It’s hard to imagine today but Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was considered a disappointment on its original release. Time has been kind and in 2012 the film was voted the greatest of all time in the Sight and Sound critic poll, knocking Citizen Kane off its long-held perch.
There’s a new book out about the film, a collection of writings called Haunted by Vertigo (John Libbey/Indiana University Press, 2021), edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Donal Martin.
Stephen Vagg talked with Sidney Gottlieb about the book.
Tell me about Haunted by Vertigo?
“It’s a collection of essays focusing on the film by Hitchcock that is increasingly judged to be his most accomplished and influential. The contributors approach the film from a variety of perspectives, and that adds to our sense of not only the wide appeal of the film but its always-unfolding substance. The book is written by specialists but is not aimed exclusively for specialists. Hitchcock certainly didn’t aim his films primarily at specialists: he assumed that a general audience would be watching them, and while they are certainly meant to be challenging, they are accessible. The same holds for the essays in this book. Maybe we as specialists are picking up on one of Hitchcock’s own favourite scenarios that he envisioned: people gathering at a refrigerator – he called it an icebox, but I’m not sure everyone these days would know what that means! – to talk about the film by him that they just saw. Our volume is a record of that. And the contributors approach the film from a variety of perspectives: we have an art historian, a classicist, several literary scholars, a filmmaker and theorist, and several cultural historians among others standing around our icebox, and I think that makes for a fascinating conversation.”
Why another book about Vertigo?
“I think that one of the qualities in a great work of art is that it is inexhaustible. And by that I don’t mean just that there is always something new to say. The challenge is not to say something merely new but meaningful. As we look again at Vertigo, in new times and circumstances, and with the help of previous commentaries, we see more in it, and it relates to us, and we relate to it, in new and different ways. We are in dialogue with the film and with the ways it has been received and interpreted. And it’s not only the film that is inexhaustible – its artistry, its attitudes, and perspectives, and so on: the subjects of the film are inexhaustible and dynamic. There are always new things to say about the difficulties of establishing and maintaining intimate relationships, of sorting out the truth, in understanding the temptation (and the realities) of abusive actions, etc. All that is at the heart of Vertigo. Sometimes there’s a suspicion – and insinuation – that critics keep manufacturing “new” things to say just to keep themselves busy, and in business. But serious criticism is motivated by something far more praiseworthy: an attempt to face the new challenges continually offered by important subjects and great works of art, like Vertigo.”
Can you tell us about the process of compiling the book?
“The essays contained in this volume originated as papers presented at the Vertigo 60 Dublin international conference held in September 2018 at Trinity College in Dublin, organised by Donal Martin. This conference was a follow-up to a similar conference held the year before in Dublin, also organised by Donal. In 2017, we gathered for a somewhat overdue celebration of the selection of Hitchcock’s film as “the greatest film of all time” in the Sight & Sound poll held in 2012. And, never at a loss for finding occasions to gather around Vertigo, 2018 was the 60th anniversary of the film’s release. Donal, an astonishingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable lover of Hitchcock in general and Vertigo in particular, set the stage and sent out a call – and we came, scholars from countries far and wide. Both gatherings were very successful, filled with lots of provocative explorations of a film that is itself a provocative exploration, and at the end of the second conference, the consensus was that we all wanted to continue the conversation and share it. To paraphrase Godard, informers inform, burglars burgle, and scholars talk and write. Of course, the idea for a book came up! So, we worked together for nearly two years, turning probing conference papers into even more fully elaborated essays. Double thanks (in the very least) go to the contributors for taking their original presentations, all fascinating and accomplished, to an even higher level.”
When was the first time you saw Vertigo?
“While I was an active filmgoer during the last two decades of Hitchcock’s career. I don’t remember ever seeing one of his films upon its first release. When Vertigo was showing at my local theaters in 1958, I was too busy watching horror films, Jerry Lewis comedies, and other such things. But thankfully, like Scottie himself, I was given a second chance, and like so many others “discovered” Vertigo much later when it was rereleased in the early 1980s.”
What’s the film’s personal connection to you?
