VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th St. at Seventh Ave.
Friday, January 20, $10, 9:30
Series continues Friday nights through April 28
The Rubin Museum Cabaret Cinema series “Perception” continues January 20 with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 mind-altering, fetishistic psychological thriller, Vertigo. Based on Boileau-Narcejac’s 1954 novel, D’entre les morts, the film delves deep into the nature of fear and obsession. Jimmy Stewart stars as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a police detective who retires after his acrophobia leads to the death of a fellow cop. An old college classmate, wealthy businessman Gavin Elster (Tom Holmore), asks Scottie to look into his wife’s odd behavior; Elster believes that Madeleine (Kim Novak) is being inhabited by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, her great-grandmother, a woman who committed suicide in her mid-twenties, the same age that Madeleine is now. Scottie follows Madeleine as she goes to Carlotta’s grave, visits a portrait of her in a local museum, and jumps into San Francisco Bay. Scottie rescues her, brings her to his house, and starts falling in love with her. But on a visit to Mission San Juan Bautista, tragedy strikes when Scottie can’t get to the top of the tower because of his vertigo. After a stint in a sanatorium, he wanders the streets of San Francisco where he and Madeleine had fallen in love, as if hoping to see a ghost — and when he indeed finds a woman who reminds him of Madeleine, a young woman named Judy Barton (Novak), he can’t help but try to turn her into his lost love, with tragedy waiting in the wings once again.
Vertigo is a twisted tale of sexual obsession, much of it filmed in San Francisco, making the City by the Bay a character all its own as Scottie travels down Lombard St., takes Madeleine to Muir Woods, stops by Ernie’s, and saves Madeleine under the Golden Gate Bridge. The color scheme is almost shocking, with bright, bold blues, reds, and especially greens dominating scenes. Hitchcock, of course, famously had a thing for blondes, so it’s hard not to think of Stewart as his surrogate when Scottie insists that Judy dye her hair blonde. Color is also central to Scottie’s psychedelic nightmare (designed by artist John Ferren), a Spirographic journey through his mind and down into a grave. Cinematographer Robert Burks’s use of the dolly zoom, in which the camera moves on a dolly in the opposite direction of the zoom, keeps viewers sitting on the edge of their seats, adding to the fierce tension, along with Bernard Herrmann’s frightening score. Despite their age difference, there is pure magic between Stewart, forty-nine, and Novak, twenty-four. (Stewart and Novak next made Bell, Book, and Candle as part of the deal to let Novak work for Paramount while under contract to Columbia.) The production was fraught with problems: The screenplay went through Maxwell Anderson, Alec Coppel, and finally Samuel A. Taylor; shooting was delayed by Hitchcock’s health and vacations taken by Stewart and Novak; a pregnant Vera Miles was replaced by Novak; Muir Matheson conducted the score in Europe, instead of Herrmann in Hollywood, because of a musicians’ strike; associate producer Herbert Coleman reshot one scene using the wrong lens; Hitchcock had to have a bell tower built atop Mission San Juan Bautista after a fire destroyed its steeple; and the studio fought for a lame alternate ending (which was filmed). Perhaps all those difficulties, in the end, helped make Vertigo the classic it is today, gaining in stature over the decades, from mixed reviews when it opened to a controversial restoration in 1996 to being named the best film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll to a recent digital restoration.
Vertigo is screening January 20 at 9:30 at the Rubin as part of “Perception,” which asks the questions “Can the truth truly be trusted? Is it objective or rather tinted by our experience and memories?” The series, part of the museum’s always innovative Brainwave programming, continues through April 28 with such other mind-bending films as Spike Jonze’s Her, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, with all shows introduced by a scientific expert. Brainwave, meanwhile, features such talks as David Nichtern, Ethan Nichtern, and Samantha Boardman discussing “Can there be such a thing as mindful politics?” on February 1, Walter Murch and Heather Berlin answering the question “How is movie magic made?” on February 4, and Khentrul Thokmeth Rinpoche and Gaëlle Desbordes wondering, “Can meditation change the world?” on March 12.