Movie Review: Vertigo (1958) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Vertigo
Release Date: May 9, 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company:  Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions

San Francisco police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) pursues a criminal in a rooftop chase that leads to a police officer falling to his death, and Scottie suffering from vertigo due to a fear of heights.  He retires from the police force, but an old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) hires him as a private detective to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who has been behaving strangely.

Scottie tales Madeleine, making a scenic tour of San Francisco sights including the florist, Mission Delores, the Legion of Honor art museum, and the McKittrick Hotel in an old mansion.  She seems to be obsessed with an 19th-century San Francisco woman, Carlotta Valdes who Scottie learns from a local historian had committed suicide at the age of 26 after being cast aside by her wealthy lover.  Elster confirms that Carlotta is Madeleine’s great-grandmother and that he fears Carlotta’s spirit is possessing Madeleine.

Tailing Madeleine to Fort Point beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, he witnesses her jumping into the Bay and jumps in to rescue her.  After she comes to in his apartment, they talk and form a connection.  The next day they start spending time wandering San Francisco together.  Madeleine describes a place from her dreams that Scottie recognizes as a preserved historic site Mission San Juan Bautista.  Believing that visiting may jar her memory and help solve the problems she’s having, Scottie takes Madeleine to the mission.  After kissing and declaring her love, Madeleine runs up the stairs of the church tower.  Unable to pursue her due to vertigo, Scottie watches helplessly as she falls to her death.

Severely traumatized, Scottie spends several months in a sanatorium.  Returning to his normal life, he spots a shop clerk on the street who resembles Madeleine.  He follows her to her hotel apartment, and despite her declarations that she is Judy from Kansas, he insinuates himself into her life.  His obsession builds as he purchases clothing for her that Madeleine wore and bleaches her hair blond.

Scottie makes a stunning realization when Judy dons a necklace that was Madeleine’s and was said to once be Carlotta’s. He drives back to Mission San Juan Bautista and confronts Judy as they climb the tower.  She admits that she worked with Elster in a plot to kill his real wife whose murdered body was actually tossed from the tower.  Knowing that Scottie would not reach the top due to his vertigo meant he’d be the perfect credible witness for their con.  Scottie overcomes his vertigo and he and Judy reach the top of the bell tower where Judy is startled by a nun and falls to her death.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was yet another movie I watched for the first time in my high school film studies class.  I saw it several times but one memorable occasion in college came in while a friend was watching it and observed how Jimmy Stewart never seems to be paying attention to the road in the many scenes where he drives his car.  We had some good laughs about that.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered most of the basic plot points well, if not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

The biggest thing I forgot is that Judy has a flashback to the real Madeleine’s murder and narrates a letter confessing her role in it before reconsidering.  I honestly thought that the revelation of Judy’s involvement as accessory to murder didn’t come until the very end of the movie, which honestly makes more sense from a storytelling perspective.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Casting the affable Jimmy Stewart as the controlling, obsessive Scottie works in that viewers are sympathetic to him even as he is truly awful. Kim Novac does a great job portraying a stiff wealthy woman with a mid-Atlantic accent as Madeleine and then the more working woman Judy.  Her character is really good at improv since she’s almost always playing someone else to deceive Scottie.  The cinematography and colors of the movie are amazing as are the outfits that Edith Head designed for Kim Novac.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the technical brilliance of the movie and how it makes San Francisco its palette may overshadow the fact that this is a slow-moving story with a romance that’s not very credible.  Also, Elster’s plot to kill his wife by hiring Judy to deceive Scottie makes very little sense in retrospect.  So many things had to go right for that plan to come to fruition that seemed needlessly complicated.  Mind you, this movie is still great, it is just not as perfect as I remembered.

Is It a Classic?:

It is a classic, but I think people overrate it when they put it at or near the top of the all-time great movie lists.  I don’t even think it is the best Hitchcock movie.  It is definitely the iconic San Francisco movie, though.

Rating: ****

One More All-Time Favorite Movie Starting With V:

  1. Les Visiteurs

What is your favorite movie starting with V?  What would you guess is my movie for W (Hint: it’s a documentary with a punch!)?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: Chinatown (1974)

Title: Chinatown
Release Date: June 20, 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Production Company: Penthouse | Long Road Productions | Robert Evans Company

I watched this movie with some reluctance as I find Jack Nicholson overrated in that he always plays some variation of the same wiseass character.  I also think Faye Dunaway is not a good actor at all.  But more seriously, this movie is directed by someone who would go on to be a notorious child rapist.  With those reservations in mind, I gave Chinatown the benefit of the doubt.

Much as The Godfather put a New Hollywood spin on the gangster movie, Chinatown attempts to reinvent the film noir detective story.  Nicholson portrays a Los Angeles private detective, Jake Gittes, in the 1930s who typically investigates infidelity cases.  The case he takes as this movie starts is another cheating husband case but leads into a scandal involving the construction of a new aqueduct and the accumulation of land alongside it that will become more valuable when it can be irrigated.

