Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

Footsteps in the Fog – Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco by Jeff Kraft and Aaron Levanthal

2002 – Santa Monica Press – 286 pages

As Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat states in her foreword to this book, Hitchcock had a fondness for the Bay Area.  He thought of San Francisco as a very cosmopolitan city, which he enjoyed both personally and professionally.

This volume details the movies that Hitchcock filmed in the greater Bay Area.   There are chapters on Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds, as well as a chapter highlighting a few scenes from other Hitchcock films that were shot in the area.  The book closes with a chapter on Hitchcock’s personal connection to the Bay Area.

This book is a detailed pictorial representation of where the movies were filmed.  The authors go through the movies chronologically, and as the plot is outlined, they share the very specific location where every scene was filmed.  There are literally hundreds of black and white photographs, comparing the locations as they appeared in the movies, with their appearance at the time the book was being researched and written.

There are also several detailed maps and sidebars that offer more of San Francisco’s history.

For anyone who is planning a “Hitchcock tour” of Northern California, this volume is absolutely indispensable.  I had it with me when I traveled to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, and Bodega Bay, and it came in handy more than once.

I also learned quite a bit about several Hitchcock films, such as the way Hitchcock altered the geography of the Bodega Bay area on screen to serve his narrative purposes.  Also, I never knew that Hitchcock filmed some scenes from Family Plot in San Francisco, or that a handful of the “Cuban” scenes from Topaz were filmed near Salinas.

My only quibble with this book is the layout.  It is a “coffee-table” style book, about 8 inches tall and 11 wide, which makes it a bit awkward in paperback form to hold and turn pages, especially when referring to it while travelling.   This is of course no slight against the authors, who clearly spent a considerable amount of time compiling their material for this book, and did an admirable job.

If you are from the Bay Area, or plan to visit, then this book is recommended.

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VERTIGO Deconstruction of a Scene: Argosy Book Shop

Vertigo is one of the most discussed and dissected Hitchcock films of all.   Plot elements, technical elements, psychological undertones; this movie has everything.  I could choose to deconstruct almost any scene in the film.  There are also many unanswered questions.   Such as:  Just how did Scottie get out of his rooftop predicament at the beginning?  How did Judy (playing Madeleine) get into her room in the McKittrick Hotel unseen?  Was the old lady paid off to lie?  And just what is going on with the lighting in the Argosy Book Shop?

I chose to look at the Argosy scene; I think it is interesting for a couple of reasons, and I hope we can dispel at least one of the often mentioned myths about it.  Near the end of this scene, the interior of the bookstore becomes increasingly dark.  At the end when Scottie and Midge step outside, it suddenly becomes bright again. Some have questioned whether this effect was deliberate.  There is also much debate about the source of the sudden light at the end.  Let’s take a look.

To set the scene:  Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is beginning to get reeled in to Gavin Elster’s plot.  Scottie asks his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) if she knows anyone who is up on the sordid history of San Francisco, and she recommends Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne), owner of the Argosy Book Store.

Hitchcock shot this scene with an economy of cutting, using staging, camera movement, and lighting to control the emotion.  There are only eight editorial cuts in the span of just over three minutes, which means an average shot length of 22.5 seconds.

The scene begins on a dissolve of the front of the book store, which is identified on the window.  The interior is clearly visible (you can see Pop Liebel’s head and torso on the upper level of the bookstore).   This shot lasts about 4 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the bookshop interior.  The camera is just inside the door, showing all three characters in a long shot.  We watch Pop Liebel and Midge walk down the stairs.  Pop offers cigarettes to the other two.  This lasts about 37 seconds.  

I would like to point out the three visible light sources in the room.  Two long lamps, probably with fluorescent bulbs, at left and center; and a white half dome-covered light about three-quarters right.  Note that none are illuminated, and yet the characters are clearly lit.  You can see the light reflecting on Pop’s bald head.  Obviously cinematographer Robert Burks lit the interior, but what is the intended source of the light, if the visible lights are off?  I believe it is supposed to be sunlight, coming through the windows.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to a medium shot of Pop lighting his cigarette and beginning to talk about Carlotta Valdez.  This shot lasts about 14 seconds.

 

As Pop continues to talk off screen, Hitchcock cuts to a medium of Scottie listening, with Midge in the background, browsing book titles.  This lasts around 12 seconds.

Hitchcock next cuts back to Pop, in the same medium close up.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

 

At this point in his narrative, Pop mentions a child.  The cutting changes here.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close up of Scottie which lasts about three seconds.  He is listening intently.  Hitchcock then cuts to Midge, giving her a medium close as she looks at Scotty.  She doesn’t understand his interest in this story, but she is concerned.   This shot lasts only a second.

