my old school friends – so much so that Andy, Stuart and I then went to see it together. Thankfully, they loved it too. I even tried seeing it a third time, again on my own, but two elderly women sat near me kept talking so I left after half an hour. (Oh, the irony: the only time I’ve ever walked out of a cinema and it was during what I consider to be the best movie ever made.)
After a year of unhappiness in Leicester, something had to change. So in the summer of 1998 I switched universities to the University of Derby, an institution based in a city I knew well from living close by as a teenager. My new degree course was Film & Television Studies and – thrillingly for me – it was based in the same Gothic building on Green Lane that housed the independent Metro Cinema. We actually used its screening room during the day for our lectures; then in the evenings it became a public cinema. There were instances of me, essentially, spending all day in the same room.
As you get older, however, a lot of experiences feel less vital simply because of familiarity. So while I continued to go to the cinema in my 20s, fewer visits have lodged specifically in my memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1999, my mate Will Haywood and I went to a weekday morning screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Unless rose-tinted specs are at play, I recall us both enjoying it. It only sunk in later that the film was drivel. (You can see my cinema ticket below, Sellotaped into my 1999/2000 appointment diary.) The following year, I saw a revival of one of my all-time favourites, Back to the Future, at the Metro and this opened my eyes to the joy of seeing a classic film on a huge screen. I now love seeing old movies at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. It allows you to reappraise, as well as wallow in shameless nostalgia.
In 2002, at the age of 23, I moved to London and rather fell out of the habit of going to the cinema. There were just too many other things demanding my attention – an exciting job, new friends, being young and having energy, that kind of thing. I made sure to see Bond films when they came around, but otherwise only went occasionally. That fallow period came to an end, appropriately, when Back to the Future was rereleased to mark its 25th anniversary in 2010. I went twice and caught the bug again. Since then, I’ve gone to the cinema every couple of months or so. Nothing to compare with Norman Olden’s multiple-times-a-week strike rate, and I’ve always seen far more films at home than in a cinema, but it’s still a very important part of my life.
Even with middle age approaching fast and going to the cinema no longer being a novelty, I can still be utterly captivated. In my 30s I fell into my current habit of going to see the big sci-fi and superhero movies with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. And it was with Fraser that I had the most scintillating cinema experience of my adult life. Just before Christmas 2015, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Everyman Baker Street in London. It was a movie we’d waited a very long time to see and we were both nervous and excited. No spoilers, but the final scene made such an overpowering impression on me – in effect, for a minute or so I forgot I was watching something fictional – that I walked out afterwards in a daze. Fraser did too. We stood on the busy pavement agog. We’re both Star Wars nerds, and had hoped this new one would be enjoyable, but we simply couldn’t believe the movie had been *that* good.
That’s what cinema can do. It can enthral and fascinate, just like Vertigo’s Madeleine. Good and great films rattle around inside your brain long after the end credits have rolled; they can provide enjoyment, entertainment, emotional fulfilment, intellectual stimuli, catharsis, joy or simply a carefree couple of hours.
In the introduction to his book, Norman Olden attempts to explain this. ‘Above it all,’ he says, ‘was the knowledge that for three and a half hours, I was going to escape to an enchanted place where I would be richly entertained, enjoy the comfort and luxury in so many of the cinemas I visited and the good manners of the audiences. I must bless whatever gods may be for my good fortune in having had all these joys at my disposal just at the very time they were necessary to me.’
Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that just cut through to the core of why so many of us love movies? I think it’s his use of the word ‘escape’ that gets me. First and foremost I want films to be essentially trivial. I don’t mean unimportant or not worthy of discussion or lightweight. But the way cinema can distract you from the pressures and problems of real life – give you a respite and some fantasy – has been a regular solace for me during difficult times, and I imagine the same is true for lots of other people. As for Vertigo, let’s ignore this blog’s usual scoring conventions so we can emphasis just what a majestic movie it is.
A thousand men walking past the offices of Gavin Elster out of 10
Charles Barr’s wonderful analysis of Vertigo is part of the BFI Film Classics series. It was first published in 2002.
Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan by Norman Olden was published by The Book Guild in 1991, when its recommended retail price was £12.50. I bought a secondhand copy in a branch of Oxfam in Rochester on 6 July 2019. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better £2.99.
You can see my pedantic list of cinema visits by clicking on this link.