09 January, 2009

Farewell, My Doppelganger: Vertigo (1958) and Mister Foe (2008)

When Vertigo initially met with critical and financial failure in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock blamed his long collaborator and screen star Jimmy Stewart for looking too old and failing to be romantic, truthfully vowing to never work with him again. The movie fell behind legal obstructions for three decades and in the 1980s was reintroduced with acclaim, many people hailing it Hitchcock's masterpiece. They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, which tabulates the opinions of international critics, currently ranks it as the second greatest film of all time.

I can't say that I agree. When I saw the movie in my seventh grade film studies class, I remember being turned off by the bizarre romance, the sudden ending, and Kim Novak's strange performance. Now that I've finally revisited it, expecting a greater appreciation, I can understand my apprehensions.

Jimmy Stewart as Detective Scottie Ferguson is too old to be romantic--at that point a wiry man of fifty, lamenting his bad back, hobbling with a cane, tossing curmudgeonly remarks to his smitten friend Midge (a giddy, bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes), and downing highballs of bourbon. When a college friend enlists Scottie to spy on his delusional wife (Kim Novak), Scottie pursues the task too eagerly, gazing transfixed in prolonged, hypnotic sequences as she purchases flower arrangements, visits an art gallery, and drives the hilly streets of San Francisco. When wife Madeleine, convinced she's possessed by the suicidal spirit of her great grandmother Carlotta Valdez, leaps into the frigid San Francisco Bay, Scottie rushes valiantly to the occasion, taking the unconscious woman not to a hospital nor to her husband's home but to his own small apartment, where he disrobes her, dries her body, unpins her hair, and puts her snugly in his own bachelor's bed. When she comes to, his lingering stares far surpass that of a procedural private investigator. He's downright perverted, and when his hand "accidentally" cups hers while he reaches to refill her coffee mug, its an awkward gaffe full of tension but no romance. She rightly grabs her clothes and flees.

Feeling a sense of obligation to her savior, they begin to see more of each other. He's a self-professed career wanderer, and she does so by insane compulsion, commenting that when two people wander together they are always headed somewhere. The somewhere, predictably but very unnaturally, is a state of love, and when they embrace, sloppily, smearily pressing their lips against each other, passionately declaring their love for each other, the moment comes across more disturbing than anything else. He's a freelance stalker whose private and professional lives overlap, and she's a married millionaire in need of either a headshrinker or an exorcist. They barely know each other beyond strange interrogations where he conceals his real identity and she slips between dizzy spells and memory lapses. It's not exactly a match made in heaven.

I'm entering major spoiler territory when I say that he eventually takes her to the source of her crazed hypnosis, a Spanish fortress south of San Francisco. She slips into a bout of hysterical mania, races to the top of a bell tower where he--suffering from a crippling fear of heights--is unable to prevent her from flinging herself to her death.

The abrupt termination of his strange love affair and his guilt over being unable to stop it riddles him with "acute melancholia," a state of mute catatonia that lasts over a year and plagues him with surreal nightmares. Released into the real world, he sees her apparition everywhere, eventually attaching himself to a dark-haired Kansas girl (also Kim Novak) who physically resembles his lost love. He enters her hotel apartment, doggedly imposes himself upon her, and endures no qualms about unwillingly transforming her into the woman he lustfully desires her to be. "The man certainly knows what he wants," a department store clerk muses as he clothes his body double in the original's exact attire. It's sexist, possessive, and completely insane. The new relationship is made all the more deranged by the creepiness of the first.

Which is where my only hesitation about the greatness of Vertigo lies. One isn't accustomed to viewing Jimmy Stewart characters--nor protagonists in general--as off-kilter perverts, but once adjusted it's quite interesting. What fails to make sense, though, is the motivation behind Kim Novak's Judy Barton, who throughout the entire film is in fact one supposedly sane woman from Kansas--an aspiring actress who pretends to be Madeleine/Carlotta in order to aid the husband in offing his wife. She's later discovered by Scottie and attempts to show him her real self, wanting him to love her true personality and forget about the murdered, artificial doppelganger, but she never manages that. It's like a famous character actress falling in love with her biggest fan. Eventually her desire to be loved allows her to subsume herself entirely in the rehearsed role of Madeleine. She dyes her hair; she changes her mannerisms.

