This week, an array of scholars on Alfred Hitchcock descend on Dublin for a one-day conference to celebrate the director’s masterpiece at Vertigo: The Greatest Film Ever Made?
Paul Farren talked to one of the speakers, Professor Charles Barr, ahead of the event about what makes Vertigo such a unique film in the history of Hollywood.
You’ve written a book on Vertigo yourself for the BFI – so you’re coming at the film from a particular angle.
Yes – I have my own particular angle on Vertigo and on Hitchcock. I think one of the key things about Hitchcock is that he spans film history in a particular way – firstly, he was a key figure at the two turning points in film history: one of them is the conversion to synchronised sound when he made Blackmail; he was there pioneering the aesthetic commercial possibilities of sound cinema. And then you jump 30 years and he is the key figure really in the transition from classical cinema to post-classical cinema with that extraordinary trio of films: North by Northwest, that archetypal, glamourous celebration of the pleasures of classical cinema; then Psycho, moving into a completely new kind of era, new subject matter, new aesthetics; and then Vertigo, spanning the two, being so beautiful and romantic and glamourous and at the same time undercutting the pleasures of classical cinema.
On the day, you are the first speaker with your paper “Why Vertigo?” – can you give us a little preview?
Basically, I’ll set the scene for the day and remind people of the way in which the critical status of Vertigo has changed over the years. It wasn’t received with enormous enthusiasm at the time and now, suddenly along with Citizen Kane, it’s almost the flagship film for the whole of commercial cinema.
Indeed, it recently replaced Citizen Kane at the top of the Sight & Sound poll of the 50 Greatest Films of All Time.
Yes it did, if you believe in these things. Dee Martin [Festival Director] has provocatively called the event ‘Vertigo: The Greatest Film Ever Made?’. That may be a cause for debate but it certainly has that status in a sense of the most celebrated in film history.
It was a long time coming. It was the French who tended to reassess American cinema and were the first to appraise it from an artistic point of view rather than an entertainment point of view. But that’s as late as 1968 – 10 years after the film was made.
The French did actually welcome Vertigo when it first came out. They certainly responded more positively than the Americans did.
I can remember that for quite a long time you couldn’t see Vertigo because, for contractual reasons, it was not available. For a long time, you could only see it in a 16mm black-and-white print – imagine seeing it for the first time in black and white . It wouldn’t make as much impact. Plus it’s 16mm, which is quite a ropy, domestic projection. And then, for contractual reasons , his estate held back a number of his films for 8 or 10 years I think it was. That helped to create a mystique around two of them especially, Vertigo and Rear Window. Then they were re-released, they lived up to the expectations – obviously, because they were such incredibly crafted films.
Why, in your opinion, is Vertigo seen as the greatest film?
On the one hand, it is a supremely romantic and beautiful film. Beautiful colours, a beautiful woman at its centre, wonderful locations. It’s a seductive and beautiful film, which gives you visual pleasure and at the same time it undermines all that. It brings you face to face with the romantic self-deception of the man – the every-man figure – so it gives you the pleasure of classical romantic narrative while it also absolutely pulls the rug out from all that pleasure by disillusioning the main character and disillusioning the spectator. And it leaves you at the end with this completely empty figure – so you have it both ways… Hitchcock has it both ways. He gives you the pleasure and he shows you the mechanics behind it and the hollowness of it and the romantic self-deception. It’s that balance, that fluctuation, between the two. As opposed to something like North by Northwest, which is an absolutely wonderful film but is much more simple – you have the romantic ending and everybody goes away happily rather than torn it two. Vertigo tears you in two.
People say it’s about obsession – but it’s as much about illusion, and I think Hitchcock is happy to punish us for having illusions…
In my little booklet on Vertigo, I have 4 chapters: the first is obsession, the second is construction, then illusion and then revelation – so we are definitely singing from the same song sheet.
Date: Thursday 14 September 2017
Conference Venue: Central Hotel Dublin, Exchequer Street.
Film Screening Venue: Lighthouse Cinema Dublin @ 5.30pm
Conference Tickets: €30 / Concession Rate €25 (Price includes film screening at Lighthouse Cinema)
Tickets on sale at the Conference reception area in the Central Hotel from 8.45am on Thursday 14 September.
For more details visit: www.vertigogreatestfilm.com/