Then comes the most important, and interesting shot in the sequence.  The camera switches sides.  We are now on the opposite side, facing towards the door.   Why would Hitchcock choose to swing the camera around 180 degrees here?  None of these are subjective shots.  I believe it was because this is the point when he begins to bleed the light out of the scene, with the intention being that a dark cloud is passing in the sky.  Why else show the exterior?  He could have kept the camera precisely where it was before.

This shot is going to last 80 seconds without a cut.  Hitchcock begins it in a very interesting way.  He starts on a medium 2 shot of Pop and Scotty.

At this point Midge walks into the frame on the left.  The camera actually pushes a bit, following her, until the characters are framed in the three shot which will finish the scene.  This is not a  zoom;  the camera is physically dollying forward behind her.

At this point, Pop’s narrative is taking a very dark turn.  Here is the closing dialogue:

Pop:  And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty.  And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask “Where is my child?  Have you seen my child?”

Midge:  Poor thing.

Scotty:  Then she died.

Pop:  She died.

Scotty:  How?

Pop:  By her own hand.  There are many such stories.

Pop interjects a wistful chuckle into this last statement, which says a lot about his character.   He knows many sad stories beyond this one.

Now let’s take another look at the lighting.  We can say definitively that the darkening of this scene is deliberate for a couple of reasons.  First of all, there is no other reason for Hitchcock to move the camera to the other side of the set, facing the windows.   Even more importantly, we can watch the interior light diminish.  Look again at the light in the first frame.  You can see it reflecting on Pop’s bald head.   There is clearly a studio light source above the actors here, even though all visible lights in the book shop are off.

As you look at this sequence of images getting progressively darker, don’t just focus on the characters in the interior. Look at the red and yellow striped awning across the street.  (This was actually a transparency.  The bookshop interior was a set, with the filmed street scene projected outside).  You can see the awning, along with everything else outside, getting darker as well.  

 

Hitchcock also plays with the sound in this scene.  As Pop has been talking, there has been no  sound other than his voice.  When he gets to his last line “There are many such stories” a streetcar passes outside,  and the clang of the bell breaks the spell we have been put under by Pop’s story.

 

What a masterful and subtle way to create atmosphere.   Hitchcock relied on the long take here, holding this shot for over 80 seconds.   He then removed sound and light, which pulls Scottie (and more importantly the viewer) deeply into the story.  Imagine a cloud passing right as Pop is speaking of Carlotta’s sad end.  This is something that Gavin Elster could never have planned for, but it certainly works in his favor.  Scottie’s obsession is beginning to take hold at this point.

Now Hitchcock cuts to the exterior, and after Scottie and Midge begin to talk, the light comes up again.   Many people think this is the result of Pop turning on the lights in the store.  But if you look closely, you will see the visible lights are still off.  The only one we can’t see is the lamp with the white globe cover.  It is obscured by Scottie throughout this scene.  Yet there is a glow of light on Pop’s head, indicating the studio lights are lit again.   I believe Hitchcock’s intent here was to indicate a cloud had passed.  This is reinforced by the light not becoming bright in an instant, but over the space of a couple seconds.  And yet, the characters, both in profile, seem to be backlit.  (Look at Midge’s hair.  There is more light on the top than the side facing us). What is going on here?

This scene ends as it began, on a dissolve.  The next shot is a dusk shot of Scottie and Midge driving home, which could add support to the idea that they left at sunset, and the light is coming from inside the store.

At the very least we can say the lighting decisions were deliberate, and very effective.  Is it interior light or a passing cloud?  Or perhaps something else?  What do you think?

Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic by Dan Auiler

VERTIGO:  THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC by Dan Auiler

1998 -St. Martin’s Press – 220 pages

Foreward by Martin Scorsese

2018 is a milestone year for Hitchcock’s Vertigo.   It is the 60th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical release.  It is also the 20th anniversary of the sublime James Katz/Robert Harris restoration, which was released theatrically in 1998.    Twenty years ago the movie was back in theaters, winning over new fans and reminding old fans of its power and beauty.  It was the perfect time for a book about Vertigo, and Dan Auiler answered the call.

Since Vertigo is about obsession, it is only fitting that the many fans who now obsess over the film have a book that narrates the making of this classic in great detail.    First of all, Auiler did his research.  He has meticulous detail about the film’s production.  The book is written chronologically.  Auiler begins with a little background information, where Hitchcock was in his career when he began making Vertigo.

There is a chapter dedicated to the writing of the screenplay;  one on the shooting of the film;  one on post-production; and so on through the film’s premiere and beyond.  This book goes into great detail on the film’s shooting.  Again it is detailed chronologically, so the reader will learn the order in which the scenes were filmed.  The language is fairly scholarly and straightforward as it relates the  specifics of the production. This book does not delve too much into the film’s themes.  It is a nuts and bolts description of the film’s making.    If you are the type of fan who would like to know that on October 9th shooting wrapped at 3:05 PM, then this is the book for you.

