Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some thoughts on Jimmy Stewart, perverts, the mysteries of arm acting, and what, should it need repeating, is still one of the all time greats

The name of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s novel upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was based is D’entre les morts. As splendid as Hitchcock’s title was, an accurate description of the condition which afflicts both the film’s protagonist and its unsuspecting audience, Boileau and Narcejac’s evoking of the charnel house with the best-whispered words From Among the Dead so exquisitely capture the tone of what must be one of the most genuinely morbid movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

Curiously, Vertigo is also arguably among the best movies ever made, period, its goulishness absolutely matched by a sublime level of craftsmanship on display. From Saul Bass’ incisive opening credit sequence, text slashing across a looming eye like some sly wink to Buñuel's surgery in Un chien andalou (29), through the desperate, white knuckled roof-jumping prelude, through the unfolding of the haunted attraction of acrophobic detective ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) to doomed beauty Madeline Elster (Kim Novak) and the helpless, headlong tumble into psychological and moral collapse that follows, Hitchcock and company place us under a long, fevered trance, incited by Robert Burks’ pulsating Technicolor photography and guided by Bernard Hermann’s score, a thrilling, complex work of art in its own right, punctuated by those tremendous foghorn blasts from the netherworld.

This Sunday, the kind folks at Edmonton's Metro Cinema will screen Vertigo along with Hitchcock’s other most revered collaboration with Stewart, Rear Window (54), a movie that when placed in virtually any other double feature would be considered the residing masterpiece. A murder mystery involving a wheelchair-bound photographer spying on his neighbours, it is in fact more fun than Vertigo while still playfully incorporating similarly obscure impulses into its narrative, this time casting Stewart as a voyeur rather than a necrophile.

For all the praise rightfully heaped on both of these films, it’s often been suggested that Stewart was a poor choice for such shadowy, morose material. This proposal has been articulated most recently by Devin McKinney in the current issue of The Believer, where he argues that Henry Fonda should have played Scottie, for a variety of reasons both attributed to his talents and his tragic personal life. Yet watching his performances you get the sense that Hitchcock found something irresistibly delicious in subverting Stewart’s iconic wholesomeness and peculiarly American optimism into a weary façade disguising a catalogue of repressed perversions. Indeed, there are moments in Vertigo where Stewart's relative blankness of expression appears to me not as an actor's resignation to material beyond his abilities, but as a sort of mask, a defense against a mounting inner horror. Whether or not this was Stewart's intention finally matters little -the effect is striking, even with repeated viewing.

(Admittedly, while his face gives me no problems, I have always wondered about the weird way Stewart's arms always seem to be dangling limply in Vertigo, always functioning primarily from the elbow down. There should be a special study done on the arm acting of American movie stars, and it should begin by analyzing the bizarre poses Bogart holds every time he gets up in The Petrified Forest (33). He holds his arms stiffly, elbows-out, like he's in traction or something. Don't get me wrong, I adore Bogey in the film, but really, what the hell is with that?)

Likewise, Novak is admittedly not of the same elevated stature of many of Hitchcock’s stars. Yet (and I say this with, you know, respect) the whiff of trashiness that lingers around her persona, especially -and purposefully- apparent in Vertigo’s second half, is so utterly perfect for conveying the banal horror inherent in the story, the pathos of Scottie's need to project his fantasy upon her, that I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, especially the lovely and elegant Grace Kelly, Stewart’s love interest in Rear Window.

When regarding films as rich and obsessed over as these, film-lovers can of course debate the balance of merits, deficiencies and accidents endlessly. What’s absolutely essential is that you see these films, especially on the big screen, where the spell they cast takes full effect. Don’t miss your chance.

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