Considered the greatest film of all time Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo was not taken very seriously at all when it first came out in 1958. Had we been covering it — or were it opening today — it would be chewed to pieces. This should give SOME comfort to filmmakers whose films were misunderstood by critics of that time but were rediscovered later as their resonance outlasted that early criticism.
It also is a good reminder of how unimportant it becomes, over time, to judge a film whether Oscar voters will go for it or not. I feel culpable in helping to build this ugly beast but now, when I go to read commentary on Gone Girl, I almost always read people saying things what the Academy will or won’t do, measuring success with yet another barometer. Let’s see, the gauntlet is as follows:
Get the movie made – almost impossible. The money, the international bankability, the money, the time, the money. One fight after another. Years and years go by – and finally the film gets made. Then you have to:
1. worry about opening weekend. Did it pass or fail! Oh my god, did John and Jane Popcorn shell out what remains of their income to actually go to the movies? Did teen boys go? Tell me, did the 13 year-olds turn out? Did women go? Women were our target demo cause you know, they like “airport reading.” Did the women pull themselves away from Kim Kardashian’s Instagram long enough to go out to a movie that wasn’t necessarily a romantic comedy?
2. The gauntlet of YELP in place of actual film criticism. Vertigo had about three or four reviews to deal with, plus Hitchcock fans. Movies now? A twitter tsunami of amateur box office analysts (CINEMASCORE!!), the social justice bloggers, the old school critics who still command authority and influence dozens of those beneath them and then the awards analysts. Everyone is one now. And everyone holds their breath to SEE WHAT THE ACADEMY IS GOING TO DO?!!!
3. It gets made. It makes money. It barely squeaks by the amateur professionals online. It earns a pretty decent B Cinemascore and opens the weekend, showing it has good word of mouth and legs. Wait, the social justice bloggers are saying it’s misogynist — wait, no, it’s feminist. Wait no it’s none of those things it’s just a hollow pointless amalgam of crafts with nothing whatsoever to think about. It’s an airport movie! A popcorn movie. The Academy will NEVER GO FOR IT IN A MILLION YEARS.
By the end of it, everyone is looking at each other like they just did eight rounds of cocaine off a hooker’s thigh in a pink motel on San Fernando road. The high has worn off. The jiz long since dried up and brushed away. All that’s left is awkward conversation and mild confusion: what just happened there?
But back in 1958, things were very different. Perhaps the end result will be the same — a couple of tech nods and a happy consensus that gave Gigi the clean sweep!
Back in 1958, Vertigo came out amid much gossip surrounding the decision to cast Kim Novak over Vera Miles. Hitchcock was known as a box office king, not yet an auteur. People went to his movies for thrills and chills, not for Gigi-like deep thought. Thus, the movie didn’t hold muster with some critics, like Variety and the LA Times.
“Vertigo” is prime though uneven Hitchcock and with the potent marquee combination of James Stewart and Kim Novak should prove to be a highly profitable enterprise at the box-office.
Miss Novak, shopgirl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock’s direction and nearer an actress than she was in either “Pal Joey” or “Jeanne Eagles.”
But the best quote is this:
Unbilled, but certainly a prime factor in whatever success film may have, is the city of San Francisco, which has never been photographed so extensively and in such exquisite color as Robert Burks and his crew have here achieved.
Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery.
Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored with the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the Alec Coppel-Samuel Taylor screenplay (from the novel “D’entre Les Morts” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground.
Frisco location scenes – whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie’s restaurant, Land’s End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista – are absolutely authentic and breathtaking. But these also tend to intrude on story line too heavily, giving a travelogueish effect at times.
Despite this defect, “Vertigo” looks like a winner at the boxoffice as solid entertainment in the Hitchcock tradition.
1958: Nominations: Best Art Direction, Sound
The funny thing about that review is that he (or she) isn’t wrong. It’s merely that, over time, those so-called defects are forgiven to make way for the riches the film really does have to offer.
It’s difficult to find many reviews about Vertigo but there is also this one from Bosley Crowther, an opening paragraph that could have easily been written about Gone Girl:
YOU might say that Alfred Hitchcock’s latest mystery melodrama, “Vertigo,” is all about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame, the fellow being an ex-detective and the dame being—well, you guess. That is as fair a thumbnail digest as we can hastily contrive to give you a gist of this picture without giving the secret away. And, believe us, that secret is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched, that we wouldn’t want to risk at all disturbing your inevitable enjoyment of the film.
His review is quite positive, though nowhere in it would you ever, in a million years, know that it would one day be considered by over 200 film critics to be the best film of all time, followed closely by Citizen Kane.
The Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot “too long” and felt it “bogs down” in “a maze of detail”; scholar Dan Aulier says that this review “sounded the tone that most popular critics would take with the film”
Also from Wikipedia, again which echoes what people are saying about Gone Girl and Fincher’s work:
Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the film left to go.
Orson Welles disliked the film, telling his friend the director Henry Jaglom that the movie was “worse” than Rear Window, another film that was not a favorite of Welles’s.
In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favourite films, with some reservations. Hitchcock blamed the film’s failure on Stewart, at age 50, looking too old to play a convincing love interest for Kim Novak, who at 25 was half his age
Whether the reviews sunk the movie or the fans were “disappointed” with Hitchcock’s change in tone, the film did not make as much money as Hitchcock’s other films, apparently, which is where the Vertigo/Gone Girl comparison stops. Gone Girl IS making money. Lots of it.
The 1958 Oscars came nowhere near honoring Vertigo, as it was considered to be what many are dismissing Gone Girl as – a “popcorn movie.”
The sad lament is, of course, Gone Girl has women in it! It’s about a woman! And in 1958 there were lots of movies about women in the Oscar race for Best Picture: Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Separate Tables and the only one that could be considered an all male joint, The Defiant Ones. Contrast that to 2014.
So you’ll shriek your fists furiously and and say “I know Vertigo and Gone Girl is no Vertigo.” I completely agree. They are very different films but the reception to them is quite similar. My question to you is, how can you possibly know whether any film is any good or not when Vertigo was this misunderstood and this revered now?
When you judge a film, any film, on its Oscar prospects it immediately takes a nose dive. If it will appeal to Oscar voters it’s written off as cheap Oscar bait and not respected by critics. If it’s popcorn entertainment, suddenly the Academy has such good taste they would not deign to reward such a thing. And indeed, perhaps there was nothing “important” about Vertigo. And perhaps there is nothing “important” about Gone Girl.”
Now, Gigi. There’s an “important” movie.