Charles Barr Vertigo

Charles Barr Vertigo – Book Review

Harry Oldmeadow

BFI Publishing, London, 2002

In 1960 Robin Wood, at that time a neophyte film critic, submitted an article on Hitchcock’s Psycho to Sight and Sound. The editor, Penelope Houston, rejected the offering on the grounds that Wood had taken Psycho too seriously! The article was subsequently published in Cahiers du Cinema, launching Wood’s long and illustrious career as a film critic. In the first substantial English-language study of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Hitchcock’s Films (1965), Wood posed the question ‘Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?’. Since then we have witnessed a veritable floodtide of critical writings, few of which could be reproached for a lack of seriousness. No Hitchcock film has attracted more sustained critical attention than Vertigo, which has long since attained the status of a canonical text. This vindicates Wood’s 1965 claim that Vertigo was ‘Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date, and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us’. One barometer of the film’s steadily rising status is that in Sight and Sound’s ten-yearly international poll of film critics, Vertigo ranked ninth in 1982, fourth in 1992, and second in 2002, headed only by Orson Welles’ masterpiece of bombast, Citizen Kane.

One of the happier developments in film studies over the last decade has been the appearance of the BFI Film Classics series. To an impressive list of lively and provocative monographs we can now add Charles Barr’s Vertigo. Barr’s study is structured in four parts, his headings neatly reflecting the thematic and narrative trajectory of the film itself–‘Obsession’, ‘Construction’, ‘Illusion’, ‘Revelation’. Drawing on Robert Kapsis’ Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation (1992), Barr deftly sketches out the history of Vertigo’s critical reception, and rehearses a variety of readings to which the film has proved amenable. Barr situates himself in that line of critics (Wood, Mulvey, Brill, Modleski et al.) who have understood the film as being centrally concerned with the dynamics of ‘the male gaze’ and with the psychological anatomy of romantic obsession–Hitchcockian preoccupations that were most fully explored and most dramatically rendered in the Rear Window/Vertigo/Psycho trilogy which marks the zenith of Hitchcock’s remarkable career. (Barr groups Psycho in a quartet with North by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie: in its thematics if not its style Psycho seems to me to belong with Rear Window and Vertigo, while North by Northwest, accomplished as it is, is surely a film of an altogether lesser order. The Birds remains interesting primarily from a technical point of view while Marnie marks the diminishment of Hitchcock’s creative powers, which would soon be even more evident in Torn Curtain and Topaz.)

Before turning to a close scene-by-scene analysis of the film Barr, following the work of Dan Auiler, provides an account of the film’s production. Wary of auteuristic circumscriptions, Barr is at some pains to acknowledge the creative contributions of those who collaborated in the making of Vertigo, most notably drawing attention to the somewhat neglected input of Alec Coppel. Coppel was one of three scriptwriters who transmuted Boileau and Narcejac’s melodramatic and formulaic novel D’Entre les Morts (which Wood memorably described as ‘a squalid exercise in sub-Graham Greenery’) into a script whose complex narrative architecture enhanced the film’s dramatic impact. In an interesting digression Barr ponders some of the affinities between Vertigo and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1959): ‘Powell is, in a sense, the Hitchcock who didn’t go to Hollywood: his concept of the ‘composed film’ is comparable with Hitchcock’s concept of “pure cinema”‘.(p14.)

Barr’s analysis of Vertigo’s narrative structure and its exploitation of the expressive possibilities of the medium manages to steer a steady course between two perils which have ensnared so much writing on film over the last few decades: on one side the hyper-specialized, jargon-ridden and opaque lucubrations of academic film writers, often driven by an obsessive pursuit of Theory, on the other the effusive sentimentalities and anodyne simplicities of much popular, mass-media film ‘criticism’. (Hitchcock’s work has often fallen prey to both.) Barr’s treatment of the film is rigorous, thoughtful, perceptive; he is sensitive to the film’s complexities, its fertile ambiguities and its peculiar distinctions. His approach is dictated by a respect for the realized particularities of the text and by an interest in the stylistic and narrative devices through which the film achieves its effects rather than by any tendentious ideological or theoretical agenda. Especially impressive is Barr’s detailed and careful dissection of two of the film’s most ravishing scenes–that in Ernie’s restaurant where Madeleine (Kim Novak) first appears and in which the voyeuristic ‘looks’ of the director/camera, the character (Scottie/James Stewart), and the audience are simultaneously engaged, and the pivotal scene in Scottie’s apartment after he has ‘rescued’ Madeleine at Fort Point.

Like most of the monographs in the BFI series, this one is attractively presented and generously illustrated with intelligently chosen stills. It includes the film credits and a selective bibliography which signals most of the landmark works on Vertigo. It would be churlish to cavil at the inevitable omissions and compressions in a work of this scope–it is eighty-eight pages. Nonetheless, I was hoping for a rather fuller exploration of Kim Novak’s quite extraordinary contribution to the film–Vertigo is quite inconceivable without her. (Thank goodness Hitch’s plan to use Vera Miles fell through.)

Woody Guthrie once said that a good poet or song-writer tells you something you already know. It might be said that the better class of critic tells you something you may have already sensed but which you had only partially understood. Barr’s monograph helps to explain the continuing fascination of this enigmatic, potent and disturbing film.

Dr Harry Oldmeadow teaches comparative religion, philosophy and cinema studies in the Department of Arts at La Trobe University, Bendigo.

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