Saturday, October 28, 2023

This Day in Film History (Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ Acclaimed as Masterpiece Upon Re-Release)

Oct. 28, 1983—A quarter century after it underperformed at the box office and three years after the death of Alfred Hitchcock, the director’s moody psychological thriller Vertigo went back out in limited release in the U.S., giving film fans and critics a chance to reevaluate and better appreciate a work that Time Magazine had infamously termed "another Hitchcock-and-bull story."

Vertigo was one of five “missing Hitchcocks” withdrawn by the director from circulation for more than a decade. 

A London Times article in November 1983 offered several reasons for its disappearing act, including that Hitchcock increased the films’ value through their relative scarcity; that his hard-nosed agent had demanded steep prices for their re-release; and that the director and Paramount had faced lawsuits over the years that, in one case, complicated matters further.

Rear Window, re-released a short time before Vertigo’s, at the 1983 New York Film Festival, had been an unexpected financial success, perhaps benefiting in part from nostalgia over the death the year before of its beloved, glamorous co-star, Grace Kelly. Rope (1948) and The Trouble With Harry (1955) represented offbeat departures from Hitchcock’s higher-budget, studio fare. The fifth movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), was a color, big-budget remake of a project Hitchcock first handled before his move to the U.S.

But Vertigo may have benefited the most from the re-release. 

It had only broken even back in 1958, but over the next decade had become something of a cult classic, courtesy of French critics and American film school students about to make waves in the U.S. motion picture industry (perhaps most notably Brian DePalma, whose 1976 Obsession was—take your pick—an homage or a shameless imitation of “The Master of Suspense.”)

In a blog post from earlier this year commemorating the film’s 65th anniversary, I mentioned that Hitchcock attributed the movie’s disappointing box-office returns to the aging appearance of the 50-year-old James Stewart, who was not an age-appropriate co-star for the 25-year-old Kim Novak.

But it’s doubtful that even a more youthful-looking Cary Grant (whom Hitch would soon cast in the considerably more successful North by Northwest) could have made the story of the acrophobic detective Scottie Ferguson and the “haunted” Madeleine Elster credible. 

So little of this film is realistic at all, including several plot developments. The audience had seen like if anything remotely like this before, including its implied necrophilia and downbeat ending.

Twenty-five years later, American filmgoers had seen far more surreal matter onscreen, as well as far more potentially risqué subject matter. 

Oddy enough, some Hitchcock fans would have been better prepared because of the publication of Donald Spoto’s biography of the director earlier that year, The Dark Side of Genius, to detect a case of art preceding life: in both instances, a lonely middle-aged man (Stewart in Vertigo, Hitchcock offscreen in the making of Marnie)  becoming dangerously obsessed with a cool blonde (on film, Novak; offscreen, Tippi Hedren fending Hitchcock in Marnie).

For a decade, Vertigo even managed to upstage Citizen Kane as #1 on the film magazine Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time. For ordinary film fans like me, long after its initial mystification has faded, it bears re-watching continually to see and ponder how Hitchcock continued to disturb us all the way to its astonishing conclusion.

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