Hitchcock's Acrophobic Vision

By Turner, George | American Cinematographer, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Hitchcock's Acrophobic Vision


Turner, George, American Cinematographer


Sir Alfred and director of photography Robert Burks, ASC carried suspense to new heights in Vertigo.

Witty, rotund and very British, Alfred J. Hitchcock was one of fewer than a handful of movie directors whose name actually meant something to the public. Besides specializing in suspense, a typical Hitchcock picture offered beautiful women, Puckish humor, a prolonged chase and some strategically placed shocks. There were also Hitchcock pictures that were not typical. In the forefront of these is Vertigo.

Hitchcock earned his title of "Master of Suspense" in England during the Thirties. His pictures were well liked in the United States even then, when British films in general were poison at the box office. After coming to America in 1939, the director became increasingly more popular. However, long before 1957, when Hitchcock made Vertigo, his virtual immunity from criticism had dissipated. A picture in the familiar Hitchcock style brought accusations of producing "the same old stuff," but with any deviation the same cynics advised him that "the shoemaker should stick to his last." Caught in a no-win situation, Hitchcock alternated his traditional thrillers with some daring departures, such as the 1949 costume drama Under Capricorn, the "real-time" experiment Rope, the all-in-fun The Trouble With Harry (1956) and the all-grim and no-fun The Wrong Man (1957). That he had lately become a popular TV personality further eroded his position with critics even as it firmed his hold on the public.

Vertigo is definitely off the beaten track for Hitchcock or anyone else, but like most of his pictures it uses one of his many phobias to induce terror. Its basis was a French novel, D'entre les Morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose earlier Les Diaboliques had become a hit movie directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Preproduction work began in October 1956 at Paramount's Hollywood studios. Playwright Maxwell Anderson, author of Winterset and Key Largo, had been secured to write the adaptation. Before the end of the year, Anderson, who had changed the title to Darkling I Listen, delivered a script too arty, poetic and pretentious to film.

Prior to undergoing surgery for colitis and a hernia in mid-January, Hitchcock, on advice from Paramount's head office, assigned British author Alec Coppel to write a new screenplay. The result, Hitchcock decided, was also unfilmable. On the advice of Kay Brown, a longtime story editor for David O. Selznick, the director hired Samuel Taylor, a San Francisco native who had written the twice-filmed Broadway success, Sabrina Fair.

Hitchcock was brilliant at concocting individual scenes for a picture, but was unable to visualize the necessary connective tissue. He wanted Vertigo to take place in San Francisco because of its precipitous streets, unusual architecture and palpable atmosphere of mystery. He envisioned the mysterious leading lady, blonde and dressed in grays and white, as being almost a part of the city's fog. Other Northern California locations and many dramatic highlights were also firmly in his mind.

Suspecting rightly that Hitchcock already knew what he wanted, Taylor wrote the new screenplay from scratch, without consulting either the novel or the other scripts, but working closely with Hitchcock. The two went to the locations to be used, absorbing the atmosphere and working out details. The resulting version, which was called From Amongst the Dead during production, uses the basic idea of the novel, but the book's "surprise" ending is exposed about midway through the screenplay in order to favor suspense rather than surprise.

From the outset Hitchcock had decided upon James Stewart and Vera Miles for the leading roles. Stewart, who had thoroughly enjoyed working on three previous Hitchcock pictures - Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) - signed on without even asking what the picture was about. He soon had second thoughts. …

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