This reader was thrilled to learn so many specifics of the film’s making.  Included are several great photos and storyboards.  Also included is an interview with Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the two men responsible for saving Vertigo for future generations by performing one of the greatest and most ambitious film restorations of all time.  In addition, Martin Scorsese wrote the forward.  His passion for Hitchcock in general, and this movie in particular, are made quite clear.

Recommended for  fans of Hitchcock and Vertigo.

 

 

 

VERTIGO Part Two: Themes and Technique

In this entry we will continue our chronological look at Vertigo.  Please read Part One first if you haven’t done so (major spoilers ahead).

Scottie’s first sighting of Madeleine takes place at Ernie’s restaurant.  It is one of the greatest character entrances in movie history.   Kim Novak as Madeleine is strikingly beautiful.

Scottie is too intrigued to resist, as is the viewer.   And so the next day Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, in one of the most powerful and memorable sequences in the film.  Jimmy Stewart follows  in his car;  the journey is shown in considerable detail, with many POV shots.  The first stop is a florist, where Kim Novak buys a bouquet of flowers.  Next, he follows her to the old Spanish Mission Dolores in San Francisco, where he watches her visit a grave site.  Hitchcock shot the cemetery with a filter, giving the scene a hazy, almost dreamlike quality.   Next he follows her to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she sits in front a painting, gazing trance-like at it.  This sequence is allowed to play out with meticulous detail, lasting over six minutes without a word of dialogue.   This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, allowing the viewer to silently spy on Madeleine just as Scottie is spying.  Hitchcock’s wardrobe choices for Madeleine (designed by Edith Head) are very deliberate, and very effective.  Hitchcock wanted her in gray, so she would appear ghostlike, as if she stepped out of the San Francisco fog.

The silence is finally broken when Scottie asks a question of a man at the gallery.   We learn that the painting is called “Portrait of Carlotta”, and clearly Madeleine has borrowed her hairstyle and bouquet from Carlotta.  From here, Scottie follows her to the McKittrick Hotel.  After an amusing conversation with the elderly hotel keeper, Madeleine seemingly vanishes, ghost like.  Just how did she get in and out of the hotel room without being seen?  Did she pay the hotel keeper to play along?  Another unanswered question.

Thus ends Madeleine’s day.  Knowing that “Madeleine” is really Judy playing Madeleine makes the performance even more amazing.  Her movements in this sequence are so precise and deliberate;  she is slowly reeling Scottie in.  One wonders, did Judy do a couple of dry runs to get her “performance” down so perfectly?

Next Scottie gets Midge to take him to a bookstore, whose owner Pop Liebel is an authority on old San Francisco.  Liebel tells the story of “the sad Carlotta” who later became “the mad Carlotta”, ultimately killing herself.  As Liebel tells his story, the bookstore darkens inside, as if a cloud has just obscured the sun.  This was a deliberate choice by Hitchcock, and makes the scene even more visually arresting.

There is no way that Judy, or certainly Gavin Elster, could ever have known that Scottie would end up talking to Pop Liebel.  Rather than just digging up Carlotta’s background in some old hall of records, Scottie found probably the one man in all of San Francisco who could have narrated Carlotta’s tale with such pathos.  So Liebel (and Midge) end up giving an unintended assist to the scheming Elster.

The evening ends with Midge trying to pry more information out of Scottie, who won’t tell her why he is interested in Carlotta.

Next we see Scottie reporting to Elster of his findings.  Scottie has already taken the bait, now Elster slowly begins to reel him in, with a tall tale about Madeleine having no idea that Carlotta is her great-grandmother.

Next we see Scottie following Madeleine again, only this time she ends up at Old Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Madeleine jumps in the water, and Scottie rescues her.  We cut next to Scottie’s apartment.

Hitchcock begins with one of his trademark shots, panning through the apartment, telling a story through visuals.  We see Madeleine’s clothing (including undergarments) hanging to dry in the kitchen.  We then see Madeleine in bed, wearing what must be Scottie’s robe.  So clearly he undressed her.   Did he avert his eyes, or did he take a peek or two?  What makes it even stranger is to remember that Madeleine is really Judy, who not only willingly jumped in San Francisco Bay but now allows herself to be stripped naked by a man she hardly knows.   Just how much does she love Elster?

This is one (of many) of the pivotal scenes in the film.  Kim Novak’s look here is so precise.  She has to look not only vulnerable, but incredibly attractive.  By the end of this scene, Scottie clearly has feelings for her.  Hitchcock needs the audience to feel the same way, so the coming plot twist will have a strong effect on us too.

