ACF Anniversary Edition: Terry Teachout on Vertigo

 

Friends, the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast is on its first anniversary. To celebrate, the celebrated Terry Teachout joins me to discuss Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s a pleasure to have him join and I am even more pleased to announce we will be doing such conversations in future, with whatever regularity circumstances permit. I’m also glad to return to Hitchcock, who was on my mind last year, when the podcast was just getting started–I was preparing for my journey to America, to become a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute, and at that time, thinking about Hitchcock’s reflections on American society–I did several podcasts that I thought revealed the power of tragedy: Psycho (with a discussion of the moral teaching of the art on display in the movie), The Birds, and later Rope. That was when I conceived a book on Hitchcock’s movies from 1948 to 1963–his analysis of the post-war transformation, which mirrors his own change from the thriller to the horror. Listen and share, friends–I hope you will be delighted with this conversation and find some insights!

I will not offer more reflections on the past year–only thanks to everyone who has helped, as interlocutors here and on the podcast, with sharing our work on social media and with advice on how to improve it. We need your help, friends–and I believe we’re worth supporting, because we offer a rare attempt to curate the culture and to persuade people it’s worth conserving and that understanding America is a good road to gratitude for America.

As for the future–I am proud to say we will have announcements of distinguished men who are generously joining our efforts, first of all, Richard Brookhiser, with whom I am doing a series on the Founders and how they–and the times–are ripe for cinematic treatment. I add, several of my closest co-conspirators, I’m happy to say, are also Ricochet members–@johnpresnall and @FlaggTaylor. Others have come and gone over the years, but perhaps Ricochet can be a home for film conversation and the attempt to retrieve Middlebrow–the meeting of high-minded thinking and artistry that attracts popularity!

Finally, In the conversation, I also mention Mr. Matthew Schmitz’s essay at First Things,  an insightful treatment of the movie as a Gothic tale with important insights about our contradictory attitudes to the past, now Progressive and now Romantic, and the bad things that follow.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    As a 14 year old in Catholic high school, I borrowed a copy of Robin Wood’s 1966 “Hitchcock”, which motivated me to see “Vertigo” on TV that June. It was the most amazing film I’d ever seen. The following year, “Hitchcock/Truffaut” was published, a much higher profile book, and suddenly everyone was in on the act! The rights for “Vertigo” were tied up by a complicated deal between Paramount and Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, so the film never showed in revival houses and was only shown on TV one more time, around 1973. It wasn’t released on VHS for the first ten years of home video. When Ron Haver, the head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art film program, held a private screening of a bootlegged collector print in 1984, it was as if he was holding Mass in the catacombs.

    In a sense, he was. For my generation, movies were a secular religion. “Vertigo” was an object of veneration.

    • #1
  2. jeannebodine Member
    jeannebodine
    @jeannebodine

    I went to see Vertigo about 10 years ago at a theater in San Francisco. It knocked my socks off. I’ve been a Hitchcock fan since I was a teenager but I was more a Rear Window or Strangers on a Train gal. I never paid much attention to Vertigo for some reason. It is such an incredible film. I’ve been captivated by this film since then.

    • #2
  3. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Excellent discussion. Thanks to you both.

    • #3
  4. jeannebodine Member
    jeannebodine
    @jeannebodine

    And the Bernard Hermann score it to die for. I bought it on CD along with another compilation of his music. (As an aside, I have the Double Indemnity score set as my nighttime pill reminder. It makes me take them very quickly). 

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The studio (and to some degree, Hitch) knew that the direct translation of the title, “From Among the Dead” would be a bit of a downer, box office-wise, so they sparred over possible titles as the production period ended. Paramount didn’t love “Vertigo” as a name, but they took it. One of their suggestions wasn’t bad, IMHO–“Possessed by a Stranger”. 

    • #5
  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    The studio (and to some degree, Hitch) knew that the direct translation of the title, “From Among the Dead” would be a bit of a downer, box office-wise, so they sparred over possible titles as the production period ended. Paramount didn’t love “Vertigo” as a name, but they took it. One of their suggestions wasn’t bad, IMHO–“Possessed by a Stranger”.

    Has no mystery, though. Vertigo seems a terrible title, except that it fulfills an essential Hitchcockian task, concealing tragedy within science.

    • #6
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    In a sense, he was. For my generation, movies were a secular religion. “Vertigo” was an object of veneration.

    Yes, indeed. A shock to the movie system occurred when the new generation came in–things turned into Disney.