But why? There's guilt involved, of course. And maybe some loneliness--the small town girl lost in the big, crazy city. But she repeatedly claims that her one flaw in the operation was falling in love. She loves the sexist, possessive, twenty-five-years-her-senior Scottie. It's a misogynist development from a director who delighted in having Kim Novak repeatedly jump into the cold bay even when he knew he'd gotten the right shot already. It's a weakness in character development only possibly explained by dismissing Judy Barton as insane--a frail womanly creature willingly submitting to an abusive relationship and seeing suicide as the only possible escape.

And that's why this isn't the second greatest film of all time; though it's intriguing and original and the cinematography is meaningful and beautiful, it's just a tad outdated and offensive. Perhaps the screenwriter or the original French novelist is to blame; maybe Hitchcock himself. In any case, the film is visually stunning with its timeless, technicolor-rich sets, its spiraling, dizzying camera angles, its steep, vertiginous San Francisco landscape, and its unnatural use of ever-changing lighting with characters occasionally fading into dark obscurity, their physical presence shadowed by the idea of their presence.

d: Alfred Hitchcock w: Samuel A. Taylor
(Jimmy Stewart, Kim Novak)


On the same day I watched Vertigo, I coincidentally watched the largely overlooked Scottish film Mister Foe (aka Hallam Foe), which in many ways is a spin on Vertigo (get it--spin? vertigo?), with even a sly reference to the original thriller at the end.

Like Scottie, seventeen-year-old Hallam (Jamie Bell) is a career voyeur, though his peeping is a way of life more than just a career. A lonely kid, he spends his time huddled in his impressive tree house, spying on his neighbors with binoculars and recording their activities in his journal. He knows a lot of secrets but never attempts to profit off them, and though he does a lot of creepy things Bell manages to convey an unusual charm rather than an off-putting perversion. He's a creep whose company you can enjoy; a watchful guardian angel rather than a shadowed masturbator.

Hallam is haunted by the death--possibly by suicide, possibly by a homicide involving the husband and his lover--of his one true love, who happens to be his mother. When suspicions of his ladder climbing stepmother (Claire Forlani) and his oddly cold father (Cieran Hinds) become too unbearable, he flees with his treasure trove of odd knickknacks (including his mother's passport, earrings, and dress) to a homeless life in London, where he discovers a hotel concierge (Sophia Myles) who looks exactly like his mother. Using his charisma and ample detective skills, he insinuates himself into her life (both secretly and openly), eventually becoming her bedfellow.

Their relationship is just as complicated as the one between Scottie and Judy Barton (even more so when you consider the Oedipal aspect), but here the involvement of Kate, a self-confessed slag and relationship-phobe, is far more convincing. "I like creepy guys," she drunkenly confesses at one point before trying to bed the resistant admirer, who'd rather just sleep with her than sleep with her. Mister Foe is Vertigo with humor and sex appeal, and though Hallam and Kate are just as weird as their predecessors, one can maintain a certain optimism for both of them. Their complexes are kinks to be worked out, not inevitable agents of death.

The exuberant pacing and indie soundtrack are great, as well as the talented ensemble cast, Jamie Bell especially (in his only good role since Billy Elliot) as a generally good-hearted kid riddled with some peculiar affinities and difficult growing pains. When he finally solves the mystery of his mother's death, its a heartfelt realization about the impact of suicide on the survivors, tied up with a sloppy bow.

It's Oscar season and a lot of undeserved attention is being flung on Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio as potential Best Actor nominees. It's unfortunate that this eccentric movie, which never even got a wide release, has been completely overlooked. Jamie Bell certainly gives one of the more convincing and complex turns of the year. Maybe even Hitchcock wouldn't have been disappointed.

Hallam Foe
d/w: David Mackenzie
(Jamie Bell, Sophia Myles, Claire Forlani, Cieran Hinds)

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