The Brooklyn Academy of Music has collated an impressive, erudite collection of films of varying brow heights that, in some way, draw inspiration from “Vertigo.” Put together by C. Mason Wells in collaboration with BAMcinematek’s Nellie Killian and David Reilly, the series refracts Alfred Hitchcock’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece through seven decades of world cinema, examining its vast influence.
Since its lukewarm premiere in 1958, “Vertigo” has slowly and steadily climbed the pantheon of American cinema, finally usurping Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and ascending to the top of Sight & Sound’s list of the best movies of all time. Lists and rankings aside, few would argue that “Vertigo” is anything less than a feverish masterwork, the epitome of Hitchcock’s formal prowess and his most emotionally fragile work.
Pervaded by love and lust, betrayal and loss, the dark tale of an emasculated man (Jimmy Stewart) driven to chasing obsession on a destructive path. As an inscrutable ruse, it rarely falters as a murder-mystery so well crafted you don’t even know it’s a murder-mystery until the last third of the film.
The effects of “Vertigo” have seeped into the crevices of American cinema, popping up in some reliable places (the works of Brian De Palma, Hitch’s biggest fan) and some surprising ones as well (Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct,” Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu”). The best thing about BAM’s “Vertigo” Effect series is how the eclectic pool of films makes you draw connections you might otherwise have missed: Just by being selected for the series, films like “Last Embrace,” “Mississippi Mermaid,” and “Special Effects” will now reveal deeper mysteries and previously-missed Hitchcock-derived details. And, of course, it only further elucidates the profound beauty, and tragedy, of Hitchcock’s best film. Here are 9 highlights from the series.
The most obvious choice in the program for one reason: David Lynch, normally fairly mum on his inspirations, has been a vocal enthusiast of “Vertigo” for years, even hosting a Movie Night at IFC a couple years ago. “Mulholland Drive” is maybe the best film of the aughts — just ask all these critics [http://www.indiewire.com/article/indiewires-decade-survey-the-best-films-of-the-00s] — and one of the few that genuinely deserves to be described as “dreamy.”
A young, fledgling actress (Naomi Watts), eternally optimistic, helps a woman stricken with amnesia (Laura Harring) find out who she is. In her career-making performance, Watts channels the cataplexy of Kim Novak, pleating layers upon layers, dreams upon nightmares. Themes of identity and duality swirl and eddy in Lynch’s film, with Angelo Badalamenti’s atmospheric score acting as an unnerving undercurrent. Lynch has always displayed an affinity for a 1950s aesthetic, whether sincerely or ironically, but in “Mulholland Drive” he uses the look and sound of the ’50s to extrapolate ideas of imitation and artifice — significant themes in “Vertigo.” Identity is nebulous in the world of David Lynch. With “Mulholland Drive,” he conflates the passion of an erotic dream and the severity of a nightmare, creating one of the crowning achievements of American movies.
No American director has so proudly paraded his adoration for Hitchcock than Brian De Palma. At once a critical darling and an easy target for enemies of the auteur theory, the polarizing De Palma has tapped the thematic and aesthetic elements of Hitchcock for 40 years, but detractors who claim he’s merely ripping-off the master are dead wrong. Virtually every De Palma film is about the artists he admires. Scripted by Paul Schrader (another Hithcock devotee), “Obsession” marks De Palma’s most overt homage to his mentor — and he’s had a lot of overt homages to his mentor.
A man (Cliff Robertson) becomes tormented over the death of his wife, mourning her, obsessing over her, being driven insane by the memory of her. Years later, he meets a woman who bears a striking semblance to his wife, and slowly but surely begins to mold her into the dead woman. If that doesn’t sound like Hitchcock, you’ve never seen Hitchcock. As much a paean to “Vertigo” as it is an examination of the way filmmakers draw inspiration from other filmmakers, “Obsession” represents a visual advancement over the much more modest (but also excellent) “Sisters,” as well as the first signs of De Palma’s budding flair for bombastic melodrama. It was also director’s first commercial success, but it earned him some harsh reviews (even Pauline Kael, his biggest advocate, dismissed it as an indulgence in style). Some things never change.
From the heavy swelling of Miklos Rozsa’s ominous score that opens the film, Jonathan Demme’s “Last Embrace” makes a pageant of its Hitchockian roots. A pulpy narrative threaded with allusions to Hitchcock, it’s a rare jaunt into pure genre for Demme, who works with frequent cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to manipulate his own personal style to more closely resemble Hitchcock’s.
Dismissed in its time (and still considered one of Demme’s weakest efforts), the film is undeniably uneven but nonetheless fascinating as a glimpse into Demme’s early fixations that now shines new light on his more prestigious projects. The reliably great Roy Scheider brings an almost seething lust to his role as a haunted government agent. Darkness lingers over all of Demme’s work, but “Last Embrace” is aberrantly cynical, nearly fatalist. (He wouldn’t take such a caustic approach again until his surprisingly good 2005 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.”) Like Jimmy Stewart standing atop the church tower, having overcome his phobia at great cost, Scheider doesn’t get a happy ending, and doesn’t let anyone else have one, either.
