Exclusive Guest Article
By: Dan Auiler
This article is the second in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’
Vertigo in 4K—The clarity, the better black levels from HDR, the extraordinary color—but I guess at this point it will still remain an underrated achievement by Robert Burks (Hitchcock’s cinematographer). Then we have the ever improving quality of the film’s sound to match its stellar image quality. These upgrades continue to assure that at least another generation of people will become caught up in the whirlpool of this very, very interesting film. You will notice that I wrote “interesting.” You may have also noticed that I have not bowed before the film with the usual pile of critical adjectives that are usually bestowed upon it. Indeed, even at the time of its original release, Vertigo was Hitchcock’s “masterpiece.” It says so right on the Saul Bass poster.
Vertigo is Hitchcock’s masterpiece. We know that. We keep coming back to the film not to revel in an artist’s brilliance. If you want showboating Hitchcock, you had better look at his more popular efforts—Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window—the list is so vast that they are enough to elevate Hitchcock to our attention and to continue our unashamed veneration. He deserves all the praise and his critical position. Cinema is better for this and we are better because of this. I suggest that more importantly, Vertigo will survive because of this. The film has been a survivor despite several damning features. The film was a dud on release. No one, most especially Mr. Hitchcock, was really happy with the outcome. Average box office indicated that his audience agreed. Do you know what you want when you sit down to watch a movie? I don’t. I once thought that I knew.
I saw Vertigo for the first time during its first very troubled re-release after Alfred and Alma had died. Vertigo had been trapped as the prisoner of its creator and was seldom shared or shown due to a quirk in contracting and money. Hitchcock held the rights to a handful of films made with Paramount. Three of these films are in this 4K collection. Only The Birds is an actual Universal picture. It is fair critical assessment to write that after The Birds, Hitchcock had reached the end of his career. The films that follow are fine and manage to do the most important thing required of late career films—they don’t tarnish his reputation.
This second life of Vertigo was nearly as damaging as its first life. I was there and witnessed it. The film not only looked far worse than the other films packaged with this 1984 release, but it was determinedly the “ugly Betty” in the group. I don’t even think Universal bothered to look at the film before releasing it as it had an unfortunate, and to audiences hilarious, repeated moment. The “it can’t matter to you” scene printed twice. The moment was already a snicker line. Seen twice in an obvious printing error made it a hoot. The fact any audience saw such an easily caught physical mistake indicates just how important this prestige picture was to the studio.
Vertigo survived though to hold the original acolytes who were so very lucky to see something I have only dreamt of seeing, the film in 1958 in that ephemeral pristine moment of intended perfection, the premiere in San Francisco in May of 1958. Had you been there, you would have seen the film as perfect as 1958 could allow in IB Technicolor and in Vistavision.
Vistavision was almost never screened in 65mm because of the cost and work involved to make a theater ready for such a thing. Major film theaters in our biggest cities may have shown a week long engagement in the large format after that initial screening, but after this short limited engagement, no one would see Vertigo in the beautiful format that it filmed in (with colors approaching the original Technicolor) until 1997. It only took 40 years and two generations!
No other film in the art form’s brief history has received such an essential preservation. Why? Why Vertigo? The film’s dialogue echoes in my mind: “Why did you pick on me? Why me?” I have to be careful here. The emotion of the film always overwhelms me. I cannot hide how deeply the film affects me. I’m embarrassed to write that even now my cheeks are wet with tears. Real, authentic deep-well tears. It may be that you will think I’m just an old film geek, and it may be foolish. It might be “sentimental.” (Ah! Hear that? Another echo: “You shouldn’t have been that sentimental.”) The film overwhelms me as I know it does so many others. I am watching it again even now, but I keep coming back to it—overwhelmed and shattered by the entire last reel.
Did I already mention that I no longer know why I even watch movies? I don’t know anymore, but in that strict Zen Kōan that Vertigo has become for film audiences, filmmakers, historians, and fans, I do know… It would have been better to write that there are no words to properly articulate why films—and Vertigo in particular—remain vital to me. By “vital,” I mean “so fucking important that there is no Dan without Vertigo.”
I’m sure—like a creature from Poe—it’s easy to imagine that I’m some wild Gollum-like thing who is screaming for his precious. I am. And forty years from now, where will you be? Out in the sunshine of tomorrow? Or here with me in the darkness of the filmed past—portals of the past—swimming against the whirlpool… against the riptide that is Hitchcock’s—Wait… No. Our—Our Masterpiece, Vertigo.
Dan Auiler is the author of Vertigo: The Making of A Hitchcock Classic, Hitchcock’s Notebooks, and Hitchcock Lost. He also contributed to Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Robert Jones’s Hitchcock’s California, and a TASCHEN volume entitled Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot‘.