The image above is so perfect in color and composition that it could be a painting.  Virtually every image in this film was crafted with the same precision.

The next day, when Scottie begins following Madeleine, he follows her right back to his own door, in a seemingly circuitous route.  Was Judy deliberately toying with Scottie here?   Now she is dressed in an exquisite black and white ensemble, that highlights her beautiful blonde hair.

They wander through the Redwood trees, Madeleine in a trancelike state gives a ghostly narrative of Carlotta’s past.  All the more impressive when one considers again that it is Judy, pretending to be Madeleine, pretending to be haunted by Carlotta.

Finally comes the ocean side kiss that we have all been expecting.  Is this still just Judy as Madeleine playing her part, or does she have feelings for Scottie by now as well?

Next comes Barbara Bel Geddes’  best scene, as Midge’s attempt to lighten Scottie’s mood with a painting of herself as Carlotta backfires miserably.  It is clear that Midge still loves Scottie.  What a cruel irony that Scottie in the end has the love of not one woman, but two.  And yet he is still chasing an illusion.

Finally comes the moment that the whole ploy has been building up to.  Scotty takes Madeleine to San Juan Bautista, where Madeleine will plummet to her death from the top of the bell tower.  Scottie could not make it to the top, due to his vertigo.

The vertigo effect:  The visual effect used to simulate the effects of vertigo was created especially for this film. It is known as a dolly zoom.  In other words, the lens zooms in, as the camera dollies back at the same time.  The invention of the effect is credited to Irmin Roberts, the second unit cameraman.  It has subsequently been used in many films.

The image above is a fascinating shot.  The church tower is a matte painting, while the rest of the image is real.   You can see a man about to ascend on to the roof to the left of the tower, and you can see Jimmy Stewart standing just outside the archway in front of the church.

Next comes the very long monologue of Henry Jones as the coroner.   The primary purpose of this seems to be to further emasculate Scottie, and compound his guilt, which it clearly does.

Nightmare, Hitchcock style:   Scottie has a vivid nightmare.  This is not the first Hitchcock movie to feature a nightmare sequence;  Hitch had hired Salvador Dali to design the nightmare sequence in Spellbound in 1945.  The Vertigo nightmare combines animation, matte painting, and a lurid color scheme, and is an effective sequence.

Next we find Scottie in a sanitarium, in a catatonic state.  But Midge is by his side, trying to nurse him to health.  She loves him, but he is blind to it.

Finally we get to the crux of the film.   Scottie is out of the sanitarium, and has been seeing reminders of Madeleine all over town.  But finally he sees a girl who looks eerily like her, although with different hair color and makeup.  He impulsively follows her to her hotel, and up to her room.  This is borderline criminal behavior, certainly by today’s standards.  Nonetheless, she agrees to go out with him.

To tell or not to tell:  Next comes the scene wherein Judy spills the beans to Scottie in a letter.  So the audience learns the truth;  that she was playing Madeleine for Elster, who ditched her and left.  That she had true feelings for Scottie, and both hoped and dreaded that he would find her.  There was much debate about whether to clue the audience in on this now, or save it until the end.  Hitchcock was always a believer in suspense over surprise;  he liked the audience having more information than his characters, so it seems only natural that it made the cut.

After their date, we get this haunting image.

She still has Judy’s brown hair, but bathed in the green light, she looks like Madeleine reborn.

Then begins Scottie’s obsession in earnest, as he slowly recreates Judy into Madeleine.  Imagine the psychology on the part of both people:  Scottie is in love with a woman who never even existed, and instead of accepting the love of the beautiful woman who stands before him, he will bend and shape her into the image of the woman he loved.  Scottie actually has the love of two women, counting Midge, but all he cares about is the one that didn’t exist.  And how about Judy’s mindset?  All she wants is to be loved for who she is, yet she will allow herself to be molded into the image of a woman that can only remind her of the most sordid details of her past.  To please Scottie she will become the accomplice of murder that she once was.

The transformation completed:   It is hard to imagine how the “transformation” scenes played in the late 1950’s, as Scottie obsessively changes every single detail of Judy, recreating her as Madeleine.  When he says “It can’t matter to you” in regards to changing her clothes or hairstyle, it is so dated as to be laughable.  Scottie’s obsession has caused him to lose a firm grip on reality at this point.

Finally the transformation is complete.  When Judy emerges from the bathroom as Madeleine, bathed in green light, it is one of the most emotionally resonant and visually striking scenes ever captured on film.

When Judy goes to Scottie, we get a 360 degree kiss, which cleverly shows the inside of the mission stable as the camera turns, showing Scotties’ complete obsession.

