Thursday, November 1, 2012

Vertigo Versus Rear Window

Put down the binocs, Grace Kelly's standing behind you
This summer, in the influential Sight and Sound poll, Vertigo finally replaced Citizen Kane as the "Greatest Film of all Time" thus ending a 40 year run for Orson Welles's masterpiece. What Sight and Sound do once per decade is to ask 1000 directors and critics to list their top films. The ratings are then collated and an interesting top 50 list then emerges. The poll has taken some criticism for being out of touch and ignoring many recent films but I don't know about that. The only recent films that have sneaked onto the list are Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive both of which made my list from a couple of years back of the best films of the decade
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Anyway this isn't a post about the Sight and Sound poll which can be checked out here, no, this is a post about Vertigo. I've never liked Vertigo. Before this week I'd only seen it once and found it flat, dull and uninspiring. The greatest film of all time? I don't think it would make my list as one of the top 5 Alfred Hitchcock movies. But my chance to reassess this opinion arrived via my local cable company which is having an Alfred Hitchcock season in its "free movies on demand" section. Although many of my favourite Hitchcocks aren't there (no North By Northwest or The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes) many other good films are available including two classic Jimmy Stewart Hitchcocks: Rear Window and Vertigo. So, I got some popcorn, a couple of microbrews, a comfy chair and watched both. 
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Vertigo is the story of a San Francisco detective who follows a troubled woman and because of his fear of heights is unable to prevent her from killing herself. He later finds another woman who looks uncannily like the first. Complications ensue...The first thing to be said is that my estimation of Vertigo has gone up a little since my first viewing. Jimmy Stewart's performance is very strong, Kim Novak is a capable actress and the direction (apart from the cheesy back projection driving scenes) is visually striking and innovative. This was the film that introduced the "dolly out/zoom in" technique and the San Francisco exteriors are gorgeously shot. There are some nice surreal close ups of hands and parts of the face and the interiors are intentionally claustrophobic and eerily lit. The story is ridiculous but this isn't really a film about plot. Vertigo works best when Hitchcock allows Jimmy Stewart enough rope to let himself go ever so slightly unhinged in front of the camera. Stewart is a man who flew dozens of bombing missions over Europe in WW2 and who killed hundreds - maybe thousands - of people on those flights. Stewart's face is fascinating to watch in the final act of Vertigo. His eyes really are, in the words of that old cliche, windows into his soul. This is a complex human being letting us peer into the abyss with him. It's chilling and it took someone of Hitchcock's ability to get that performance out of him. Even with all that though, Vertigo is still more an academic's film that a film buff's film. It is boring and during those driving scenes its actually better to close your eyes and listen to the music. Bernard Hermann's score is extraordinary. At times soaring, lush, terrifying, beautiful. I think I still prefer his brilliant score for North By Northwest but the Vertigo soundtrack is his most romantic.
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Rear Window is the story of a photographer with a broken leg stuck in his New York apartment; he's been spying on his neighbours during a long hot summer and he suspects that one of them might be a murderer. Rear Window is so light and fluffy and enjoyable that I've probably watched it 5 or 6 times before now. And as of last weekend it still holds up. The dialogue between Jimmy Stewart and his insurance company nurse sparkles; Grace Kelly, as Stewart's fashion model girlfriend, is radiant, funny and drop dead gorgeous in a series of lovely frocks; the visual story telling is witty and charming; and the plot is just about credible. The score isn't quite the masterpiece of Vertigo but who cares about the music when Grace Kelly is standing there in soft lighting offering you take out from 21. Stewart's performance is subtle and creepy: he and we are shared voyeurs who take delight in his crazy plan to put his beautiful girlfriend into jeopardy by invading the murderers apartment to look for evidence. If there's such a thing as a perfect Hitchcock film Rear Window might be it. I can't think of one thing I'd want to change. North By Northwest might be improved by a different female lead, Dial M For Murder might be more credible with a younger male lead, Vertigo and the Birds could have less back projection etc. But Rear Window, Psycho, The 39 Steps and a few others are so good that they shouldn't be messed with. 
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Who wins the battle of Vertigo versus Rear Window? Well I just read the Guardian review for a film about obsessed fans of The Shining called Room 237 which sounds great and I guess if you are an academic or one of these film obsessive types then Vertigo has got to be the one for you; however in my view Rear Window is more enjoyable and certainly if you haven't seen either it's the one I think you should check out.