Gittes investigates Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway), the spouse of LA’s water department engineer, and her father, Noah Cross (John Huston), who was the former business partner at a private water company. Only a small part of this movie, at the end, takes place in the neighborhood of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  Instead “Chinatown” is used as a metaphor for the unsolvable mess of a situation that Gittes finds himself trying to unravel.  It’s kind of racist since it’s an all-white cast involved in this mess (the treatment of Asian characters in the movie is stereotypical as well).

I guess Chinatown was a pithier title than Los Angeles Water Rights Scandals, but I found myself deeply intrigued in the subterfuge around bringing water to the city in a desert. The movie is based loosely on the historical California water wars, although they took place 1-2 decades before the movie is set.  A nice touch is that frequent motif of water and the sound of water throughout the movie.

Chinatown is a pretty good movie but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time greats.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Title: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Release Date: June 26, 1973
Director: Peter Yates
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Long before The Departed and several adaptations of Denis Lehane novels made the Boston Crime Movie a cliche, there was The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Unlike most of the movies that I watched for this classic movie project this is not one that’s considered one of the great movies of all time, but I put it on my list because it’s considered one of the great Boston movies of all time.  Having watched it, I think it deserves much wider recognition because it is a powerful, well-acted, well-paced, and well-scripted film.

Unlike more recent Boston Crime Movies, The Friends of Eddie Coyle emphasizes the mundanity of life in the mob.  Doing mob work is work and for Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) it is  – literally and figuratively – a dead end job.  Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s clear from the beginning that Eddie is not much longer for this world, although you do pull for him to some how get out his situation.

Eddie’s job is to get guns for a gang of bank robbers who need fresh weapons for each heist.  He buys them from gun runner Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).  Coyle is also facing a prison sentence for getting caught in New Hampshire with a truck full of stolen liquor and refusing to squeal on who he was working for, the bartender/mob boss Dillon (Peter Boyle).  He asks ATF agent Dave Foley (Richard Jordan) for help with a recommendation to the judge, but Foley expects him to turn informer in return.

At first the movie seems disjointed, with scenes of Eddie, Jackie, Dillon, and Dave going about their business intercut with bank robberies.  But it all comes together brilliantly in the end. As I noted above, this movie emphasizes the mundane, everyday aspects of organized crime.  There’s no glamour here, and there’s actually only a handful of scenes of violence.  But the movie does offer terrific acting, especially Mitchum, who pretty much lives in his role as Eddie.

For Boston lovers, there are a lot of great location shots including familiar spots like City Hall Plaza and the old Boston Garden, where Eddie waxes poetically over Bobby Orr in the most Boston scene ever caught on film.  There are also scenes shot in a no longer extant Back Bay bar that is a platonic ideal of the men’s bars that no longer exist.  And although I can’t confirm, I’m almost certain there’s a scene in the late, lamented Doyle’s Cafe.  Much of the film is set in the suburbs at places like Houghton’s Pond and shopping centers with parking lots filled with big cars and flashy signs.

Bostonian or not, this is a film worth watching.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Title: Sunset Boulevard
Release Date: August 10, 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Since I’ve started my Classic Films project, I’ve watched the best movies from three decades of early Hollywood. The first movie I watched from the 1950s finds Hollywood reflecting on its own history and the dark underbelly of the film industry.  Joe Gillis (Williams Holden) is a struggling screen writer who escapes the repossession men trying to take his car by parking it in the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion on Sunset Boulevard.

Joe discovers that the house is in fact inhabited by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her obsequious butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) living in an elegant decrepitude. Appropriately, Swanson was a silent film star in real life and von Stroheim was an actor and director.  They worked together on Queen Kelly in the late 1920s, a film not released in the United States, but clips of it are seen in Sunset Boulevard as Norma Desmond’s work.

Norma is working on a script for her “return” to Hollywood greatness and hires Joe on the spot to polish the script.  Her offer includes housing in the mansion and Joe accepts what appears to be a plum job to help pay off his debts.  Over time, Norma becomes more controlling of Joe’s life and falling in love with him. Joe feels trapped in the situation as Norma loses her mental faculties.

Gloria Swanson puts in a wonderful over-the-top performance as someone who is always Acting! decades after her career faded away.  Swanson was only 50 years old when this movie was made so it’s ridiculous that she’s constantly referred to as aged, but then again, that is an accurate depiction of Hollywood’s attitude towards older women. Holden is a good straight man for all the weirdness of Swanson and von Stroheim.  Nancy Olson has a great part as a script reader, Betty, who works on writing a script with Joe when he slips away from Norma’s mansion, and is also his love interest.  Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in a scene where Norma returns to the Paramount lot where he treats her with great respect while evading any promises about actually producing her horrible script.

