Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Vertigo in Garmisch-Partenkirchen

It has long been noted that most generations have moments when one can remember exactly where one was when an important (often tragic) event occurred. For me as a little boy it was Pearl Harbor, as a young married man it was the assassination of John Kennedy, and as a retired older man it was the day in September when the towers fell.

But there was at least one other time, this one not tragic, that I vividly remember a half century later. In early winter of 1959, I found myself with two friends in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, surely the most beautiful place I have ever been. We were probably full of fine lager and Ochsenschwanzsuppe when we decided to see a flick, which was what soldiers of my time called motion pictures. The director was Alfred Hitchcock; the film was Vertigo. And I knew even then what I still know now. This was one of those films.

We had all seen Kim Novak as Molly O and all knew the great score from The Man With the Golden Arm because we were jazz fans. But we had never seen Kim Novak like this. And Shorty Rogers was no match for Bernard Herrmann. And Otto Preminger never worked in Angel, Islington …

When we left the theater, still somewhat stunned by the ending, my friend, Earl Jordan from Lewistown, Pennsylvania, was shaking his head and still talking about the nun: the nun who came out of the dark in the bell tower. It was a clear cold winter night and I saw a deer cross the road. And yes, it had started to snow. An enthralling sight. I was a city boy, watching a deer amble across a road in the snow, in a mountain town in Germany, somewhere in the clouds: the night I saw Vertigo, 9 November 1959.


  1. Once again - and more than ever - I find myself wishing I admired this film more than I do.
    This was incredibly evocative, and I indentify absolutely with that idea of a specific cinematic experience sealing a moment in one's memory, and having the power through repeated encounter to recall the experience entire. But alas, Vertigo itself has simply never been one of those films for me. Most of the reasons will be blasphemous to its devotees: not least that I simply don't think Stewart and Novak click together, the disparity in their ages somehow far more glaring to me than that between Stewart and Kelly back in '54... But also it seems unusually reliant on plot and plot twists for a Hitchcock film. In synopsis it sounds more like an Alfred Hitchcock Presents playlet, perhaps derived from a Roald Dahl short story. It never sweeps me away into its world the way that Rear Window does...
    But enough carping about the film. This was a beautifully composed piece; and I'd be interested to read more on the other films occupy so vivid a position in your pantheon of personal favourites, and why.

  2. Dear Matthew:

    I am not surprised to get a thoughtful commentary from you. And what a subject to discuss. Thank you for taking the time.

    I think initially, my mesmerism with “Vertigo” had more to do with the allure of Kim Novak than of Alfred Hitchcock. The effect of Kim Novak at that time is difficult to describe. Modern audiences have seen her growth in encapsulated viewing periods in a relatively short period of time.

    We saw Kim Novak in real time, day by day, reading the books this month, the film of which she would appear in next year. She was very much with us. She had appeared in a movie made from a Jack Finney book (and Finney and Matheson were inseparable to us and resided in our own street pantheon). Books and the movies melded in some strange way into one gospel. And gospels spawn angels and Kim, though perhaps tarnished, was an angel of high order. Then she danced in “Picnic”.

    Jazz was going in new directions, particularly geographically, to the west coast. And Shorty Rogers played the score for “The Man with the Golden Arm” and the theme for Molly O – and yes, we read Algren.

    So my “Vertigo” had more to do with Kim Novak, I suspect, than with the master filmmaker. And to further complicate, on the Hitchcock tapes that are now available on the Charlie Parker Gunslinger blog, Hitchcock says of Novak “I had a terrible actress in it.” Dietrich might ask “ … when will they ever learn?”

    There is much to be said for your mention of the Stewart-Novak age gap. Perhaps the unattainability suggested by the age gap to which you refer was evident in a different dimension to me when I was young. These goddesses and angels were all unattainable because of our different stations in life. Modern audiences might say the stars are beyond reach because they are deceased. For us they were very much alive -- but still galaxies away.

    “Vertigo” later moved into the welcoming arms of academe. There was not the intellectualization of it in my time that came later and there is now. It seems I recall Robin Wood in the later 1960s telling us why we should take Hitchcock and “Vertigo” seriously and my wondering where he had been until then.

    Yes “Vertigo” is reliant, much reliant, on the plot twists, but I can somehow divorce myself from them and follow the mystical dance of the players. Perhaps it is being a jazz fan. You learn to follow the melody in your head, while the improvisers leave the melody for a while and return to it at the same time you do.

    Oddly, in recent times, Barbara Bel Geddes moves into the foreground and I am more aware of her presence. I wish I had the determination to do a Tom Stoppard Rosencrantz and Guildenstern type diary, written by Midge Wood about the affairs of her ex-policeman friend.

    Finally on “Rear Window”. The last time Nola and I watched it, I was most enthralled with Thelma Ritter – but that is not a difficult task for me. God, she was good in that. And that of course it comes from a Woolrich story – there’s that gospel again. (My mother once met Thelma on a subway train.)

    Anyway, thank you once more for making me think. You are not alone on “Vertigo”. Another in my personal pantheon is Stephen Sondheim and he thinks “Vertigo” is vastly overrated.


    Given its length, I thought of doing this as a separate posting, leading with your comment, but could not figure how to construct it. I think the idea of modern audiences as opposed to real time past audiences worth discussing -- perhaps I will use the idea as a starting point for another post on that theme.

  3. Thanks for your generous response to my impudent comment!
    Funnily enough, my father was (and remains) a huge Kim Novak fan, who saw her every film as it came out - though he, like me, would much rather watch her and Jimmy getting along well in Bell, Book and Candle than mired in the neuroses of Vertigo. I agree completely with you about how one's perspective is entirely different if one is around to watch the career evolve in sequence, as opposed to we of later generations who hover Godlike over a story already told and pick and choose from different lanmarks along the road beneath. That's why I always try to follow careers in sequence when I'm getting to know someone 'new': too much time was wasted imagining I didn't like Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and Joan Crawford, because I had a distorted sense of what they did based on a misleading collage of impressions gleaned with no regard for timeframe. We definitely miss out if we ignore this dimension, or try to rush through a series of approved highlights. With stars, it's often in the less important work that their own particular qualities are more keenly conveyed. Especially in pre-Code, which is 'my' era above all, we see the likes of Lombard and Grant and Crawford and Gable and Rogers and Powell and so many others in fascinating contortions of development, not yet butterflies perhaps, but clearly a breed removed from all the caterpillars around them...

    Another point you make with which I strongly identify is your feelings of increasing empathy towards Midge. I always imagine how unfolding plots would seem if told from the viewpoint of these sort of partially-involved onlookers; there's a fun game to be played in thinking of a film and decide on whose would make the most interesting alternate perspective, and how the story would change in their hands.
    I also adore Thelma Ritter: I'd like an extra scene in All About Eve - just her and George Sanders commenting on the others for, say, half an hour or so...