Watching Vertigo in a Theater
Can you still be moved after watching a film for the twelfth time? I’ve learned that you can, but It helps to experience it the way it was originally intended: on a big screen in a packed theater.
Last Sunday I watched Vertigo with my daughter as part of a mini Hitchcock festival in Louisville, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see it. I’d rented it just a year or two ago and didn’t think another viewing in such close proximity would be all that enjoyable. Boy, was I wrong! Seeing the movie again with a few hundred others was absolutely thrilling, reinvigorating my appreciation for the film many believe – Martin Scorsese among them – to be Hitchcock’s best (my favorite is still Rear Window), and reinforcing my belief that watching film in a theater still gives you the best opportunity for an amazing experience. Yes, there will be those times when you get a buffoon seated right behind you, wrestling with his crackling candy wrappers (as happened to me just last month while watching First Reformed), but when I look back on my favorite movie experiences, most entail seeing it with a large group of people. Imagine that; humanity can actually enhance art created to make people feel.
Especially fun for me was the audience’s laughter. I’ve always appreciated the banter between Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” and Barbara Bel Geddes’s “Midge,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed at it. Last Sunday, the laughter around me was infectious, and I grew a new appreciation for the screenplay penned by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. So much of this film is silent – Stewart shadowing Kim Novak’s character – that it’s easy to forget the dialogue, but much of it is brilliant. The audience absolutely howled with laughter when Midge unveiled her joke painting to Scottie – a scene that I’ve always found to be heartbreaking, as Midge immediately regrets her actions – but who can argue with a laughing crowd?
Because the people in the theater seemed to be invested in what was happening on screen, I was eager to get to the film’s big payoffs. I knew what was going to happen of course, but it was akin to watching a film with your child, when the real fun is watching his reaction. On Sunday, I awaited with pleasure the gasps I was sure to hear upon the film’s climax. The audience didn’t let me down, and I enjoyed hearing people’s banter after the film had ended.
There are two points to Vertigo that still don’t hold up for me. Yes, many films require a certain suspension of disbelief, and for the most part I’m able to dive into Vertigo without much skepticism, but there are two sticking points (SPOILER ALERT):
1) If Kim Novak’s character is pretending to be Elster’s wife during the first half of the film, how does she manage to play unconscious even when Scottie undresses her at his apartment after fishing her out of San Francisco Bay? Wouldn’t she have played along until just before he undressed her and pretend to wake up? If not, does this imply that she was particularly titillated with the prospect of a having a man undress her?
2) Where does Kim Novak’s character disappear to when she enters the McKittrick Hotel, and why doesn’t the hotel manager claim to have seen her enter? There are several explanations for this on-line – none of them very satisfying except for Hitchcock’s definition of an “icebox” scene, meaning – in effect – that there is no explanation. You just have to accept it.
3) Oh! I just thought of a third. How does Scottie get both cars back to his apartment after Novak’s fake suicide attempt?
None this doesn’t matters all that much. The film is beautiful, heartbreaking, creepy, thrilling and entertaining. What else do you want? During the film, I whispered to my daughter during one of my favorite shots, just after Scottie says to Midge, “We were engaged once, though, weren’t we?” Hitchcock points the camera down on Midge while she’s working at an easel, and Midget’s eyes shift. We never hear about exactly what happened between her and Scottie, but that shot is absolute perfection. It speaks a thousand words even if you don’t know exactly what story those words would tell. Check out minute 1:42 below: