Six Damn Fine Degrees #124: Vertigo remade? No head for heights!

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Young and innocent they are certainly not: When Marvel veteran Robert Downey Jr. and screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Spencer) were announced to be working on a remake of no other than Hitchcock’s Vertigo – considered by many to be the best film ever made – the world of film (fandom) was aghast: a sacrilege to the Holy Grail in Hitch’s filmography! