Tag Archives: Obsession

174. VERTIGO (1958)

“If Vertigo remains, unchallengeably, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, this is surely because there the attitude to the unknown and mysterious is not simply one of terror but retains, implicitly, a profound and disturbing ambivalence.”–Robin Wood, “Hitchcock’s Films

“Only one film had been capable of portraying insane memory, impossible memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”—Sans Soleil

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Stewart, , Barbara Bel Geddes

PLOT: During a rooftop pursuit of a fleeing suspect, John “Scottie” Ferguson finds himself hanging from a drainpipe; the uniformed cop who tries to save him slips and falls to his death. Suffering from debilitating acrophobia and vertigo, as well as survivor’s guilt, Scottie quits the police force. An old college acquaintance offers him a job tailing his wife, and Scottie becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious woman who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor.

Still from Vertigo (1958)
BACKGROUND:

  • The source of Vertigo was the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” (translated in English as “The Living and the Dead”), by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt the pair’s first novel, “Celle qui n’était plus,” but the rights were sold to a French company and it was made as Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Boileau-Narcejac would later write the screenplay for Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960).
  • Hitchcock bought the rights to Vertigo back from Paramount (along with four other 1950s-era films), then willed them to his daughter. The film went out of circulation for many years. The rights eventually ended up with rival studio Universal, who restored and re-released the film theatrically (in 1983 and again, after a major restoration, in 1996) to great acclaim.
  • The dizzying “vertigo” effect (sometimes known as the “dolly zoom” or “trombone shot”) is the film’s most famous technical innovation: the camera tracks backwards on a dolly while simultaneously zooming the lens, resulting in  a disorienting visual experience of moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.
  • Abstract Expressionist painter John Ferren designed the dream sequence.
  • A controversial flashback scene reveals the “twist ending” about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Before the film’s release Hitchcock decided to remove this sequence, over the strenuous objections of his producer, Herbert Coleman. After preview audiences were unimpressed by the flashback-free cut, the studio ordered Hitchcock to return the film to the way it was originally shot.
  • Vertigo, which was exceedingly dark compared to the average Jimmy Stewart vehicle, was not as successful as Hitchcock’s previous hits such as 1954’s Rear Window, and barely broke even at the box office. The scale of its initial failure is often exaggerated, however, for the sake of a good story: it qualified more as a minor disappointment than a flop. The contemporaneous reviews were also mixed (leaning towards positive with reservations about plausibility and pacing), rather than universally negative, as is sometimes implied.
  • In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane, the top vote getter every year since the poll’s inception in 1962, as the greatest movie of all time. (It ranked #7 on the director’s poll, where Tokyo Story took the top spot).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to come from the dream sequence. Although we chose Jimmy Stewart’s head floating against a shifting kaleidoscope background to illustrate this review, the most thematically significant image is the male shadow falling, first onto a terracotta rooftop and then through a white void (this figure is incorporated into the original Saul Bass-designed poster, where it combines with the movie’s other significant motif, the spiral).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Vertigo may be one of the most subtly strange movies out there. It’s entirely possible to watch it and see it as no more than a conventionally (if implausibly) plotted mystery. But peer into its vortex closer and you’ll see why this brightly lit but oddly dreamlike tragedy has fascinated generations of moviegoers: in its depths hides madness, illusion, necrophilia, sexual domination, a perverse longing for death, guilt, and the grinding gears of merciless fate. There’s a reason Vertigo is a cult movie. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Watch it again, with your weird eyes.


Re-release trailer for Vertigo

COMMENTS: Did any movie produced under the Hollywood studio system ever torture its protagonist as mercilessly as Vertigo torments Scottie Continue reading 174. VERTIGO (1958)

CAPSULE: THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina

PLOT: A rich French businessman courts a beautiful young Spanish woman over the years, but although she sometimes professes to love him, she continually refuses to consummate the relationship.

Still from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Obscure Object is one of Buñuel’s best, but not one of his weirdest. If you merged the two actresses who inexplicably share the role of Conchita into one, you could almost mistake this parody of obsessive bourgeois eroticism for a normal comedy—almost.

