Saturday, August 04, 2012

What if Vertigo had been... shorter?

In recent days, former students, TV interviewers, fellow critics, passing strangers, drunks stumbling out of doorways... They've all wanted to know the same thing: What do I think of Vertigo bumping Citizen Kane out of the No. 1 spot on the Sight & Sound list of the top movies of all time?

My first impulse is to reply: Hey, I didn't get a ballot, so who cares?

On further consideration, however, I have to admit that, while I prefer Orson Welles' enduringly amazing and influential masterpiece, I have always appreciated Vertigo as one of Alfred Hitchcock's all-time greats -- and maybe, just maybe, his most deeply personal film. Indeed, I deemed it worthy of its very own chapter (excerpted here) in my currently out-of-print book (which I hope to expand and update as an e-book just as soon as I find the time to write the updates, and, well, you know, figure out how to upload an e-book). And while looking at that chapter after the announcement of the Sight & Sound list, I felt compelled to attach this addendum:

After multiple viewings of Vertigo over the years, I have come to wonder: What would the reaction have been back in 1958 – indeed, how would critics, academics and movie buffs view it today – if Hitchcock had opted to end this masterwork about ten or 15 minutes before he does? (Assuming that the Production Code would have allowed him to do so.) That is: What if The Master of Suspense had announced “The End” immediately after Ferguson (James Stewart) and Madeleine (Kim Novak) share their fevered embrace in her hotel room, bathed in a greenish light that seems to signal a shared madness, as she finally abandons all trace of her true self and he passionately grasps his last hope for a second chance?

And what if the audience were left to consider that the only way these two characters could possibly enjoy happily-ever-aftering is to maintain interlocking lies – his self-delusion, her selfless deception – forever more?

Would even Alfred Hitchcock have had the audacity to spring something so thoroughly unsettling, if not downright perverse, on us?

Here's a YouTube clip of the aforementioned scene featuring commentary by Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. Something tells me even The Master never considered ending his movie with this, uh, stunning climax.

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