“La Jetee” and “Sans Soleil”
While this cryptic French short is best known as the film that inspired Terry Gilliam’s cult-favorite “12 Monkeys,” “La Jette” is rightfully considered a mini-masterpiece in its own right. It comprises stark black-and-white photographs that pass before the screen in slow, deliberate dissolves while a stoic voice relays to us (in French) the story of a mentally-battered man (Davos Hanich) sent backwards through time to prevent a nuclear holocaust.
Marker presents modern Paris (well, the sixties) as a hellish place, a shell-shocked monochrome metropolis made of concrete and glass. And yet here, in a time and place that are alien to him, Hanich finds love. And he knows the love can’t last, because his future is already set. The sequential stills act like railroad tracks along which Marker guides his narrative. The filmmaker throws in at least one visual nod to Hitchcock (the two leads examine a cut-away tree trunk) while spinning ideas of obsession and identity confusion into his dizzying photomontage. 20 years later, Marker revisited the fleeting, fickle nature of human memory in his visually-astounding “Sans Soleil.” Marker spins differing takes on personal and global histories, weaving an intricate web of a documentary. The San Francisco scenes allude to “Vertigo,” while The Zone references Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.”
Former Monty Python-turned-abstract auteur Terry Gilliam takes Marker’s enigmatic short and fleshes it out to a 130-minute lucid dream. Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a convict from America’s desolate, virally-decimated future who gets reluctantly sent back to the 1990’s to trace the origin of a virus that wiped out — or will wipe out — 99 percent of the population. Abetting Cole is Bruce Pitt’s wild-eyed, manic psychiatric patient, who may or may not be a budding eco-terrorist. Pitt sums up the film’s cynicism pretty well: “Wiping out the human race? That’s a great idea. That’s great.” The diffused lighting and cockeyed camera angles lend the whole film the dreamy air of the cemetery scene in “Vertigo,” creating the sensation of a world inhabited by ghosts who don’t yet know they’re dead.
The leg-crossing scene: it’s become so deeply ingrained in American pop-culture lore, lampooned so many times, dissected as sexist, feminist, and every other –ist you can think of, and yet, 20 years later, it hasn’t lost any of its intensity. The movie is one long sexual power struggle, perhaps the kind of movie Hitch would’ve made had he lived long enough. With its cool blues and chrome-colored walls, low camera angles and shadows thrown across rooms in long, dark stripes, “Basic Instinct” has the look and feel of a neonoir. But director Paul Verhoeven takes pleasure in presenting ostensibly straightforward genre tropes and slyly injecting them with canny satire. In “Basic Instinct,” Sharon Stone plays a fiercely sexy and mysterious writer who writers a book about killing a guy with an icepick, and then she maybe kills a guy with an icepick. She has the piercing eyes and icy gaze of a classic femme fatale (and Kim Novak’s hair style), but she isn’t restricted by the censors that plagued Hitchcock and his contemporaries. She can say, “Fuck,” and she can take command of her sexuality.
Verhoeven’s sexy, sordid thriller takes Hitchcock’s dangerous blondes and the sexual tension that percolates beneath the surface of his films and strips both of their subtlety, letting Stone steal the film with equal part elegance and vulgarity. And the casting of Michael Douglas, back then Hollywood’s sexy white middle-aged star of choice, adds another layer to Verhoeven’s deceptively clever deconstruction of sexual politics.
Francois Truffaut literally wrote the book on Hitchcock, ushering in a new appreciation for the filmmaker, previously considered merely a populist entertainer. His 1969 romantic thriller “Mississippi Mermaid,” adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel “Waltz into Darkness,” is a sort of Francophile reimagining “Vertigo,” with Jean-Paul Belmondo playing a tobacco plantation owner who decides to marry a mail-order bride. When the woman arrives, she doesn’t look anything like her picture — instead, she looks like Catherine Deneuve, which would be pretty awesome if she didn’t turn out to also be a mysterious schemer who runs off with Belmondo’s money. Identities oscillate, romance sparks, conspiracies unfurl. And the Hitchcock references run even deeper: the Master’s voyeuristic classic “Rear Window” is based on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”
Though his general reputation is somewhat below that of the renowned Dario Argentio and Mario Bava (a convincing case could be made for Bava being the most influential Italian filmmaker of the 20th century), Lucio Fulci is nonetheless adored by giallo enthusiasts. With technical proficiency and a singular taste for trashy violence, Fulci has carved out an alcove for himself in the world of giallo.
A noted inspiration for “Basic Instinct,” “Perversion Story” is Fulci’s first foray into the lurid genre. For a guy who worked primarily in comedies, he displays some kind of deep, dark understanding of horror, and with good reason: His wife committed suicide, which drove Fulci away from comedies and towards more unpleasant proclivities. That dark event didn’t cause Fulci to take on a horror film, but it certainly influenced the film’s tone, as well as his subsequent efforts. The film has all the aesthetic trappings of the post-Bava Italian horror scene, but its obvious debt to “Vertigo” and its (for the time) subversive take on sex and gender remains fascinating.