There is this line in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995): “The movie never changes. It can't change. But every time you see it, it seems different because you're different.” In that movie the character makes this statement while watching Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ (1958). And perhaps that line is my defence as I recommend it as a must-watch here, only after my third viewing of the film. I had watched ‘Vertigo’ for the first time in 2008. My second viewing of the movie was last year, when I showed it to my students as the first movie in their course. By that time I had started the ‘Must Watch’ section on this blog, but did not recommend it in that list. A few days ago, I watched it for the third time. And I could not stop myself from doing this – ‘Vertigo’ in my opinion is a must-watch-before-you-die film!
In 2008, I was discovering Alfred Hitchcock. I remember the shiver I felt down my spine while watching several of his films. ‘Vertigo’ has been my favorite Hitchcock film ever since. Apart from his usual brilliance with suspense and crime psychology, this film had a touch of the supernatural to it. Until about mid-way into the film, things are shrouded in such an intriguing mystery that you can’t blink an eye-lid. If you are watching it for the first time, you can’t be affected by anything other than its supremely engaging story-line.
During my second watch, since I already knew the story, my focus was on the craft – the narrative structure, the shot design, the performances, etc. It only strengthened my opinion of it as a great film. I was not surprised that this film commonly featured in top-ten movies lists. I was not surprised that it was regarded as a work of art, despite being a commercially viable and widely accessible film. I was not surprised that despite having watched eighteen other films by Hitchcock, and several of which were great, this remained my favorite film by him. But I could not recommend it as a must watch.
This time, during my third watch, I felt something I had never felt. Throughout the length of the film, I felt sad – for Scottie, the protagonist. I felt a helplessness I had never felt before. ‘Vertigo’ is one of the most powerful tragedies written on film. And its portrayal of a man’s unfortunate obsession with things beyond his control is one of the most devastating portrayals of the weaknesses of the human mind. Once you know what the film is about, and you are no more limited by the more powerful elements of the story and design, you get to go deeper into the psychology of the characters. Since these are the characters you are now familiar with, there is an obvious sense of familiarity. And then, when you see them being trapped into their own obsessions, completely ignorant of their results, you feel helpless. You can’t do anything to change their destiny, and can only wait for the heartbreaking resolution you are only too aware of.
I wonder if the Almighty, if there is one, feels the same about us. Being aware of our destinies, does He feel helpless too as we move unknowingly toward an end we can never imagine? Or does He feel a sense of sadistic pride in watching something He created and manipulated, as the worlds of helpless men crumble down with His command? Did Sir Alfred feel the same?