COMMENTS: The “gimmick” of two actresses playing the object of desire is the high-concept highlight of That Obscure Object of Desire, but make no mistake: the casting was not a desperation move to salvage some sort of novelty value out of a dull script. Buñuel’s final film is one of his most tightly controlled and plotted movies, the work of a 77-year old master intent on putting the final punctuation on a distinguished career. The story is simple: prosperous, respectable, middle-aged Mathieu meets 18-year old serving girl Conchita and attempts, and fails, to seduce her. She leaves his service, but as the years go on he continues to encounter her, whether by chance or by design, and gradually he works his way closer and closer to her heart—but although she declares her love for him, she never surrenders her virtue. Buñuel and his totally committed trio of actors push the dramatic scenario further than you would think possible: the erotic tension builds and builds until surely, you think, something has to break. Either Conchita will give in or Mathieu will tire of being teased and rid himself of her forever. And yet, after each frustrating encounter, the bourgeois businessman comes back for more, and Conchita is willing to continue the dance. There are moments when rape seems inevitable, but that solution would wreck the game, so they push right to the brink before pulling back and resetting.

It’s not all unbearable erotic tension: Obscure Object is, at heart, a droll and absurd comedy, full of sophisticated, off-kilter jokes; even if you don’t always get them, you feel smarter for chuckling at them. Some gags are obvious: there’s a variation on the old “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!’ joke—this time, it’s in a martini. One night, Mathieu lures Conchita to his bedroom; Angelia Molina asks “can I change?” and goes into the bathroom to put on her nightgown; she emerges as Carole Bouquet. At other times the humor is more oblique and surreal, and we’re not sure what to make of it. Mathieu tells his story to traveling companions on a train; one is a dwarf, and a professor of psychology—but he only gives private lessons. A Spanish fortune teller carries a pig wrapped in a blanket like a baby. The movie is set in a Europe where terrorist bombings are a background fact of life; one of the revolutionary groups is named “the Revolutionary Army of Baby Jesus.”

This being a Buñuel film, there’s a constant subtle mockery of the unexamined values of the middle class. Mathieu casually tells the strangers in his train compartment how he essentially tries to purchase Conchita off her cash-strapped mother, and how he beats and humiliates the girl after he’s been sexually frustrated. Rather than being scandalized by the shameful confession, everyone takes his side, nods understandingly and comforts the respectable victim. Obscure Object is Buñuel’s attack on what he sees as the capitalist system of romance: men, the class with the capital, protect and provide for women, and in return they receive love and sex. This arrangement, based on inequality, can never satisfy either sex: men will remain emotionally frustrated because women only give in to them out of hardship, and the disenfranchised women use the only weapon at their disposal—their erotic power—to revenge themselves upon men. Just as the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie never get to eat, Mathieu never gets to… you know.

As for why two women play Conchita, it’s one of those deliberate Surrealist accidents that suggest interpretations that remain obscure. Do Bouquet and Molina represent two sides of the same woman, a divided personality, female duplicity? I lean to the reading that there are two women because Mathieu, the bourgeois man, can’t understand the “object” of his own desire; he no more notices that his love changes before his very eyes than he sees that the society around him is crumbling into anarchy.

According to co-writer and longtime Buñuel collaborator , the idea to cast two women in the role of Conchita occurred in an early draft of the script, but was discarded. When production began on the movie Buñuel was unhappy with the woman chosen to play Conchita (Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider) and came close to abandoning the project before resurrecting the idea of using dual actresses in the role.

The Criterion Collection lost the rights to Studio Canal’s Buñuel collection, and therefore the 2013 Blu-ray of That Obscure Object of Desire was released by Lions Gate (buy). It has different special features than the Criterion DVD, including interviews with both Bouquet and Molina.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Buñuel creates a vision of a world as logical as a theorem, as mysterious as a dream, and as funny as a vaudeville gag.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TABLOID (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Errol Morris

FEATURING: Joyce McKinney

PLOT: The strange but true story of Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who caused a

Still from Tabloid (2010)

tabloid sensation in Britain in 1977 when she was convicted of kidnapping a Mormon missionary, tying him up, and forcing him to have sex with her for three days.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Joyce McKinney, the subject of this documentary, is as odd and eccentric a woman as you’ll find outside of an institution, but the film itself isn’t otherwise weird.