The movie is filmed with the light and shadows of film noir, which is effective even as the movie teeters on the border of comedy and tragedy.  There’s a particularly effective shot of Joe’s body floating in a pool, shot from below, and Wilder’s direction is top notch.  This movie is worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time greats.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)

Title: The Third Man
Release Date: September 1, 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Films

The Third Man is a thriller set in post-World War II Vienna with the city divided in quadrants among the allies and a thriving criminal underground centered on the black market.  American Western novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives after being promised work by an his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime is being buried after being killed in a car crash.

Angered that British Royal Military Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggests that Lime was a criminal, Martins investigates Lime’s death and uncovers evidence that it wasn’t accidental.  He becomes acquainted with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, who was born in Czechoslovakia, but with Lime’s help got a forged Austrian passport to avoid repatriation by the Soviets.

The more Martins investigates, the more he discovers things about the dark side of human nature. The film works as a metaphor for naive, can-do Americans compared with the more world-weary and resigned Europeans. And despite the noir aspects of the film, it also has many moments of humor. The soundtrack is cheerful music played on a zither by Anton Karas  which serves as a wonderful contrast to the shadows and light of the film.

The story is gripping but the cinematography is pure art.  Every shot is perfectly composed against the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, a worn out amusement park, and ultimately the city’s extensive sewers.  The denouement in the sewers is a clinic in light, shadow, and sound in a movie. This is a spectacular movie and I expect will reward repeated viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Notorious (1946)

Title: Notorious
Release Date: September 6, 1946
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures

I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire.  And that’s only the prologue!

Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy.  Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro.  Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.

En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love.  This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes.  Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience.  Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.

Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting.  The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin.  It all leads to a satisfying denouement.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)

Title: The Stranger
Release Date: July 2, 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: International Pictures

This atmospheric film in the film noir style tells the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding among the unsuspecting citizens of a Connecticut town. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I’m surprised that so many of these classic films I’m watching are set there, particularly one with Nazis.  The film begins with Edward G. Robinson (who I liked so much in Double Indemnity) Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission releasing a low-level Nazi named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in hope of leading him to one of the Nazis most notorious masterminds.

In Harper, Connecticut, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) has taken the identity of Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boys academy, and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.  Rankin murders Meinike so that his past identity will not be revealed and attempts to bury his body in the woods.  Wilson stays in the town for several weeks hoping to catch Rankin in a mistake that reveals himself, as well attempting to shake Mary’s faith in her new husband.  The thrill of the movie is less of a “whodunit” than a “how is this going to shake out?”

Billy House is featured in a prominent role as Mr. Potter, the gossipy druggist who comments on the goings-on in the town while playing checkers with his customers (including Wilson and Rankin).  House provides comic relief but his character is also oddly unsettling.  Storywise the script is fairly predictable and dialogue unnatural, but it’s worth watching for the acting, and Welle’s use of light and shadows and long takes.  It’s also remarkable that a fictional film about a Nazi war criminal was completed so soon after the end of the war.  Additionally, it is the first film to include documentary footage of the liberation of concentration camps.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Double Indemnity (1944)

Title: Double Indemnity
Release Date: July 3, 1944
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

When I was a kid, Fred MacMurray always appeared in goofball family films (and the tv series Eight is Enough) as a nice but dimwitted father figure.  I also recall him playing a more serious role in The Caine Mutiny, but generally “starring Fred MacMurray” equaled a bad movie for me.  Well, watching Double Indemnity makes me reevaluate my opinion of MacMurray’s acting skill.  And so much for being a “nice guy,” he’s positively slimy in this movie.

MacMurray plays successful insurance salesman Walter Neff.  On a house call to encourage a client to renew his auto insurance, he instead meets the client’s beautiful wife, Phyllis Dietrichson.  While flirtatiously bantering, Phyllis inquires about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.  Neff initially acts outraged over the implication of murdering her husband for money.  Without too much convincing, though, Neff comes up with a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson killed in way that it looks like an accident on a train, so the plan will pay out double.

The stunning thing about this movie is that although Neff and Phyllis talk about running off together with the money, neither one of them appears to be particularly attracted to the other or interested in the money.  They’re behavior is all the more appalling because they seem to be driven by the desire to commit a murder and get away with it rather than lust or greed.  Everything is cold and calculated.

The best part of this movie is Edward G. Robinson as the claims adjuster Barton Keyes.  Tasked with saving the insurance company from paying out settlements, Keyes is an expert at determining when there’s something wrong with the claims.  Keyes also admires Neff and acts as his mentor and a father figure.  Robinson is brilliant in figuring out the details of how the murder went down while still being blind to the fact that the younger man he admires is the murderer.

Double Indemnity is a groundbreaking progenitor of the film noir genre, and its cinematography and lighting have influenced dozens of subsequent films.  The snappy dialogue is also memorable, much of it provided by crime novelist Raymond Chandler, who made his screenwriting debut, collaborating with the director, Billy Wilder.

Rating: ***1/2