Magnificent Obsession


by Alfred Hitchcock, restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is no less strange and singular now than on its original appearance in 1958. Visible for years only in a cramped, splotchy, and faded video transfer, it has now been rereleased in wide-screen proportions, brilliantly restored colors, and almost too brilliantly restored sound (each passing thud and squeak carries almost as much sonic weight as Bernard Herrmann’s incomparable score). If Vertigo at first aroused at best muted and scattered appreciation, the response to its reemergence has been apparently enthusiastic consensus that the film is indeed not only Hitchcock’s summing up but one of the masterpieces of the last half-century of movies.

Yet what a peculiar sort of masterpiece it is. Centrality is an uneasy position for a film so wedded to offcenteredness. As a cultural monument, Vertigo resembles a Hollywood spectacle seen through the wrong end of the telescope, marshaling vast and spacious resources toward an ineluctably inward and downward spiral. In the heart of the expansive 1950s, Hitchcock succeeded in making a movie of epic proportions (the city of San Francisco is enlisted as a virtual character in the drama) about the narrowing and finally the elimination of human possibilities. It is something like an amusement park ride that—after beguiling its passengers with an intricately linked series of illusions—for its final flourish ejects them into free fall.

What has become clearest over the decades is the extent to which this uncanny machine instills permanent fascination in some of the people who see it. Such devotees seem fated to reenact Vertigo’s central gesture—the meticulous but fruitless attempt to recreate a lost love object—with regard to the movie itself. The painter David Reed, who has used a still of Kim Novak in her hotel room as the basis for several installation pieces, is, according to Arthur C. Danto, “enough obsessed with Vertigo that he once made a pilgrimage to all the remaining sites in San Francisco that appear in Hitchcock’s film.”1 The filmmaker Chris Marker has similarly revisited the stations of James Stewart’s obsessive wanderings—Ernie’s restaurant, where he first catches sight of Kim Novak, the florist’s where he spies on her from behind the door, the spot where she throws herself into San Francisco Bay—and the record of this journey forms a crucial portion of his cinematic essay Sans Soleil (1982).

The examples continue to multiply. Terry Gilliam in his film 12 Monkeys (itself an adaptation of another Chris Marker work, La Jetée, which elaborates ingeniously on Vertigo’s recursive narrative spirals) incorporates a scene from Vertigo so that his doomed lovers can share their last hours of freedom with Hitchcock’s doomed lovers. Victor Burgin in his photographic essay Some Cities 2 repeatedly invokes Vertigo’s storyline and inserts a still from the film—Barbara Bel Geddes walking down the corridor of the mental hospital—into his collage of urban spaces. Louise DeSalvo in her recent memoir entitled simply Vertigo3 describes her compulsive repeated viewing of the film on its first release, and relates it to her discovery of…

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