Friday, May 9, 2008

Fifty Years of Vertigo

It was fifty years ago on this date that Alfred Hitchcock's movie Vertigo premiered in San Francisco, the city in which it was set. The movie received decidedly mixed reviews at the time, and it only did middling at the box office. As the years have passed, however, it has come to be regarded as as a classic and one of Hitchcock's best films.

The film was based on the novel Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts (translated into English as Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was in 1955 that Paramount Pictures bought the rights to novel and that same year that Hitchcock would begin what would be the long process of adapting it to the screen. From the beginning Hitchcock had decided to move the plot from Paris, as in the novel, to San Francisco, a city he thought had good visual possibilities. At first he hired playwright Maxwell Anderson, perhaps best known for the plays What Price Glory and Mary of Scotland, to adapt the novel. Hitchcock found Anderson's adaptation, entitled Darkling I Listen, totally unsuitable. He then turned to Angus MacPhail, who wrote the screenplays for Spellbound and The Wrong Man (and with whom is also credited coining the term "MacGuffin," a plot device which advances a story), to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, MacPhail's alcoholism got in the way of him accomplishing much work on a script.

Hitchcock then went to Alec Coppel, who had written films from The Black Knight to Obsession. While Coppel receives a screenplay credit for the film, nothing of Coppel's work remains in the film. After working together for months on the screenplay, Hitchcock found Coppel's resulting script unacceptable. Hitchcock tried to bring Maxwell Anderson back to revise Coppel's script, with no real results. It was then that Hitchcock brought in Samuel A. Taylor, who had previously adapted Sabrina for the big screen and who also had an intricate knowledge of San Francisco. Taylor wrote an entirely new screenplay, that drew nothing from Coppel's script and very little from the original novel. It was only because of Writer's Guild arbitration that Coppel received any credit at all.

Casting the film proved difficult as well. Initially, Hitchcock wanted to cast Vera Miles as the lead actress. Miles was pregnant at the time, however, and Hitchcock did not want to put off production of the movie. He then cast Kim Novack in the part. Novack had to complete some film commitments to Columbia Pictures, so that the time she became available Miles had already given birth. Regardless, Novack remained cast as the movie's female lead.

Bernard Herrmann had written the score for Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry. He would later write the famous score for Psycho. In the case of Vertigo, Herrmann wrote the score in only a little over a month. It would be the only score which Herrmann composed but did conduct the orchestra for. A musicians' strike in the United States meant that the score would be recorded in London until the English Musicians' Union decided to support their American counterparts in the strike. Recording the score was then moved to Vienna.

Upon its release on May 9, 1958, Vertigo received mixed reviews from critics. Reviews in both The New York Times and The New Yorker labelled the film as "far-fetched." At the box office Vertigo hardly flopped, but it did not exactly do well either. Hitchcock resented the cool reception Vertigo had received from both critics and audiences. Ultimately, he blamed actor James Stewart for the film's failure because of "looking old." While Stewart had been one of Hitchcock's favourite actors (they had worked together on Rope, Rear Window and the Fifties version of The Man Who Knew Too Much), the two never worked together again.

Vertigo was one of the films whose rights Hitchcock bought back. Along with the movies The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry, it was removed from circulation in 1973. Vertigo was at last re-released to theatres in October 1983 and then on home video in October 1984. Upon its re-release Vertigo was re-evaluated by critics and came to be regarded as one of his best films. It also did remarkably well at the box office for a film that was then nearly thirty years old.

It was in the early 90s that Universal Studios started restoring Vertigo. Heading up the project were James C. Katz, head of Universal Classics, and film historian Robert A. Harris. The entire process took nearly three years. Among other things, they restored Vertigo to its original VistaVision. Shot in VistaVision, the film had been "reduction-printed" to widescreen 35mm for showings at cinemas. The restored Vertigo was shown in special presentations in eight major cities before being released on VHS and DVD.

Vertigo is now regarded as a masterpiece and one of Hitchcock's best films. In 1989 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It ranked at #61 on the American Film Institute's 1998 "100 Greatest Movies" list. Ten years later, in 2008, it came in at #9. It now consistently ranks in lists of the greatest films of all time.

Hitchcock was disappointed in the reception Vertigo had received from audiences and critics in 1958. Over the course of fifty years it has gone from being regarded as one of his lesser to works to one of his very best. It is definitely one of those films that have stood the test of time.


dennis said...

Dennis found this very interesting. Hitchcok is a big fave at our house, and Vertigo is an amazing film.

Toby O'B said...

I went to see the film in that late 90s release of the restored version with some friends. We all felt that the only thing that detracted from the movie was seeing Raymond Bailey as the psychiatrist. Unfortunately, his fame as Mr. Drysdale on 'The Beverly Hillbillies' ruined his scene for us.

The same thing happens with 'Klute' when Jean Stapleton shows up near the end, when the movie is supposed to be getting really tense.

One other example - in 'Scanners', Patrick McGoohan's character was named Dr. Paul Ruth. When I went to see it at a revival house in NYC, there was some laughter over him being named "Dr. Ruth".