Thursday, July 22, 2010


Okay, this one requires a bit of back-story. Back in 1955, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to make the film Diabolique after allegedly purchasing the rights to the novel scant hours before Hitchcock called up authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac to try to get the rights. By way of apology, they wrote another novel (whose English translation was “From Among the Dead”) specifically for Hitchcock, who then adapted it into the film Vertigo. There was also a remake of Diabolique in the mid-90s, but I’ve seen enough bad remakes already this month, so I didn’t really go out of my way to track it down for this.
Since it came first chronologically, I’ll start with Diabolique. Originally intended by Clouzot to be a scary story for his daughter, it wound up becoming one of the greatest horror movies of the decade, terrifying adult audiences for decades to come. Set in a French boarding school, it follows a sadistic headmaster (Paul Meurisse), his ailing wife (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife), and his mistress (Simone Signoret). After he’s decided to wait for his wife’s weak heart to give out so he can claim ownership of the school, the two women hatch a plan to first try to divorce him, and then, when he violently opposes such a plan, to murder him and dump the body back at the school. But when the body doesn’t turn up when it should, and children start claiming to have seen him, it becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong with their plan. Is he still alive and stalking the school grounds, or is there another explanation?

Clouzot was Hitchcock’s biggest rival the title of Master of Suspense in the 40s and 50s, and this film is a great example of why. The film is set mostly at night, in appropriately dark and spooky fashion, , and Clouzot got fantastic performances out of all the leads, particularly from the terrified wife. There’s a lot of great little moments too, like when the students all get back from Christmas vacation and are delighted to see that the headmaster isn’t there to torment them, or when the wife goes to the morgue to try to identify a body that washed up in the Seine, and the morgue attendant appears to be actively screwing with her during the identification process. Most importantly though, it’s an amazingly tightly wound story, oozing tension from its pores, and is certainly overdue for a rediscovery by modern audiences.

Which brings us to Hitchcock’s film. Vertigo is arguably the most experimental and ambitious film of his entire career, and as such things tend to be, it was a complete critical and commercial failure when it was first released, not being properly appreciated until after his death decades later. Watching the film, one can easily understand how it might have upset audiences when it was first released. Jimmy Stewart stars as a former San Francisco detective who was forced into retirement after an ugly chase at the opening of the film left him with a crippling case of the title. Hired by an old friend to follow his wife (Kim Novak), who he suspects of being possessed by a ghost, Stewart tails her, rescues her from drowning in the Bay, and then they fall in love shortly before tragedy strikes and she dies when his vertigo keeps him from saving her. After spending a year wallowing in misery over his loss, he happens to stumble upon another woman that looks just like her. Is he going mad, or is there another explanation?

First, let’s go into the potential problems with the film. First and foremost, there is the issue of how none of the characters is particularly noble or likable. Even Stewart, who we should theoretically be rooting for, comes off as dangerously obsessed and cruel in the second half of the film when he feels he’s found another woman just like his last (show of hands, ladies: how flattering is it when your new boyfriend wants nothing more than for you to dress like his dead girlfriend?). At just over two hours, it’s also one of the longest films Hitchcock has ever made, and one in which the central mystery is solved with about a third of the film left to go (also, it‘s explained in a quick little exposition-filled note, as if Hitchcock himself felt the specifics of the plot didn‘t matter much, and he was right). It also flirts with a possession angle that, while perhaps not off-putting to modern audiences, would certainly seem out of character for Hitch, who had always to that point kept his films locked into the “real” world (the only real exception being The Birds, which came out five years later).

Still, despite its potential flaws (and I would argue that none of these is necessarily a flaw in itself), it remains one of the most fascinating films he’s ever done, and one that nowadays tends to be Hitchcock’s single biggest critical darling, presumably because it’s so different from the rest of his oeuvre. It created one of the single most overused camera tricks in film history (with the camera zooming out while pushing the camera forward to create the vertigo effect), the streets and countryside of San Francisco look like they belong in some Gothic horror movie with Vincent Price, and the strangely looping plot has an almost hypnotic appeal to it. With the exceptions of Stage Fright and the Trouble With Harry, most of Hitchcock’s films from the 50s and early 60s tend to be surprisingly dark and gloomy, and this film, with its own obsession with obsession, is one of the darkest. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone (indeed, if you’re going to be viewing Hitchcock for the first time, I’d recommend quite a few other films of his before getting into this one), but it’s well worth the experience.

Rating: Diabolique - **** / Vertigo - ****

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