Maxim Jakubowski on Vertigo

It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock is making more than one appearance in our Read a Great Movie month. Here, Maxim Jakubowski discusses the enduring appeal of the vertiginous Vertigo, a movie which, at the time of its release, made barely a dent on the public consciousness.

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In the 2012 Sight and Sound authoritative poll of international film critics and academics, Hitchcock’s Vertigo took over first place from Citizen Kane, which had been leading the list for decades.

It’s a movie that is both quintessentially Hitchcockian and claustrophobic in its tunnel-visioned representation of acrophobia. But at the time of its release in 1958, it only attracted mixed reviews and barely recouped its costs. Few people even realised that the 1954 novel it was based on, D’Entre Les Morts, by French collaborative duo Boileau et Narcejac (translated into English as The Living and the Dead) was set nowhere near San Francisco, but in deepest France.

Like so many book-to-screen adaptations, much was changed in its passage to the movies, including the final resolution and climax.

But, in a serendipitous way, the film of Vertigo closed a circle, in so far as the French authors revealed at the outset of their prolific career (which saw many of their other books filmed for screen and TV, and the pair working as scriptwriters themselves on a variety of projects in their own country) that their concept of suspense was heavily influenced by the writing of US author Cornell Woolrich.

Woolrich was better known in Europe under his pseudonym of William Irish, and in his work the emphasis is more on the reaction of the characters to unforeseen events and how it affects the plot. This was an antithesis to the tropes of the Golden Age whodunit, and a degree away from the school of hard-boiled knocks and noir.

Woolrich  wrote ‘It Had to be Murder’, a story that was adapted by Hitchcock (in addition, many of his novels and stories were transferred admirably to the screen by Truffaut, Tourneur and a whole bevvy of directors). In that respect, Woolrich became the precursor of the ‘everyman in peril’ genre now chaampioned by such great craftsmen as Harlan Coben and Linwood Barclay.

What still makes Vertigo so compelling is not just the breathless patterns in the way its micro-engineered plot develops, but also the oppressive currents of obsession which characterise the quest undertaken by its hapless cop Scottie Ferguson, played by James Stewart, in his desperate attempts to solve the death of Madeleine, the woman he had been asked to investigate and with whom he had become infatuated, and for which he now feels responsible.

Her later reappearance as Judy and her own obsession about the portrait and persona of Carlotta Valdes form a web of questions and doubts that even border on the supernatural. I defy anyone to watch the film for the first time and not be literally hypnotised, not just by its meticulous plot but also its music, luscious photography and dazzling swirl of colours.

As unfaithful as the final Samuel Taylor script was to the book (there were earlier unsuccessful drafts by Edward Anderson and Alfred Coppel), the French engine of the Boileau-Narcejac volume still forms an indispensable skeleton for Hitchcock’s haunting movie.

One could write pages and more about both the original novel and the movie, and indeed books have done so, both academic and popular, but I urge you just to surrender to the magic of the way words and celluloid merge in sheer perfection. A marriage made in heaven (. . . and hell).

Maxim Jakubowski worked for many years in book publishing as an editor, and launched the Murder One Bookshop, which he owned and ran for over twenty years. He now writes, edits and translates full time in London.