When the camera fades in, Judy is dressing for dinner.  The implication is clear here;  they just had sex.  The double bed on the right of the above image is not framed in the camera by accident.   And now, just after they have consummated their relationship, just as Judy looks truly happy, she loses everything.   It seems like a pretty clumsy slip up, putting on the necklace of Carlotta.  Would she really be that careless?  At any rate, Scottie certainly recognizes it, and forces her to return to the scene of the crime.

Here, Scottie regains his power, as he learns the truth, and finally beats his vertigo by making it to the top of the tower.  But he loses his illusions, as he now knows the woman he loved never really existed.  How much is Judy to blame for her death, and how much is Scottie to blame?

The last image of the film:  Jimmy Stewart as Scottie staring over the edge at the death of Judy, and the death of his illusions.

A personal film:  Vertigo is often described as Hitchcock’s most personal film.  Jimmy Stewart said “I could tell it was a very personal film even while he was making it.”   What makes it so personal?  Is it because Hitchcock saw himself as Scottie, a man who obsessively tried to recreate women into the image he wanted, telling them how to dress, how to style their hair?  That has to be part of it.  Kim Novak certainly saw it that way, although interestingly she cast Hitchcock into the darker role of the antagonist:  “It was almost as if Hitchcock was Elster, the man who was telling me to play a role…here’s what I had to do, and wear, and it was so much of me playing Madeleine…but I really appreciated it.”

A visual film:  Hitchcock, who came of age making silent films, was never afraid to let his characters keep quiet while he told the tale visually.  Vertigo has little dialogue for a two hour and nine minute film, and very few characters with speaking roles.  Four actors (Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore) speak 90% of the film’s dialogue.  Other than that, there are a handful of characters that have one small but significant scene:  (Henry Jones as the coroner, Konstantin Shayne as Pop Leibel, Ellen Corby as the McKittrick Hotel manager).   There are only 7 other speaking roles, most of them one line.   It is not only the amazing visuals that captivate the viewer when the dialogue is scarce, it is the haunting film score.

The perfect score for the perfect film:  The music is such an important element in this film, and it could only have come from Bernard Herrmann ( by way of Wagner.)  Many have noticed some similarities between the theme from Vertigo and the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  His reference may be deliberate, based on the subject matter.  But the score he created is not only unforgettable, it is perfectly married to the material.

VERTIGO (1958): “I need you to be Madeleine for awhile.”

VERTIGO – 1958 – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★

Color – 128 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Kim Novak (Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster), James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie “Midge” Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry Jones (Coroner).

Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costumes by Edith Head

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

(My analysis of Vertigo will be divided into two parts.)

In 1956 Paramount purchased  two books as potential Alfred Hitchcock projects:  Flamingo Feather, and D’entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead).  He was planning to make Flamingo Feather first;  it was announced in the trade papers as his next movie, and he went so far as to take a trip to South Africa, scouting locations for the movie.  What he saw there discouraged him.  He felt the movie would be costly, and the political subject matter touchy.  So after returning to Hollywood, he scrapped this movie for From Among the Dead, the movie that would become Vertigo.  

Alfred Hitchcock sometimes chose his projects based on one particular scene or concept in the source material that intrigued him.  He wanted to make Psycho because of the shower murder; he wanted to make Marnie because of the honeymoon rape scene; and he wanted to make Vertigo because of the idea of a man remaking a woman into the image of another woman, now dead.   This idea of lost love and obsession was very intriguing to Hitchcock.

Vera Miles as Madeline?  Initially, Vera Miles was cast in the role of Madeline.  Hitchcock had signed Vera to an exclusive 5-year contract.  He had starred her in the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, an episode that Hitchcock directed himself.  He then gave her the leading role in his film The Wrong Man, in which Miles gives one of the great performances in the Hitchcock canon, as a woman who loses her grip on reality when her husband is wrongfully accused of a crime.  Next on the agenda for her was Vertigo.  Hitchcock was convinced that this film would make her a star.  Below you can see a photo of an early costume test of Vera Miles as Madeline.

 

Shortly after this photo was taken, Vera announced to Hitchcock that she was pregnant.   He would now have to recast the role.   He ultimately settled on Kim Novak, borrowing her from Columbia Pictures.  Hitchcock was extremely unhappy with Vera Miles, although he did direct her two more times before her contract expired;  once more for television, and finally as Lila Crane in Psycho.

Titles by Saul Bass:  Alfred Hitchcock hired famous graphic designer Saul Bass to design the title sequence for Vertigo.  Saul Bass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century.  Familiar logos designed by Bass are still used by many major corporations, and his movie posters are works of art.  Bass believed that a movie’s title sequence should not just be a dull scroll of names;  he thought the titles could serve as a sort of prologue to the film.  Bass said “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”  His work on Vertigo is arguably his best.

