As Vertigo opens with a hypnotic credits sequence – the camera panning from a pair of woman’s lip to her open eye before zooming into her pupil with psychedelic spiralling effects – you know that Hitchcock has returned to his pulpy origins after his detour into neorealism.
Like all Hitchcock’s best pulp, the plot is pure hokum. But beneath its surface lies a gripping examination of escalating obsession.
Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) retires from policing force after nearly falling to his death in a rooftop chase, striking him with acrophobia. An old college friend (Tom Helmore) hires him to investigate his suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. As his own feelings for her grow, is Scottie able to get to the bottom of this supernatural mystery, Scooby-Doo style?
Hitchcock was always superb at bringing out the darker side of actors usually famed for their whiter-than-white roles (think Cary Grant in Suspicion) and in his final Hitchcock collaboration James Stewart gives an intense performance. Vera Miles was initially lined up to play Madeleine, but became pregnant just before filming. While she would have no doubt been superb, Novak makes a beguiling lead.
Visually the film is outstanding, most notably for the use of “dolly zoom” shots (invented by the uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts) used to convey the sense of vertigo with great effective. The technology was so revolutionary that just one dolly zoom lasting no more than a few seconds reportedly cost $19,000.
The film’s momentum briefly dips after the Big Twist is revealed with still a third of the movie to go (a decision Hitchcock agonised over). It picks up again when it shows the tragic futility of holding on to guilty memories, but if you’re watching the film for the first time there’s a whiplash effect as you have suddenly drop your investment in the central mystery.
Upon its release the reviews were lukewarm. None of the critics berated it, but it was only from the late ‘60s onwards that people began to rank it as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, or even one of the Greatest Films of All Time. As for me, I think it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s an extremely engaging film that’s worthy of attention, yet I wouldn’t call it one of Hitchcock’s absolute best. But I admit that’s a minority opinion.
Reunited with leading man Ivor Novello (who also penned the original stage play), Hitchcock gives us a tale of false accusation and the loss of innocence with Downhill.
There’s also a bit where Novello takes his top off to appeal to the teenage girl fanbase. No, I’m serious. He was a huge sex symbol. The Ryan Gosling of his day.
Women got their ankles all kinds of naked for him
This sexy lump of man-meat plays Roddy, a schoolboy who’s best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) knocks up their mutual friend Mabel (Annette Benson). Shockingly, she falsely names Roddy as the father-to-be because she thinks his rich family can provide for the unborn child better than Tim’s. Not wanting his pal’s Oxford scholarship chances to go down the drain, Roddy takes the bullet. He’s immediately expelled and cast out by his parents. Now he has to make his own way in the world and I’ll let you guess how well that goes…
“I’m tripping balls, bro”
It may be lacking in murders, but Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films. Polite society is depicted as untrusting, uncaring and unrewarding, particularly when it comes to the women, all of whom betray Roddy’s trust in some vile and deceptive way. There’s also an especially mean-spirited “old-spinster” stereotype towards the end. For anyone already put off by examples of misogyny in Hitchcock’s works, Downhill isn’t for you.
Novello, well into his 30s, isn’t going to convince anyone he’s a schoolboy but he sinks his teeth into the emotional range of his role with aplomb. He makes a believable journey from bushy-tailed rapscallion to a broken, haunted man the likes of which we saw him play in The Lodger. Speaking of familiar, Ian Hunter makes a return as another love rival. Sleazier this time. And he sneezes on a toy dog. Sleazier and sneezier.
Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s clunkier films. Symbols of “descent” are pushed to a breaking point, the villainesses are crude caricatures and the final resolution is absurdly quick and easy. There are a couple of truly stand-out moments such as the accusation in the headmaster’s study which is a master class in How To Inject Tension Into Your Scene. On its own, it may be one of the most suspenseful moments on Hitch’s resume so far. It’s a shame the rest of the movie goes downhill (ho ho) from there.
Well that escalated quickly
I first saw Psycho at the impressionable age of 12. It gave me nightmares for weeks. My Dad, ever a comforting parent, would leave nighttime notes under my door from the Bates Motel staff stained with blood (ketchup).
Despite (or because of?) the trauma, even since then I’ve been a huge fan of The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In my teenage years I sought out his must-see classics – North by Northwest, Rear Window, The Birds, etc – but I never got round to watching many of his more obscure films. It’s time that changed.
Starting on July 1 I’ll be giving my thoughts on a different Hitchcock flick every day from his first finished film The Pleasure Garden (1925) to his final feature Family Plot (1976). From the masterpieces to the pieces of shit.
The murders, the blondes, the MacGuffins, the twist endings, the director cameos, the overbearing mothers, all covered here on Folding Seats. This is going to be a complete Hitchcock marathon. A Hitchcock-a-thon.
Countless critics and filmmakers have already written extensively on Hitchcock’s films. Practically every frame has been analysed ad infinitum. This marathon doesn’t hope to contribute anything new or significant. It’s merely a fan’s notes.
A brief disclaimer. I’ll be looking at feature films only, so don’t expect any commentary on his wartime propaganda shorts or any of his TV episodes on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also won’t be covering the 1930 revue comedy film Elstree Calling, since Hitch only directed the “linking segments” between sketches, or Mary since it’s just the German version of his 1930 flick Murder!.
Other than that, I’ll be watching everything in Hitchcock’s directorial canon. By my count, this comes to 52 films.
52 films. 52 days.
Let’s do this.
See you on July 1.