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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Vertigo

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

As a puzzle focused on movie posters, some of the chosen films or versions of their posters featured on it are not necessarily top notch. None of this can be said about the amazing poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic psychological thriller, Vertigo. The great designer Saul Bass produced a wide array of promotional images for this Hitchcock masterpiece, but the above one sheet version has become one of the most famous and striking posters in film history.

However, Vertigo is much more than a great marketing campaign. The film was worked on by some of the legends of the art form, and it shows. Although the movie’s reputation had gained steadily over the years as film lovers continued to see it over and over, a dramatic million dollar restoration and re-release of Vertigo in 1996 allowed even larger numbers of people to fully appreciate the beauty of Hitchcock and company’s work on it. Despite mixed reviews on its initial release in 1958, it has become one of the standard members of any compiled list of the finest films ever made, and actually replaced the legendary Citizen Kane at the top of Sight & Sound’s 2012 critics list.

Join me below, and we’ll discuss this amazing poster and film. Oh, by the way, there will be enormous spoilers for the movie after the break, so if you haven’t seen Vertigo yet I’d recommend you go take care of that momentous lapse in judgement first and then come back and finish reading this article.

Saul Bass was already a successful designer of title sequences or marketing images for several films before his iconic work on the primary one sheet poster for Vertigo. His work on movies such as Carmen Jones, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Seven Year Itch had already begun to establish some of the signature aesthetics we still associate with the 1950s and 60s. His favored approach to the marketing of films tended to include not just a single poster image, but a complete set of images for a variety of contexts, including magazine ads, lobby cards, inserts, window cards, and a range of different sheet styles. This is true to the point that there were elements to the package that don’t fit in with the iconic one sheet above in the way you’d expect.

Consider this particular lobby card example that pretty clearly is meant to confuse audiences about the identity of the Judy character, even though the film itself doesn’t hold onto this mystery for more than five minutes (I told you there would be spoilers. You have nobody to blame but yourself).

The card is using a photograph as its main image and leaves out the vertigo-type swirl. But it does use the same font as the signature poster and an orange as its dominant color. This is unlike the below magazine ad that appears to be mostly a copy of the primary poster, but with a light blue color instead.

Take a look at the six sheet version of the poster below. It has all of the recognizable elements of the one sheet, but…well, the included silhouette is different isn’t it? I do like it a lot in that it is unclear whether its figures are involved in an embrace or a conflict, which reflects some of the themes and characters in the movie rather than putting the focus on the poorly understood medical condition the film is named for. In contrast, the silhouette we are used to gives the sense that the characters are falling into the unknown.

Bass went on to even more success in the following years, not just in his additional work with Hitchcock on movies like Psycho and North By Northwest, but on movies like Anatomy of a Murder, Spartacus, West Side Story, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Shining, and Goodfellas.

For whatever reason, overseas markets did not use Bass’ beautiful poster design for Vertigo, instead employing a variety of other designs. Check out the French poster below that is certainly pretty sensational.  It’s dramatic, colorful, and features its leads effectively. Only the iconic brilliance of the Bass poster makes this one seem like it isn’t ideal.

But the list of amazing artists working on Vertigo doesn’t end with Hitchcock, Stewart, and Bass. Although the soundtrack for Hitchcock’s Psycho is probably Bernard Herrmann’s most famous composition, his work on Vertigo is at least as compelling, with its mesmerizing string figures and intermittent horns. Listen up.

Hermann is one of the most well-known composers of film scores in the history of the art form, with such classics as Citizen KaneThe Magnificent AmbersonsThe Ghost and Mrs MuirThe Man Who Knew Too MuchNorth By NorthwestCape FearJason and the Argonauts, and Taxi Driver to his name.

Maybe even more legendary is the great costume designer Edith Head, whose career started back in the 1920s, including uncredited work on the first Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings (1927). She is perhaps best known for her work with Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard), dressing Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face), and of course with Hitchcock.

Oh yeah, and she won eight Oscars for her costume designs in films.

It should be no surprise that, in particular, the costumes worn by Kim Novak in Vertigo are so striking and integrated so beautifully into the overall color palette of the film. Consider the first time we see Novak as Madeleine Elster in the film. James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson has been hired by her husband, an old school friend of his, to follow her due to what he sees as her unusual behavior. He is told he can see her for identification at a restaurant called Ernie’s. When we go into Ernie’s with Scottie we discover the whole place is decorated in a rich red…and that the striking and mysterious blonde Madeleine is decked out in a gorgeous green dress that sits directly across from that red on the color wheel.

She stands out before we even see her face.

This same green becomes associated with her at multiple times during the film. Despite the grey suit that draws so much attention from Scottie and indeed the plot later on, it is in a different green outfit that Scottie runs across Judy/Madeleine on the street.

It’s enough of a coincidence to not be a coincidence at all that Scottie even recognizes her with her makeup and hair done so differently, but for her green outfit. The first time I saw Vertigo when I was a teenager I genuinely bought into the idea that Judy was indeed a completely different character. Big props certainly go to Novak for creating two pretty distinct personalities for Madeleine and Judy, but some credit must also go to Head’s wonderful work here.

Hitchcock and his design team even made the choice to let Judy’s entire apartment be bathed with this deep green color through an oppressive neon sign outside her window. This way, even when Judy changes into an intense mauve frock for their dinner, it is drowned out by her true identity as indicated by that green.

Vertigo began as an idea pulled from the French novel D’entre les morts. Hitchcock had attempted to purchase the authors’ previous work, but failed. This time around, he had the rights before the book had even been translated from the original French. Actress Vera Miles, who would later appear in Psycho, was Hitchcock’s original choice to play Madaleine/Judy, but production and health delays ended up pushing the shoot back and by the time they were ready to begin shooting Miles had become pregnant and was no longer available. This led to Kim Novak being loaned to the production if Stewart would then appear with her in Columbia’s supernatural comedy Bell, Book, and Candle (which would be a big influence on the popular television show Bewitched).

