‘A completely unbelievable story told with such a spellbinding logic that you feel the same thing could happen to you tomorrow’: this was Alfred Hitchcock’s description of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It could equally apply to Vertigo, a tall story about a detective (James Stewart) who becomes the dupe of an elaborate murder plot involving an old college friend (Tom Helmore) and his mysterious wife (Kim Novak). At the beginning of the film, Stewart has a vertigo seizure that leaves him clinging for life whilst yearning for oblivion; and this sets up the swoops and falls of the film’s physical and emotional landscape. The narrative spirals rather than develops, and Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous score weaves an incredible web of yearning, as love and hate, life and death contend for supremacy. James Stewart’s extraordinary performance represents masculinity at its most tormented and oppressive; and, with unbearable poignancy, Kim Novak projects femininity at its most alluring yet vulnerable. Dismissed on its first release as a botched suspense thriller, Vertigo is now widely recognised as a masterpiece of romantic obsession. It is Hitchcock at his most personal, profound, perverse and poetic: how could it not be one of the greatest films ever?
François Truffaut’s favourite of all Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is a spy story without violence but with uncommon emotional intensity. The daughter of a convicted Nazi (Ingrid Bergman) is recruited by an FBI agent (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a nest of Nazi sympathisers in post-war Rio, particularly through exploiting her attraction to their leader (Claude Rains). Hitchcock’s thriller technique is flawless, particularly at moments such as the famous crane shot that starts at the top of a balcony and ends on a stolen key concealed in Bergman’s hand, or a scene of high tension organised around a drugged cup of coffee. Yet the main suspense comes through the tormented relationships and from whether the central couple can break through their neurotic uncertainties about each other to a (literally) life-saving understanding. Scripted with superb economy by Ben Hecht, the film’s plot moves with implacable logic to the moment when a locked car door becomes a death sentence; and espionage becomes a metaphor for the kinds of betrayal and deceit that poison all communication, personal or political. As the ostensible villain, Claude Rains is, perversely, all aching sincerity, whereas the supposed hero, Cary Grant has a dark cynicism that chills the blood, the actor’s impeccable timing giving his wounding words an extra twist of the knife. No actress suffered more exquisitely for love on screen than Ingrid Bergman and this is her noblest, most courageous performance. Hitchcock might have been the Master of Suspense, but Notorious added another dimension to his creative personality: artist of erotic anguish.
‘Will he kiss me or kill me?’ was the original poster tagline for Spellbound, showing an apprehensive Ingrid Bergman in the arms of a preoccupied Gregory Peck, who is holding Bergman with one hand and an open razor with the other. It is a familiar dilemma for a Hitchcock heroine. Here Bergman’s psychiatrist has fallen for Peck’s doctor, who is a suspected murderer and amnesiac with recurrent nightmares that hold the clue to his past and identity. Hollywood had at this time only recently discovered Freud, and although Hitchcock tended to dismiss the film as ‘just another manhunt picture wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis’, it is a pointer to future Freudian themes and the proximity of film to dream in his work that will culminate in such masterpieces as Vertigo and Marnie. With a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali and a sumptuous Oscar-winning Miklos Rozsa score, this was Hitchcock’s biggest hit of the 1940s and has many audacious visual flourishes: fork-lines on a linen table-cloth that will trigger Peck’s trauma; a succession of opening doors as the couple first kiss; and a fine scene in a white bathroom where Peck, enacting the fear that roams Bergman’s subconscious, discovers the terror that can lurk in everyday objects. As the love-smitten analyst who turns dream-detective, Ingrid Bergman contributes many lovely touches and she is finely supported by some eccentric characterisation, notably from Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton) as her psychology professor. ‘Good night and happy dreams,’ he says to the honeymoon couple, before adding mischievously, ‘which we will analyse at breakfast.’