AFI #9: Vertigo

james-stewart-vertigo-thumb-400x230-32546Vertigo is the fourth and final Alfred Hitchcock film in the AFI top 100, and of the four I’d rank it as the second best behind North by Northwest, which is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and #55 on the AFI list. For the record, my favorite Hitchcock film is To Catch a Thief, which is not on the AFI list

Vertigo is a solid thriller, with an incredible twist that catches most viewers off guard. The film is almost always included by reviewers as one of the best American films ever made and some even suggest it is the best American film ever. I don’t know what film those people watched, but like a lot of films it likely gets better the more you think about it afterward. I did some reading about the film after viewing it last night to see what all the fuss was about, and much of it centers on the themes rather than the plot. In that retrospect, and in an Academic sense, the film does indeed deal with several key issues not the least of which is society’s manipulation of and abuse of women. Vertigo centers on John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retired cop who unbeknownst to him is set up by an old college buddy to play a role in a crime. Of course, the crime is perpetrated upon a woman and even after the deed is done Scottie himself takes advantage of a woman’s love to its sordid and unfortunate conclusion. Even the subplot, the suicide of a woman 100 years earlier, is misogynistic. The film is all about the manipulation and destruction of women!

Which brings us to Mr. Hitchcock himself. Some critics believe Vertigo is a self-analysis of Hitchcock himself, with the Jimmy Stewart character as Hitchcock. If so, is Hitchcock self-aware of his misogyny or is the film a critique of those who criticize him? I’m not sure, but there is certainly a lot written about it on the Internets. One thing that is clear is that in many of Hitchcock’s films his lead female characters are icy cold women to whom bad things happen. This is clearly the case in Vertigo with the demise of both Madeleine and Judy and god only knows what Hitchcock is trying to say about manipulative women with the mother in Psycho! I’ll give him this much, he sure knows how to pick gorgeous women to star in his films. Kim Novak is stunning in Vertigo (both playing Judy and Madeleine) and I gushed about Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. But without question his most beautiful star, and for my money one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, is Grace Kelly who not only stars in Rear Window but is also the star of To Catch a Thief and Dial M For Murder.

So, what is Hitchcock’s legacy relative to the AFI top 100? His four films on the list is the top performance by a director, so does that make him the best American director according to AFI? I’d say several directors have had better single films, but it’d be hard to argue that Hitchcock didn’t have the greatest portfolio of films ever. My personal opinion is that he’s easily one of the top 10 best directors ever, though I wouldn’t put him at number one. That place is reserved for Martin Scorsese in my book, followed by Woody Allen and Spike Lee. But that’s an argument for another blog post!

Next up: Schindler’s List

AFI #14: Psycho

psychoPsycho is the third of four Alfred Hitchcock films on the AFI Top 100 list, joining North By Northwest (No. 55), Rear Window (No. 48) and Vertigo (No. 9). I am certainly a Hitchcock fan, but I’m not as huge fan of Psycho. I’d seen it before and watching it again yesterday it felt a little dated and suffers from something that a lot of the films in this list suffer from — its reputation is better than the film itself. This has been a common theme for me on this journey. Films that are supposed to be American classics or “great” turn out to be dull, dated or flat-out bad. Psycho is a good film, but it’s not worthy of being #14 on this list and in my humble opinion it’s not even among Hitchcock’s best.

I think Psycho definitely has a place in film history, being perhaps the first successful and critically well received “horror” films. And it definitely deserves credit for its disturbing matricide theme and Anthony Perkins’ terrific portrayal of Norman Bates. Perkins set the standard for the “psycho” character and he plays it so quietly and internally that it will live on as one of the best film characters ever created. Unfortunately for Perkins he was never able to move beyond Norman Bates and the typecast despite clearly being a promising young actor. That being said, I suppose most actors would be thrilled to leave a legacy like Norman Bates.

But in terms of entertainment I really wasn’t that impressed. I am a huge fan of North By Northwest and To Catch a Thief. Vertigo and Rear Window are just ok for me, but I can definitely say I liked all of those films more than Psycho. That being said, you have to give Hitchcock credit for the creation of Norman Bates and for giving us the shower scene, which had people across the world afraid to get wet for years and has been stolen in tribute on many occasions. Few film fans will ever forget those two legacies.

