Echoes of loss
Vertigo: the making of a Hitchcock classic
Dan Auiler Titan Books, 220pp, £19.99
Most films are pretty bad at exploring the obsessive, labyrinthine world of human memory. Film, unlike prose, which weaves seamlessly between past and present, has to "cut" quite decisively between the two; suddenly the viewer is in a different place and a different time-frame.
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) is, arguably, unique in its treatment of memory and obsession. The memories of the characters in the film have been already viewed, in one way or another, by the audience. So Vertigo, in this sense, is an utterly self- contained unit, referring only to itself. Who can recall the kiss that James Stewart gives Kim Novak at the end without feeling his skin prickle and his eyes fill with tears - Stewart staring at Novak dressed in the clothes of the woman whom he loved and believed he had killed. Hitchcock has "earned" this moment because the scene brings together so many different strands that the film has already set up. Recurrent images, lines of dialogue and leitmotifs of music resonate to produce one of the most poignant moments in the history of cinema.
Vertigo: the making of a Hitchcock classic is the work of someone obsessed by the film. It has a brief introduction by the world's most famous Vertigo obsessive, Martin Scorsese, and the film's progress from tacky postwar French mystery novel to the marvellous, gleaming restored print of 1996 is itemised in loving, but rarely pedantic, detail.
Auiler has had access to Hitchcock's production notes and other original documents, and uses them impressively, not only in his charting of the turbulence of the actual shooting process, but in the reproduction of certain key documents such as the original storyboards, typewritten production schedules, old posters and letters. The smell of Hollywood in the 1950s rises up out of the pages and you can almost hear the clacking of typewriters, the barking of movie moguls, the sultry tones of starlets and the melancholic, Cockney drawl of Hitchcock himself.
Far from destroying the mystery of the film, this book enhances it. We learn that Vertigo was Hitch's most personal film, enabling him to explore many of his deepest preoccupations; it's quite eerie to read an early story idea by Hitchcock that is very similar to Vertigo's astonishing dream sequence. Auiler is persuasive when arguing that Vertigo could be Hitch's poem of loss about Grace Kelly. Hitch worked with the actress on two films and became besotted with her glassy beauty (he was disappointed when she married Prince Rainier in the mid-1950s and retired from films).
Part of his displeasure in Kim Novak's performance could be attributed to her not being Kelly. But Hitch's loss was definitely our gain - Novak brings an earthiness, what Auiler calls an "everywoman" quality, to the ethereal Madeleine that Kelly could never have matched. Hitch may also have disliked the adverse publicity that she brought to the film; her affair with the son of the leader of the Dominican Republic caused an international incident when Vertigo opened, and her scandalous liaison with Sammy Davis Jnr precipitated a fatal heart attack in her "keeper", Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia pictures.
Novak's claims that Hitch tortured her by making her jump repeatedly into San Francisco Bay are refuted by Auiler, who is always anxious to run to Hitch's defence (he claims a stunt woman was used).
Even the weaknesses of the film are seen as strengths - Auiler's rhapsodies, in particular, about Hitch's unconvincing back projections failed to persuade me that location shots wouldn't have been better.
Yet overall Auiler gets the mixture of critical opinion and reportage about right. He wisely avoids philosophising and quite niftily points out that the film, like a Shakespeare play, has become all things to all men: Marxist, deconstructionist and feminist critics have all put different interpretations on the work (the necrophiliac is my favourite).
And the more you watch the more you become aware of just how important Bernard Herrmann's music is for the film to attain its effects. Cut out all the dialogue but leave the music running and you could almost be watching a ballet. Any true Vertigo obsessive, as well as buying this book, should buy the CD of the digitally remastered soundtrack. Then shut your eyes, listen to Herrmann's sublime score and feel yourself transported back into the dream landscape of the film itself.