Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Vertigo/DePalma - I

Sometime circa 2016, I'd heard that the top spot in the American Film Institute's top-100-movies list had been suddenly replaced by Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo. Later that same year (2016, not 1958) my wife and I attended a dynamic night at The Orpheum featuring Vancouver's Symphony Orchestra – or rather, the orchestra's entire strings section – performing live Bernard Hermann's soundtrack to the classic horror film Psycho, while Hitchock's film played on a huge screen suspended over the orchestra's stage. It was an amazing October night. So thrilled from the experience, when my wife and I returned home, we immediately went online to order a 13-film Blu-ray box set of Hitchock's films.

Later, in 2017 (April 23rd, 2017, to be exact), on what was a rainy afternoon (or, a torrentially downpouring afternoon, to be more accurate), I decided out-of-the-blue to put on the Vertigo Blu-ray from that set. After having watched and re-watched the films of Brian DePalma and Dario Argento for over twenty-five years, both of them absolute favourite film directors of mine, this would be the first time I'd have ever watched Hitchcock's Vertigo...

* * *

I was sixteen years old in 1991 when my mother came home from grocery shopping, carrying two rental VHS videotapes she'd picked up from Super Video on her way back for me. My best friend at that time, Kirk, was hanging out with me that Saturday evening in the downstairs living room when my mom brought the tapes in – Roman Polanski's Frantic, and Brian DePalma's Blow Out. The first film starred Harrison Ford, whom we both knew better as Indiana Jones at that time, and the second film, Blow Out, was about a b-movie sound-effects designer who, while out one night recordings sounds for his catalogue of studio sound-tapes, accidentally records the tire blow-out and subsequent car crash that kills a prominent senator. DePalma's film starred – “John Travolta?” I asked my mother with a severe you've-gotta-be-kidding-me look plastered across my face. Firstly, we hadn't requested these videotapes, my mom was just trying to be nice and bring us a little something she'd though we'd like. Okay, Harrison Ford I could understand, but in 1991 we knew John Travolta as the guy who was starring in those Look Who's Talking movies – in 1991, John Travolta was not a cool movie star. “You'll like it,” my mother insisted. “It's good.”
“Fine,” I said. “Thank you.” “Thanks, mom!” Kirk yelled from the couch. I rolled my eyes. We watched the Harrison Ford movie first.

* * *

I was now forty-two as I was experiencing, for the first time, Hitchcock's Vertigo. Also, Vertigo did not take the top spot on the AFI's top-100 list – what had actually happened was that the AFI had created a series of new top-10 lists that were categorized by genre. Hitchock's movie had thusly ended up in the number 1 spot on the top-10 mysteries list. Okay, misunderstanding solved. I placed the Blu-ray disc into the player and sat down. As the disc spun to life in the player, I could hear the rain smashing down outside the apartment's sliding glass door. It was hitting the porch and the ground below with such force I'd thought it had started hailing. And then the film started...

The opening visuals grabbed my attention immediately as the beginning credits played over the closeup of a woman's face, and the camera moves so that it becomes as single close-up of her left eye. Things begin to spin inside the iris. Before I can see that this opening sequence had been designed by Saul Bass, who had also designed the opening credits for Psycho, I heard the opening music that immediately brought my mind to a film I was far more familiar with, although it had been made fifteen years after the film I was currently experiencing – Brian DePalma's Sisters...

After obsessing over Brian DePalma's and Dario Argento's movies for nearly twenty-six years, I was honestly, if not understandably, stunned at how much these filmmakers, and specifically Brian DePalma, had used and re-used and re-cycled from this one single film. I was even more stunned that I had never seen Hitchcock's influential film before.

* * *

My mom had been right – both my friend Kirk and I came away loving DePalma's Blow-Out. Kirk had been enthralled with the story having been told through the idea of sound and movie sound-effects – he was (and still is) an experimental musician who loved sound more than he loved music – and in 1991, our Junior year in high school, both of us loved music. Not only were we obsessed with the music of the day as well as classic rock albums of the 60sand 70s, but both of us played several instruments in the high school bands and extracurricular jazz sections, as well as singing in several jazz and a capella groups, and (of course) our own garage band, with Kirk on lead guitar and myself on bass guitar, taking turns singing lead on the single microphone we had (it was Kirk's) and with our other best friend Marty pounding on the drums. Actually, Marty was a very good drummer, he had a natural gift for timekeeping. And strangely, he look a lot like Lars Ulrich from Metallica. I always secretly though that this was why girls were interested in him, as he wasn't particularly good looking otherwise. Anyway, Blow Out became an instant favourite of mine and has remained in my mental top-ten list since that time. Becoming more obsessed with the cinematic aspects and the ironic storytelling of DePalma's film, rather than the more specific background-sound aspects of it as Kirk had connected with, I later approached my mother to ask if she'd known of any other films DePalma had done. She then told me about one that she had seen in the cinema in 1980... DePalma's Dressed to Kill.

