Friday, May 1, 2009

"And when it's done, we'll both be free..."

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—I’m sure I’ve seen the film 20 times. It inspired the longest, thorniest paper of my academic career. And though I chafe at perfunctory rankings of art, my perennial fascination with the Master’s most self-expressive work assures its place on that desert island for which connoisseurs prepare in itemized fashion.

Outshining its palpable wonderments, in my view, is its capacity to reveal uncharted pockets of genius on each viewing. Sometimes it’s a quick shot, sometimes an extended set piece; regardless, you always come away with newfound reverence for Hitchcock’s twisted virtuosity. I had occasion to watch it recently in a venue that did full justice to its grandeur, and this time my attention was seized by a quiet interlude which before then seemed like little more than connective tissue. (This is where I urge you to stop reading if you’ve never seen Vertigo—and let your artistic compasses know they've failed you.)

I refer to the ten-minute sequence which begins after the inquest into Madeleine’s death, and ends with Scottie’s compulsion to enter Judy’s apartment. The parenthesis comprises the saddest, tenderest, most genuine treatment of grief and refusal to unfasten the shackles of lost love I have ever seen on film. Scottie drifts through days as though trapped in a lucid dream, unresponsive to stimuli except those that fuel his need to believe Madeleine is not really gone from him. He returns to familiar locales—the Elsters’ old residence, the bar at Ernie’s, the gallery where Carlotta’s portrait emblematizes past forfeitures to love—almost as if he believes Madeleine is hiding from him, teasingly and in plain sight. The faintest validation of his faith reengages him with the world, but the sting of each setback pushes him further into withdrawal. How tenaciously he questions the woman who would presume to drive Madeleine’s distinctive green car; how thoroughly he retreats upon learning she is the new owner.

The frenzied nightmare that triggers Scottie's breakdown is vintage Hitchcock—the specters of Gavin and Carlotta, the wary but purposeful march to the empty grave, the crime scene-esque silhouette of Scottie plummeting downward into worse things than death. But the compositions that follow are anomalous in the extreme, especially for a filmmaker often linked with sensation over emotion, with economy before patience. The long, slow pan across San Francisco’s skyline attests that all machinations, even Hitchcock’s, must sometimes cede their urgency, and Bernard Herrmann’s soaring soundscape, marked by a literalization of heartstrings, has the curious effect of rendering the passions on display even more shrouded and internalized.

I don’t mean to give the impression of narrative stasis within these scenes. Hitchcock uses the interval to prepare his canvas for the imminent sublimation of helplessness into tyranny; when the time comes, he has subtly groomed us to be revulsed but not confounded. He also exhibits his deft command of parallelism, as the fateful premonitions of Scottie’s dream remind us of Madeleine’s self-fulfilling prophesy, as dire interrogations prefigure unyielding demands, as Midge’s micromanagement of Scottie’s recovery anticipates the exactitude of Judy’s reinvention. But what registers most pronouncedly is the study of a shattered soul—of bereavement in something close to real time. Many handlings of the predicament hasten us through numbness into primal rage, sensual surrender and release. By lingering on the bargaining stage, Hitchcock reveals himself as the master of a different kind of suspense—the suspended animation of the lovelorn survivor.