The sequence begins with a close up of the lower portion of a woman’s face.  The camera focuses on her lips, then moves up to her eyes, finally zooming in on her right eye.  The film title actually comes out of her eye.  This is followed by several spiral designs.  These spirals were created for Bass by a man named John Whitney.  Whitney had to use an early computer which would plot the graphs of 19th century parametric equations and draw them perfectly on paper.  What the audience is seeing here is one of the earliest uses of computer graphics in a movie.

Of course it is impossible to talk about the title sequence without mentioning the great score of Bernard Herrmann, which is perfectly married to Bass’ titles, creating an unforgettable opening to the film.

The film opens with a rooftop chase, the city of San Francisco acting as a backdrop.  Jimmy Stewart is police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, and he and a policeman are chasing a third man.  Who is this man and what is his crime?  We never learn.

An errant jump leaves Scottie hanging on for dear life.   The policeman attempts to pull Scottie up, but loses his balance and falls, presumably to his death.   Scottie discovers that he has vertigo, and if ever there was a bad time to learn that, it’s while you’re hanging from the side of a tall building.

The movie then cuts to an apartment interior, with San Francisco visible out the window.  Here sit Scottie and his friend (and former fiancee) Midge.  Scottie is holding a cane, and mentions a corset that is going to be removed soon.  How did he get injured?  Is the implication that he fell from the roof, and survived?  We never do learn just how he got down from there.

The expository dialogue here informs us that Scottie is now retired, because of his vertigo.  We can also plainly see from Midge’s looks that she still has feelings for Scottie.  He mentions that he is going to pay a call on an old college acquaintance that got in touch with him.

I could point how how perfect this scene is;  how the set design, costumes, dialogue and acting all paint such a perfect picture of these two characters, their current position in life and with each other, but I could say the same of any scene in this movie.  The technical construction of this film is near perfect.

Next (after Hitch’s cameo) we go to the interior of Gavin Elster’s office.  Elster is the old college chum who called up Scotty.  Once again, the set is exquisite.

Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife.  She is acting strange, leaving for long periods of time, and he wants to know why.  Scottie is reluctant, but Elster convinces him to go to a restaurant that night where the Elsters will be dining, so he can see her.

(For a continuing look at the film’s sequences, and the introduction of Madeleine, see Vertigo Part Two.)

Performance:   This film is very well cast, and every performance is great.  First notice has to go to Kim Novak, who I believe pulls off the greatest performance by a female lead in any Hitchcock film.   She is essentially playing two roles, both of them multi-layered.   There are rumors that Hitchcock partially blamed Jimmy Stewart for this film’s initial box office failings;  that perhaps he was too old to play the part.  I don’t know if Hitchcock truly felt this way, but I disagree completely.  Scottie Ferguson had to be older;  the fact that he is a seasoned detective makes the film all the more powerful.   Stewart shows us a darker, obsessive side seldom if ever seen on the screen outside of this performance.  Barbara Bel Geddes also shows her range in the part of Midge, Scottie’s friend who clearly still has feelings for him.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a French duo who co-wrote over a dozen novels together.  The film retains the basic plot of the novel, with some minor changes.  The book begins in France, during the Second World War.   A prosperous shipbuilder named Gevigne asks an old schoolmate named Flavieres to follow his wife.  There is a similar set-up as in the novel, with Gevigne telling Flavieres that his wife Madeleine (the one name retained for the movie) appears to be haunted by the spirit of her great-grandmother.   Just as in the film, the protagonist has vertigo;  he falls in love with “Madeleine”; and he watches in horror as she falls from a church tower.  At this point in the novel comes the German occupation, which makes a nice point to divide the story.  Years later, after the war, Flavieres sees a woman that reminds him of Madeleine.   Just as in the film, he courts her, dates her, and ultimately gets her to confess to the plot, which is the same as in the movie.   Although in the novel, Flavieres, consumed with rage, begins choking the woman (named Renee in the book), and without realizing what he is doing, strangles her to death.  An even darker ending than the movie.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart had earlier appeared in Rope, Rear Windowand The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Tom Helmore had appeared in a couple of very early Hitchcock films, The Ring and Secret Agent.  Paul Bryar (Captain Hansen) had uncredited roles in Notorious and The Wrong Man.  Bess Flowers (the Queen of the Hollywood extras) appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films.  Fred Graham (the policeman who falls at the beginning) earlier played a policeman in Rear Window.  Forbes Murray (one of the diners at Ernies) had earlier played the judge in Dial M For Murder.  Jeffrey Sayre (another diner at Ernie’s) also had small uncredited appearences in Saboteur, Notoriousand North by Northwest.