One of the big influences enjoyed by Vertigo on the film world was the creation of the “dolly zoom” effect as used in the film to visualize Scottie’s perception of his own acrophobia (fear of heights) as he climbs the mission tower. It is achieved by dollying the camera back while zooming the lens in at the same time. This creates a distortion in scale for the viewer as the size of the far ground appears to change significantly while the contents of the shot remain roughly the same.

Like so.

It seems like a pretty rudimentary shot by today’s standards, but audiences had seen nothing like it when Vertigo was released in 1958.

As one of the most admired American films of all time, there isn’t much to say about Vertigo that hasn’t already been said…but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

During my most recent viewing of the movie I found my sympathies wavering throughout. Obviously, the James Stewart character is our lead, and from the beginning the audience seems to be meant to attach itself to him. After all, he’s played by one of the most likable lead actors Hollywood has ever seen. We witness him experiencing a trauma in the opening scene as a policeman. The people he interacts with appear to like and respect him. But something’s not quite right. His closest current friend is apparently a former lover who still carries a torch for him, and when an old college chum contacts him with a job, it is solely for the purpose of setting him up as a witness to a suicide that is actually a murder. Of course we’re too busy sympathizing with Scottie when he goes mad because he was in love with another man’s wife to notice these things. Hitch and company sure make his mental instability visually arresting.

Despite all of this, I stick with Scottie because, well like I said he’s Jimmy Stewart and he’s our lead. Things start to get rather icky, however, when he insists that his new girlfriend dress up like the dead woman he’s obsessed with who, again, was somebody else’s wife. Even though Judy is, in fact, the version of Madeleine he fell in love with, and she knows this…he doesn’t! He seriously makes the poor woman bleach and style her hair to look like the dead woman because “it can’t possibly matter” to her.

Maybe I was even more sensitive to this part of the story than usual due to the current continued revelations of systemic male control over women and the sickening abuses that go with it, but I found myself sympathizing with an accessory to murder because our leading man was turning out to be such a creep (of course, given some claims about Hitchcock’s own history, maybe he really didn’t get this).

It wasn’t until Scottie figured out the cruel trick that had been played on him that I began to return to seeing things from his point of view at all. This could be argued as evidence of Hitchcock’s mastery in manipulating the audience and I won’t negate that at all. But I will say that my most visceral emotional response to the film this time around was to how Scottie was treating her when he thought she was just some girl he was dating.

Her eventual fall from the same tower where the real Madeleine met her fate seems pretty unjust when we see Stewart simply standing there looking down at the end of the film. Are we to assume that he will fall into madness again as his own form of punishment? As great as Vertigo is, I’d be hard pressed to expect a modern female audience to swallow this ending. Not to mention that the reason she falls (she is startled by a nun stepping out of the shadows) seems comically arbitrary.

None of this means that Vertigo isn’t a fantastic film, however. Some of it actually supports that conclusion, and the still stunning design, effects, and camera work make it the sort of thing any fan of film as an art form simply must see.

I’d love to see opinions in the comments section.

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Posted on October 17, 2017, in Analysis, Movies, Music, reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Vertigo is one of my favorite movies. I know I have talked about this experience before, but I will do so once more here. When I was a junior in high school, there was an art-house movie theater that became a regular hangout for me. I went at least once or twice a week. I discovered the place when a friend invited me to a Hitchcock film festival. Looking back, it could not have been a better introduction to the director. I forget how long it lasted, but we crammed in Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds and Marnie. (Psycho was conspicuously absent, but I caught up with it eventually.)

    The first time I saw Vertigo, I fell for the Judy/Madeleine switch too. I was probably too young to fully appreciate the movie at the time, but I recognized the superiority of the craft on display. Of all the movies we had seen in the retrospective, Vertigo was among my two or three favorites (I really liked Notorious as well.) Over the years of watching it and reading about Hitchcock, I have come to appreciate the movie on a deeper level and how it parallels the director’s desire to control the pretty blondes he cast in his movies. It is pretty dang icky. And with all the talk of Weinstein these days, I have been thinking back to Hitchcock quite a bit. That’s a different conversation, but I’m glad you touched on it here.

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    • I honestly didn’t think of the Weinstein connection until I had already written pretty much the whole article almost as it stands. I had even “previewed” it to make sure the visuals were coming across the way I wanted them to. When it occurred to me, I quickly added a version of the parenthetical message you’re referring to and left it at that. For some reason I woke up more than 2 hours earlier than I really needed to this morning and the issue was nagging at me, so I just went ahead and got up to see if I could find out something more definitive than what I already knew. Unfortunately, after about an hour and a half of on line research on the topic, I had learned a lot about it without getting anything close to a clear cut affirmation or negation of what Tippi Hedren in particular has alleged. I generally keep the practice of believing women who say they were harassed or assaulted, but I also believe in requiring proof for important claims. I was left not being sure what to believe and ended up just adding three words to the parenthetical as it stood. I doubt most readers would notice the difference, but the new version suits me better than the original.

      That’s an amazing festival to get to experience! I’d love to see something like that around here!

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      • I thought you hit just the right note by tying into current events. Readers who are so inclined can easily find the information and make up their own minds.

        I really miss “The Movies” – the name of the downtown theater I frequented. It was a little hole in the wall which was part of its charm. Shortly after, they did a Woody Allen month where I discovered Annie Hall, Manhattan, Love & Death and I forget which other titles but a good chunk of his early filmography. Fortunately, I believe Allen remains scandal free… 😉

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