I also have a bone to pick with the ending. The film should have ended with Bates’ arrest. Instead, Hitchcock takes us to the police station where the psychiatrist comes out of his interview with Bates and then tells us the whole story of how Bates ended up the way he did. The whole scene isn’t needed. It was patronizing to have someone explain the plot to us at the end — we got it without the narrative. He killed his mother and brought her back to life through his psychosis and related actions. I like it better when the  film goer is left to explore the themes on his or her own following a film. Makes for great after film dinner conversations!

Next: Star Wars

AFI #48: Rear Window

The second Alfred Hitchcock film so far on the AFI Top 100, Rear Window stars Jimmy Stewart as a professional photographer who is laid up with a broken leg with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors out his window. When he thinks his a neighbor has killed his wife he tries to put together the story along with his girlfriend, his nurse and a detective friend. The result is really less of a suspense film and more of a commentary on society.

In terms of suspense the film is a little slow and not nearly as action packed as other Hitchcock films like Psycho, North By Northwest or The Birds. But I enjoyed it for its statement about human nature. Stewart’s character Jeff watches over his neighborhood and judges each neighbor. There is “Miss Lonelyhearts” who dines with imaginary friends, and the songwriter who struggles with his art but throws parties with lots of people. There are the newlyweds and of course “Miss Torso” who dances around in her underwear and appears to have many men chasing after her. But of course Jeff becomes obsessed with the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, who slaves over his ill wife until one strange night she seems to have disappeared. Jeff watches Thorwald’s strange behavior and rushes to the judgement that he has killed his wife.

Frankly I’m not sure why Rear Window is considered a great film by so many, including the AFI. Aside from the interesting characters in the apartment complex it’s a pretty silly film, especially the end in which Thorwald goes a little crazy. The whole premise that Thorwald would kill his wife with the shades open and then continue to prance about his apartment packing up her belongings is far-fetched. So too is his reaction when Jeff lets him know that he is on to his scheme. Thorwald’s behavior is so unbelievable that it borders on ridiculous.

On the other hand, Jimmy Stewart does a nice job as Jeff. His character has the best lines (along with the sharp-witted nurse). On top of that, any film with the gorgeous Grace Kelly is worth watching. Still, Jeff doesn’t seem to want to marry Grace so he’s really not that bright after all.

Next Up: A Streetcar Named Desire

AFI #55: North by Northwest

Few would argue that Alfred Hitchcock is the best director never to win an Academy Award. Why he never received the Oscar is beyond me, perhaps it was because he was British, or because he dealt almost exclusively in the much maligned suspense genre, or maybe it was because he had so much success in television. Regardless, one can’t argue with his importance to the motion picture business and if he was ever going to win an Oscar in my opinion it should have been for North by Northwest.

North by Northwest has it all — suspense, intrigue, great characters, witty and smart dialogue and that wonderful Hitchcock style. I may of course be biased since Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors, but he is superb in this film as an advertising man who is mistaken for a spy and ends up on the adventure of a lifetime. The Shakespearian plot even ends with a marriage as it were between the leading man and the leading lady, an absolutely stunning Eva Maria Saint.

Hitchcock has given us so many iconic moments and there are two in this film — the scene in which Grant is being chased down by a crop duster and of course the climactic chase scene on the face of Mount Rushmore. Grant is ever so smooth even as a “bumbling” ad man who stumbles into danger. And of course he gets the girl, even though he’s 20 years her senior at the time of the shooting. Only in the movies would a 55 year old man marry a 35 year old woman (who oh by the way was playing a 20-something woman in the film). But I suppose he is quite debonair and it was the late 50s after all. Grant made four films with Hitchcock, including my favorite Hitchock film To Catch a Thief. All told Hitchcock made close to 60 films including some of the greats like Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder and so many more. Four of his films made the AFI Top 100 list including two in the top 15 in Vertigo and Psycho. He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar six times but he never won, although Rebecca won Best Picture in 1940 (yet didn’t make the AFI Top 100).

What’s your favorite Hitchcock film?

Next: M*A*S*H