Lovesick. To know love is to know vertigo. The great French composer Olivier Messiaen described love as a dizzy feeling (I paraphrase). To quote the great Bob Dylan from his best album (1997’s Time Out of Mind), “I’m sick of love.”
When I first saw Vertigo I didn’t particularly like it. I was a neophyte cineaste and I suppose it went over my head. Indeed, the film did not really click for me until I saw a 70mm restored print as part of the Paramount Theater’s summer film series in Austin, Texas some years back. I finally began to appreciate the cinematography of Robert Burks…the way the city of San Francisco comes to life in front of the lens he shared with Hitchcock. As a rather naïve film lover I had once seen Life Is Beautiful several times in the theater upon its release and there was something in the mise-en-scène which gave me a wonderful, cozy, rich feeling…an ambiance which I drank in with each successive viewing. It is this aspect of film (mood) which really makes Vertigo go.
Bernard Herrmann’s music was never more important to a Hitchcock film than to the one at hand. The whole production almost becomes a music video during Scottie’s initial trailing of Madeleine. There is not a word of dialogue from the flower shop to the cemetery to the art museum. I will not regale you with scholarly milliseconds, but I’m willing to guess that approximately five whole minutes go by completely buoyed by the photography of Burks and the music of Herrmann (all, of course, framed by the voyeuristic passage in our story…and all, likewise, under the watchful eye-of-eyes: Hitch).
Suffice it to say that I now recognize this to be one of Hitchcock’s best films (if not the best) and therefore one of the best films ever made by any director. Alfred Hitchcock seems to me as the Beethoven of cinema, but he might just as well be the Bach. Of other analogies he might be considered our Rembrandt…and almost certainly our Shakespeare.
And so it is that the main protagonist in Vertigo is mood. What mood? Which? Not just any, is it? It is the mood of Tristan und Isolde…Wagner…that painful longing for love. Bernard Herrmann borrowed nicely from old Richard in the rich, autumnal, self-consuming harmonies. Other times, by the sea for instance, we are brought into the sphere of La mer by Debussy. Whether at Fort Point or floating down endless San Francisco automobile inclines, the weightlessness is also reminiscent of the same composer’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Herrmann even seems to reference Ravel in the pensive motif which seems like Carlotta’s Iberian clock (ticking to bolero snaps of the second hand).
Yes, Vertigo is a film which will send critics into an orgiastic dither from now till the end of time (I suppose). My contribution is simple. Watch it. Then watch it again. And then watch it yet again. There are secrets in this tapestry. It is pure mystery.