“I have to say, it was not a case of love at first sight. It was certainly a case of respect at first sight. I watched and taught the film repeatedly and knew that it was broaching great depths with tremendous insight, power, and complexity. But I felt that in many ways it was beyond me, and I gravitated to Hitchcock films that I somehow felt closer to. Through the years, Vertigo has come much closer to me, especially as think about what it is like to live life as a romantic. When you look up the definition of that very important and complex word, there should be a notation: ‘See Vertigo.’ And when you do see it, pay careful attention not only to Scottie but also to Judy and Midge. Each in their own way is on the spectrum of the romantic.”
Why do you think the film still has such a hold on audiences after all these years?
“Beats the hell out of me! And I’m not particularly comfortable speaking for audiences in general, or even assuming that Vertigo has a hold on everyone. But based on my own experiences of the film, the responses of my students when we watch and analyse it, and reading lots of critical writing on it, some things leap out: What matters in the film still matters to many of us. We, like the characters in the film, are fascinated by the power and paradoxes of love, including its inevitable mix of giving and receiving both pleasure and pain. We are familiar with the mysterious world and experiences of Vertigo that the film portrays so accurately and memorably. And the film is stunningly engaging: we can’t take our eyes (and ears) off it. In those ways – and there are others too – we are, as the title of our volume states directly, Haunted by Vertigo.”
There’s an Australian connection to the film – one of the screenwriters was an Aussie, Alec Coppel. Could you talk a little about that?
“I actually would love to hear from Australians as to whether Vertigo, especially as I’ve just described it, resonates with them; part of the broader question of whether Vertigo haunts people across cultural lines. I suspect so, but would like to hear that discussed. (Perhaps this is another example showing that there’s still lots more to be said about Vertigo!) But as you say, there is a concrete Australian connection to the film. Charles Barr’s essay in the volume emphasises that the film we often identify only with Hitchcock’s name had numerous substantive contributors, including Alec Coppel, who was born in Australia and managed a theater there in addition to his years in England and the US. He was a prolific, accomplished, and very successful writer of plays, TV scripts (including some for Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and film screenplays. As Charles alerts us, Coppel wrote an early script for Vertigo, and deserves far more recognition than he is usually given for his part in the evolution of a film made by many hands. With this in mind, perhaps future revivals of Hitchcock films in Australia can pair Vertigo with Under Capricorn, the one film Hitchcock made set in and about Australia – and these are two haunted and haunting Hitchcock films well worth thinking about together even apart from their Australian connections.”
If someone likes Vertigo what other films could you recommend?
“There is a kind of ‘school of Vertigo’ that includes films influenced directly by Vertigo and ones that focus on similar (or even identical) themes and plots. Mark Osteen’s essay in our volume discusses many of these ‘versions of Vertigo’ and reading his essay sent me out to watch some of the ones that I hadn’t seen or even heard of – like Robert Aldrich’s The Legend of Lylah Clare, which Mark rightly calls a “zombie Vertigo,” and Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace – some more interesting than others. Yes, life is indeed short, and we must manage our attention carefully, but life is long enough to watch lots of films, whether they are masterpieces or not. In terms of films that I would steer people toward, I approach the criterion ‘if you like Vertigo you would also like..’ perhaps a bit idiosyncratically, less concerned with relying on shared specific plot points or techniques than on broader commonalities and impressions. For example, I am haunted by Chinatown in many of the same ways that I am haunted by Vertigo. I don’t know if any Netflix algorithm would lead you from one to the other – but I would!”
What’s the most surprising thing you got out of the book?
“As a result of working for such a long time and so closely with the contributors to the volume, watching their essays develop and reading them repeatedly, I see things in Vertigo, literally and conceptually, that I never saw before. There are significant details and patterns in the film I never noticed before – objects that are far more than incidental background and small movements and expressions that are telling – and this is a testament to Hitchcock’s artistry. And there are new complexities and challenges that are now part of my experience of Vertigo, especially revolving around the equally deep flaws and pathos of the main characters – and this is a testament to Hitchcock’s insight and wisdom. I am genuinely thankful to the wonderful contributors to this volume for bringing this Vertigo to me.”
Haunted by Vertigo can be purchased directly from IUP and at usual book outlets