Needless to say, the following weekend I found myself at Super Video renting a VHS tape of Dressed to Kill. Excited to watch it, I told my mom that I'd picked it up for myself and was about to immerse myself once again into DePalma's world. At this point in my life, still four years away from my twenties, I was still a couple of years away from discovering the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and specifically, Psycho.

* * *

One of the most beautifully experimental things about DePalma's and Argento's films are the long sequences that move the action and plot forward with subtle music and underlying sound, intricate cutting, and a complete absence of dialogue. These wordless, visually lush sequences are so engaging that for me, it took several viewings before I even realized that there were lengthy segments of these directors' films that were telling the story without relying on any dialogue. The imagery was telling the story, and that imagery, as in the film Blow Out, was so engaging because it provided to us (and allowed us, the audience, to see), a character working, thinking, being inspired, and cleverly solving tricky problems, as John Travolta's character was doing, in the quietness of his own montage-scene, when he was snipping a series of photographs of the car accident from a news magazine that a photographer had happened to shoot with a new high-speed camera. We watch while Travolta puts each rectangular cut-out photo under the lens of an animation camera and re-shoots these magazine photos into a short piece of animated film, and then sets this film to the soundtrack that he himself recorded. There is no other characters in this scene to bounce dialogue off of, to tell us what he's up to, only DePalma's visuals are telling us the story. There is no narration, that would only ruin the graceful cutting of imagery that DePalma and his editor have pieced together for us, letting us see the pieces of the puzzle while John Travolta is trying to solve his own narrative puzzle within the film we're watching. Explanation is far from elusive, as the imagery says it all and with DePalma's perfect timing of a symphony conductor.

DePalma more noticeably had used this wordlessly visual storytelling technique in the museum sequence in his film Dressed to Kill, where Angie Dickinson and a handsome sunglassed stranger are playing an elaborate game of sexual flirtation with each other. The sequence is shot with long stedicam shots and elegantly punctuated with split-screens and flashbacks that are used with a sense of fluidity and never over-used; never detracting from the scene itself, only adding to it, fleshing it out, creating a depth beyond the scope of the stedicam.

I was very surprised to see this visual and wordless technique applied to early scenes in Hitchcock's Vertigo, as we become pulled into the film by its visuals and score-only soundtrack while James Stewart follows the object of his obsession and desire: the lovely Kim Novak. We become wrapped up in the dance these characters are performing for us in the scenes on the screen, Kim Novak leading while James Stewart follows through one set-piece to the next, including a graveyard that has been lit to inspire the future films of Dario Argento specifically, slashed with greens and underlying reds, hankering back to the colours of the opening-credit sequence of Vertigo. And like Blow Out and Dressed to Kill, we become not only engaged by this style of visual storytelling, but the style allows us to quietly ponder and experience our lead characters' actions and decisions, to become involved in the things that they are doing that are mysteriously and gracefully moving the plot forward.

Traditionally, my experience with Hitchcock's films up until this point had been of his wordy, sometimes over-expositional dialogued approach to his cinematic thrillers; and rightfully so, as was the style of the time to have the attractive leads and protagonists/antagonists duelling in a battle of wits over love and murder. Where Hitchcock began experimenting photographically with his thrillers in his celebrated Rope, which was entirely comprised of eight single long takes of films, he culminated this technique into the beautiful flowing camerawork that graces Vertigo and Psycho – although the techniques would influence heavily Dario Argento and become perfected by DePalma in his three masterworks: Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double, to which this trio of films was preceded by the nearly as important early work in Sisters.

The influence of Vertigo on Sisters (1973) is not quite as explicit, but there are scenes leading into the third act of Vertigo that appear deceivingly mundane on their own, should one not perceive the deft photographic handling of framing, depth, and the space between the action taking place, in this instance, on opposite side of the street. Where James Stewart recognizes Kim Novak in the street in front of a shop, Hitchcock's film cuts to an exhilarating medium close-up of Novak before we see her running across the street and up into a hotel halfway down the block. The camera shot follows, but the camera itself does not. Nor does our victim/protagonist Stewart – he hangs back and simply watches, and waits until he can see her through the window of her hotel room, a few floor up above street level. While there were voyeuristic scenes in both Sisters and Body Double whose influences in spacing and mis-en-scene have been attributed to Hitchcock's Rear Window, after seeing this seen in Vertigo I would say that the influence lay far more cemented in the latter film. The spacing from street level to the apartment window in DePalma's Sisters when news reporter Jennifer Salt sees what she thinks in a murder in the upper apartment across the street, the context and content would understandably make any audience member think back to Rear Window, when in fact compared to the decidedly un-bloody voyeur-from-across-the-street scene between Stewart an Novak in Vertigo, it's that film that fits into DePalma's template for the crucial scene in Sisters more firmly.

(To be continued...)

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