Academy Awards:  It seems shocking today to learn that Vertigo was only nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Sound) winning neither.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 11:40 mark.  He crosses left to right in front of Gavin Elster’s shipyard.   He carries a strange-shaped case in his hands.  People have speculated for years that it must be a musical instrument; a trumpet, perhaps?  Others posit that it is a case for a manual foghorn.  Very appropriate, considering the movie’s locale.

What Hitch said:   In summing up the plot, Hitchcock says to Truffaut:  “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”

He also says:

Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.  What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond.  James Steward is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun.  What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off.  When he insists, she says, “All right!” and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside.  What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.

Definitive edition:  The 2014 Universal blu ray release (which is also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set) is the best version available.   Picture and sound are absolutely sublime.  The disc includes many extras, including a commentary track by filmmaker William Friedkin, a half hour documentary on the making and restoration of Vertigoan hour’s worth of material on four of Hitchcock’s key collaborators, an extended ending shot to appease foreign censors, 14 minutes of excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, a nine-minute mini doc on Lew Wasserman, a multitude of production designs drawings and photos, and two trailers.   Left off unfortunately is the commentary track from the earlier DVD release which featured the film’s associate producer Herbert Coleman, along with the two men responsible for the amazing 1996 restoration, Robert Harris and James Katz.  Coleman was a long-time friend and collaborator of Hitchcock, and his memories are worth hearing.

Remembering Saul Bass on his birthday

saulbassGraphic designer Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, making this year the 94th anniversary of his birth (Bass died in 1996).   Before we look at the Bass/Hitchcock connection,  let’s take a look at what made Bass’s career so memorable.

You may have never heard the name Saul Bass before, but you are definitely familiar with his work.  Bass designed dozens of corporate logos, many of which became iconic over time.   Everything from the AT&T “bell” logo, to the Warner Brothers’ “W” logo, and many others that you would instantly recognize, all were created by Saul Bass.

Take a look at the following corporate logos, all designed by Saul Bass.  How many do you recognize?  This is just a small portion of his total output over a 40 year career.

Saul-Bass-Logo-Design

Saul Bass was so good at marrying a logo to a brand, creating “brand recognition”, that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, asking Bass to design movie posters.  Saul Bass designed dozens of iconic movie posters over a span of 4 decades.  Let’s take a look at just a few of his many memorable posters, including three that he designed for Alfred Hitchcock.

SaulBassVertigoSaulBassPsychoSaulBassBirds

 

 

saulbassStalagsaulbassSeven

 

Saul Bass’ most significant contribution to movies was not his iconic posters, however, but his title sequences.  Movie directors began approaching Bass in the 1950’s to create innovative and memorable opening title sequences for films.  Bass’ first title sequence was for the 1954 movie “Carmen Jones”, and his last was for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 release “Casino.”   Within that 36-year span Saul Bass created many ground-breaking title sequences.  It is not an understatement to say that Bass single-handedly changed movie title sequences.

This is what Saul Bass had to say about creating a title sequence:  “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way.  I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

Saul Bass created three title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock:  for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.  All three of his sequences are pitch-perfect; all succeed in “setting the audience up”, as Bass once put it.  It is worth noting that all three of these films were scored by Bernard Herrmann, and in each instance Saul Bass’ title sequence works in unison with Herrmann’s score to put the audience in a particular frame of mind, a particular emotional state, before seeing one image of Hitchcock’s movie, or hearing one line of dialogue.

Saul Bass’ legacy lives on beyond his death.  Not only are many of his corporate logos still used today, but his movie posters are collectors’ items,  and the title sequences he designed are seen every time somebody watches one of the classic films he was involved with.  Below you can watch Bass’s unforgettable title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Note how in sync Bass’ title sequence is with Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score.  (All rights to the movie Vertigo are owned by Universal Pictures.)

VERTIGO tops CITIZEN KANE in ‘Sight & Sound’ poll. What does it mean?

Once every decade, Sight & Sound  (a publication of the British Film Institute) releases a list of the top 50 films, as voted on by film “professionals.”  This list has always been viewed with a certain hallowed reverence by some in the industry, but an equal number of film buffs view it as elitist.  One constant on this list for the last half century has been Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in the top spot.  This year that film has been supplanted by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  

Does this mean that Vertigo is “better” than Kane?  The idea of empirically defining any work of art as better than another can only be subjective and arbitrary.   In  many other mediums of expression, the very idea of a best-of list is absurd.   The thought of trying to say that Van Gogh’s Starry Night is “better” than Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (to pick two famous paintings at random) is laughable.  There is no context by which to compare them.  They are separated by centuries, the product not only of different times and nations, but different worldviews.   Try this one:  rank the following books in order of greatness:  The Odyssey, Oliver Twist, Catch-22, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Huckleberry Finn.  Difficult, if not impossible.

Yet when it comes to movies, (and music), we are incessantly making lists.  Perhaps it has to do with the medium of movies having been around for a much shorter time.  With just over a century of material to view, maybe we have an easier time placing them in context.  And yet, one could make the argument that Kane and Vertigo, although made in the same state less than 20 years apart, are as dramatically different as two paintings or novels separated by centuries.   Whatever the reason, movie list-making is here to stay.  All one has to do is google “top films of all time”, or something similar, and you will find page after page of movie lists, from the popular and mainstream, to the many hundreds if not thousands of blogs devoted to films.

I had a suspicion that a majority of film lists would be written by men, and that top-10 lists in general were more a male activity, particularly young men.   When I was a twenty-something young man I had many conversations with friends and coworkers that centered around making a list:  What are the three best burgers you’ve ever had?  Who are the five best-looking girls that work here?  Most of the guys I knew, including myself, were slightly tamer versions of the characters in Nick Hornby’s brilliant novel High Fidelity.  These fictional characters worked at a record store called Championship Vinyl, and incessantly made lists about everything.  When the protagonist discovers that his girlfriend’s father has died, these guys immediately start making a list of the top five songs dealing with death.  My very unscientific random sampling of blog sites leads me to believe that there are indeed more men making best-of movie lists, but there are plenty of women who have as well, I was delighted and relieved to discover.

So if all these lists are arbitrary and subjective, what is the point?  Why do so many movie lovers (myself included) eagerly peruse these lists?  Because we want to compare our own subjective views with those of the listmaker;  our views may be very different, but what we share is a passion for films.  Our “10-best” films are at the very least a reflection of our taste, and at best, maybe a reflection of something more.  So do these lists ultimately mean anything?  Nope.  There is no “best” anything.  The primary function of a movie is to entertain, to provide some escapism.   Whatever movie does that for you, may be your best, and that is irrefutable, no matter how many film “experts” tell you that your view is incorrect.  I once worked with a girl who thought Con Air was the greatest film ever made, and I, seeing myself as an arbiter of good taste in films, secretly snickered behind her back.   Today I would applaud her view.  If that film brings her pleasure, then who am I to deride it?

It is precisely because our tastes differ that these lists have meaning.  That is their greatest significance, as a conversation starter.  Put 10 self-professed movie lovers in a conference room, distribute to them a list of the 100 greatest films as chosen by (whomever) and give them the direction:   discuss.  You can be assured that hours of dialogue will follow.  So there you have it.   We are humans of the 21st century.  We will make movies.  We will make lists about movies.  We will discuss the lists, and the movies, endlessly, as a way of expressing our individuality, and yet finding a commonality at the same time.

Now a quick look at these two films, in the world of movie lists.   Both Vertigo and Citizen Kane appear on virtually every major “best movie” list.  However, Kane has always placed higher, until now.

AFI                AMC                     IMDB                      EMPIRE

Citizen Kane                 1                         9                            44                                 28

Vertigo                           9                        16                          49                                 40

Kane placed higher on all of these lists as you can see (of course IMDB changes constantly, but this ranking is as of 9-23-2012.)

Does this reflect a change in the view of these two movies in general, or in relation to each other?  They actually share some things  in common:  they are both considered technically brilliant, they both achieved their status of “greatness” decades after their initial release, and they are both films that many casual movie viewers struggle to engage with on a first viewing.   I have heard or seen comments many times,  in reference to both films, along the lines of:  “I just didn’t get it”, or “I couldn’t even get through it.”  While such comments may make some of us wish to grab the comment makers by the shoulders and shake them, there is a validity to what they are saying.

I love Vertigo.  I think it is an amazing work, a tortured and tortuous psychological journey into the darkness of the human psyche, with amazing performances.  This film is Exhibit A to refute anyone who thinks that Jimmy Stewart  just played variations of the same character over and over.   And I can’t say enough about Kim Novak’s work in this film.  She has to play multiple roles, and she has to make the audience fall for just as she has to make Stewart’s character fall for her, and she does it in the most intensely understated way.  But I certainly wouldn’t recommend Vertigo to a Hitchcock newbie who asked what film to watch first.  As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t recommend it as my second or third choice either.  It’s not as directly engaging as Rear Window, or Psycho or many other Hitchcock films considered classics.  Vertigo (and Citizen Kane as well) require a level of committed engagement from the viewer, and some people are never going to have that kind of patience.  And for those who don’t, that’s OK.  I would say to someone who was watching these films for the first time, that they require the maximum investment if you want to receive the maximum payoff.


So which is better, the Van Gogh or the Botticelli?  The Welles or the Hitchcock?  Let’s just say they are two very good films, and you could certainly do worse than giving them a try.