COMMENTS:  “I don’t see what a 32-year-old sex-with-manacles case has to do with cloned puppies,” opines Joyce McKinney as the third act of Tabloid dawns.  The only connection between those two disparate headlines, of course, is McKinney herself, who, if she isn’t crazy, at least attracts crazy to herself like a cloned puppy attracts fleas. Now in her sixties, the former beauty queen still has a sweet old country gal drawl and a disarming charm that makes her, in oddball documentarian Errol Morris’ revival of a long dead scandal, a Tabloid star.  After winning the title of Miss Wyoming, McKinney’s story begins in earnest when she falls in love and plans to marry a handsome young Mormon in Utah.  One day (as she tells it), her beau simply disappears without warning or notice.  She tracks him to London where he is serving his two year Mormon mission, assembles a gang of bodyguards and a freelance pilot to track him down, and leaves for England with thirteen suitcases full of disguises and surveillance gear.  The sexagenarian ex-sexpot has consistently maintained that the liaison between her and her Latter Day Saint loverboy in a cottage in Devon was not only consensual, but one of the world’s great love stories: she deprogrammed her brainwashed lover with a “honeymoon” weekend of sex and back rubs, before the Church got their hooks back into him and turned him on her.  Once she’s put on trial, archival footage and testimony by journalists involved in the case paint a picture of a woman who loves the limelight almost as much as she loves abducting sex slaves.  Things heat up even further when the press digs up startlingly juicy details from her shady past and splays them on the cover of the Daily Mirror.  Disillusioned with notoriety, she skips bail and flies back to North America disguised as a deaf-mute.  Decades later, still pining for the lost love of her life, the once-gorgeous McKinney remains an old maid and a virtual hermit, comforted only by the unconditional love of her pit bull Booger and his eight clones.  Since the victim in the case has retired to normal life and refuses to be interviewed, and her primary accomplice is dead, the story is told almost entirely from McKinney’s viewpoint.  But the lack of rebuttal testimony doesn’t make her version of events much more believable; even before she explains how she trained her dog to dial 9-1-1 using a telephone with extra-large buttons, McKinney’s not a very credible witness.  But even though you may not buy her story, you may find yourself having a harder time doubting her sincerity; she ironically muses that “sometimes you can tell yourself a lie for so long that you start to believe it.”  The remarkable thing about Tabloid is how likable and harmless McKinney appears on screen; she comes off more as a grandmotherly type reminiscing about the good old days through rose colored glasses than like a multiple felon inventing self-serving justifications for her crimes.  The tale is told almost entirely via interviewees speaking directly to the camera, although Morris assembles a few witty collages from torn newspaper clippings to fill in the extra spaces.  The issue of the British press’ exploitation of the whole salacious affair (which the dubbed the “Mormon sex in chains” case) is touched upon, but Tabloid isn’t an indictment of trashy gossip journalism: it’s a clever, polished example of it.  There’s little to the movie besides the bizarreness of the yarn itself.  It’s entertaining, but if it has a downside it’s that you may start to feel sorry for the deluded, exploited McKinney in ways she never intended you to when she seized this opportunity to (once again) tell her side of the story.

Devout Mormons will want to stay away from Tabloid, as the film takes some dry shots at the religion (including revelations about their beliefs re: the mystical powers of undergarments, and animated segments illustrating planetary dominion in the afterlife).  The inclusion of an anti-Mormon activist, who has no relationship to the McKinney case, as a talking head is one of the documentary’s few obvious missteps.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre crime tale recounted by the loopy ex-beauty queen alleged to have committed it… in Joyce McKinney, Morris has found a fittingly weird and funny muse.”–Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel (contemporaneous)