R T S & C U L T U R E
Emmy Chang • A centennial tribute to the maker of Vertigo
Alfred Hitchcock made 52 movies, and one terrifying one.
Why does Vertigo retain its hold on us? For me, its seminal moment
must come when we find Jimmy Stewart staring, stricken, at a woman who
hauntingly of a dead love. He knows it can't be her, and that to attempt
to make the new woman into the old would be an offense against both; but
he cannot stop himself. The look on Stewart's face in that moment is exactly
the look it wore when he experienced actual acrophobia, staring from high
up in a building to the hard street far below. Stewart's experience as
he looks at Kim Novak is of not physical but moral vertigo, the feeling
we have when the right thing to
do appears as far away to us, and as shattering, as that distant pavement.
In an ordinary suspense film we are merely voyeurs, watching bad things
happen to good (and bad) people; the characters and their sins remain external
to us. But the shock of Vertigo is that we cannot sequester ourselves
from it. We are watching Stewart when he looks at Novak-but far more than
that, we are watching ourselves.
And the film never relents; for it reminds us not only of the worst
wrongs we do each other but of the ferocious need that drives us to them:
incompleteness, our desperate loneliness. The film's most awful lines
are surely these:
Novak: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what
you tell me, will you love me?
Stewart: Yes... yes.
Novak: All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.
They are the unsophisticated words of an unsophisticated working
girl, but they are no less powerful for all that. (And anyway, contra the
poets, most of our important moments are ineloquent.) For we too are asking
those questions every day: If I do it, will you love me?—If I do it, will
it keep you from leaving me? It is the small death we live whenever we
find something we need, and know we could lose—or have already lost. Hitchcock,
who was always ahead of us, may even have consciously engineered the connection
between the dizzying rise and fall of the San Francisco streets, and the
phrase (which first appears in As You Like It), "falling in love."
I couldn't move after seeing Vertigo for the first time, and
still feel a little weak when I see it again now. Many great books and
most great music can be as
powerful as this—but very few great films take something away from
us, violate some former illusion of our completeness. I do not know what
the idea of broadcasting the theme from Vertigo on WMNR Fine
Arts Radio one evening this June, but the instant panic I felt on hearing
it proved a lesson in
itself. Today's suspense films spill oceans more of blood than Vertigo,
but I cannot imagine being stricken with terror by the theme to The Shining.
that can only be because Hitchcock, ever ambitious, is playing with
the highest stakes there are. For to some extent, though we must love a
movie like this, some part of us has to wish we could remain safe from
it; as some part of us—the wiser part-has to wish we could remain safe
from the unspeakable terror of the fall into love.
They call this a "cult movie," and certainly to the unconverted there
is something a little peculiar in the way the film restorer's eyes glowed
when he announced in 1997 that enough new prints of Vertigo had
been made to last us well into 2250. In the end perhaps all that can be
said to those who have not yet fallen under the spell, is: See the movie.
Better still: Fall in love, hard—and then see the movie. (The former may
even be worth enduring for the sake of the
latter.) The two psychic cataclysms illuminate and may even complete
one another because they shatter the dual illusion of our safety, from
each other and from ourselves.
-Emmy Chang '97 is an alumna of Silliman College
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