    • #7
  8. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    “North by Northwest” is lightweight compared to the majestic “Vertigo”, but it’s still a marvelous film. Unfortunately for me, I just don’t much like his films after the Fifties.

    Skip over “Psycho” for a moment; there are still some moments of quality in “The Birds”, “Marnie”, “Torn Curtain”, “Topaz”, “Frenzy”, and “Family Plot”, but fewer and fewer as the years went by. 

    “Psycho” stands out for any number of reasons. For most of my life, it’s been treated as a daring experiment that got Hitch out of a creative rut. To which I say “What creative rut? What did he ever do later that was as good as the ending–Jimmy Stewart standing in that tower? 

    • #8
  9. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I myself don’t understand how he went down. He remarkably made about a movie a year for decades. Wherever you start seeing greatness, it just goes on.

    Then came Psycho & he was out for three years. Then The Birds & Marnie, I think the last two good movies.

     

    • #9
  10. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    I think a major reason for his relative decline is simple–he joined Universal Pictures. That was in the days when MCA, the Music Corporation of America, was America’s top talent agency. Lew Wasserman decided he’d rather run a studio than an agency (actually, the Feds insisted he make up his mind), so the long-time weakest of the major studios became a powerhouse of low prestige, high profit TV production. Prestige-starved Universal scored a coup by signing Hitchcock; he was the jewel in the crown. Hitch was given equity, both cash and stock, and promised creative freedom, which they more or less delivered. But quality suffered in various ways. I agree that “Marnie” has its charms, but the cheapness of the sets, the crudity of rear projection work, and (for example) the obviously fake backdrop in the last shots would become the new norm for a director who previously insisted on perfection. Even a detail as small as the typefaces of the opening credits was cheaper, less dramatic at Universal. 

    • #10
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Yes, that’s true–but his ideas & stories were not what they had been.

    • #11
  12. Dorrk Inactive
    Dorrk
    @Dorrk

    Hitchcock doesn’t make “realistic” movies. His visuals are always heightened to a point of artifice, so the rear-projection has never bothered me. I see it as part of his style.

    I was working while listening, so I didn’t catch everything. Maybe you discussed this:

    [VAGUE SPOILERS…]

    The only flaw in Vertigo, as I see it, is the very ending, which plays more like shock gag rather than an organic conclusion — until, you substitute Hitchcock in for Scottie and read the entire movie as a lament for how the director builds one perfect woman after another only to never possess them.

    After catching the TCM Presents Anniversary screening of Vertigo a few months ago, I wrote a little about it here, and made several animated GIFs from it, as well, linked on that page.

     

    • #12
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    I think you should take the ending very, very literally. There are good reasons why the woman must die & why it must be a nun-

    • #13
  14. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Titus,

    It was a pleasure to hear you and Terry discuss this movie you both so enjoyed and admired.  Hope the summer is starting well for you.  We are just watching Halep at the French, heading for a third set, yikes.

    • #14
  15. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Morning Titus,

    It was a pleasure to hear you and Terry discuss this movie you both so enjoyed and admired. Hope the summer is starting well for you. We are just watching Halep at the French, heading for a third set, yikes.

    Yes, I noticed! They’ve been playing for two hours!

    • #15
  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Maybe she’ll finally get her first open! She was certainly favored. But women’s tennis–Americans have been incredible at it for a long while & maybe SS will be the next great one… 

    • #16
  17. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    She won! Halep is the first Romanian woman in 40 years to win the French Open. (Or any open for that matter…)

    • #17
  18. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Afternoon Titus,

    She just won, the crowd was chanting her name.  It is great.  When the Colts won the Super Bowl, for a few days Indy was euphoric, it was like the whole town was in love at the same time.  I hope the people of Romania have a few wonderful days riding the crest of her win.

    • #18
  19. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Finally caught up to this.  I only saw it once, decades ago.  What I mostly remember is how creepy I thought the whole remaking was.

    The quote you mentioned about wanting to sleep with a dead woman made me go in a weird direction.  There is a genre of chick flick where the beautiful young woman meets the perfect guy, they fall madly in love, and then she dies.  On some level, women want to be the dead woman that the man wants to sleep with.  As if they would be flattered to have the guy remake some other woman into their image, but wouldn’t want him to, because it would detract from her.

    • #19
  20. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Hey, Judge! You’re swimming in deep waters, here, but you’re not wrong, as best I can tell. Or maybe we’ll drown together. One way people understand the proof of love is dying for it. The one you’re thinking of is the correlative: Being loved for dying.

    • #20

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