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Vertigo

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Plot Overview

Alfred Hitchcock was born to middle-class parents in London, England, fittingly on Friday the thirteenth of August 1899. When he was twenty-one, he took a job at Paramount Studios in London as a writer and illustrator of silent-movie title cards, which led to work as an art director and finally to a position as a director. He acquired the honorary title “Master of Suspense” while working on a radio adaptation of his film The Lodger for RKO in 1940. Hitchcock married his assistant, film editor Alma Reville, with whom he collaborated on all his work. The couple, along with their daughter Patricia, moved to the United States in 1939, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American-made film, won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1947, seeking artistic independence, Hitchcock broke with noted Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, with whom he had worked for almost eight years, and formed his own company, Transatlantic Pictures. The company went bankrupt after producing two films that used the expensive and difficult “ten-minute take” technique, in which the entire script was shot in a series of ten-minute, uninterrupted takes. The point was to create films that appeared to have no editing, but the process was hard on actors and producers alike. Hitchcock then worked a brief stint at Warner Brothers, followed by a run at Paramount, which produced Vertigo. His last film for Paramount was Psycho, in 1960. He then moved to Universal, where he remained for the rest of his career. Hitchcock also made a foray into American television with his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran from 1955 to 1962 before being reformatted as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which ran for another three years. Hitchcock died at home in California on April 29, 1980, while working on his fifty-fourth film.

One of Vertigo’s main themes—the attempt to create the ideal woman—has roots in the Roman myth of Pygmalion and Galatea in which the sculptor Pygmalion uses his art to create an ivory statue of the perfect woman and then tragically falls in love with it. But the film has roots in reality as well. There are parallels between the Vertigo protagonist’s quest for the ideal woman and Hitchcock’s relationship with Grace Kelly, an actress who appeared in three of his films. Hitchcock felt that Kelly’s blond beauty and distinct acting style made her the standard by which all other actresses should be judged. Her departure from the film world in the mid-1950s to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco led Hitchcock to attempt to mold other actresses in her image. Kim Novak, the blonde co-star of Vertigo, was one of these Grace Kelly stand-ins.

Vertigo, like all Hitchcock films, was influenced by the art-film movement of the 1920s, which stressed experimentation and strong use of imagery. Early in his career, when Hitchcock worked at the UFA studios in Berlin, Germany, he absorbed the German Expressionism of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, whose method of exposing the inner life of characters through unusual camera angles, moody lighting, and exaggerated mise-en-scène (stage-setting) influenced much of Hitchcock’s work. Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in turn, influenced the French New Wave school of film. Filmmakers such as Alain Resnais and François Truffaut introduced elements of Vertigo’s plot and certain symbolic and stylistic details from the film into their own works. By the 1960s, this group had raised the status of Hitchcock to that of auteur, or film artist, by reverently deconstructing his work in the film journal Les Cahiers du Cinéma. Most notable in Les Cahiers are fifty hours of interviews with Hitchcock conducted by Truffaut.

The Hollywood premiere of Vertigo received mainly positive reviews from film trade papers. The Hollywood Reporter called it “. . . a picture no filmmaker should miss” and applauded Hitchcock’s “pioneering techniques.” Variety gave it a mixed review, predicting box office success but criticizing the film’s first half as too slow and too long. Reviewers outside Hollywood weren’t as complimentary. Cue panned Hitchcock’s concentration on scenery, technique, and “gimmicks” and lamented what it felt, at just over two hours, was an overlong film. The New Yorker went so far as to call the film “farfetched nonsense,” and Time magazine labeled it “another Hitchcock and bull story.” Vertigo had an average box-office run. In terms of box office receipts, it ranked twenty-first in 1958, making $3.2 million domestically. In 1958, the film was nominated for the Academy Award in Art Direction and Sound. Vertigo returned to the screen in 1983 as part of a program to re-release Hitchcock’s films, and it was carefully restored in 1996. Today, Vertigo is a critically acclaimed film that is still hotly debated by film critics, academics, and Hitchcock fans alike. In 1998, the American Film Institute named Vertigo number sixty-one on its “100 Greatest American Movies of All Time” list. The Institute also ranked the film eighteenth on both the “100 Most Thrilling American Films” and “100 Greatest Love Stories of All Time” lists.

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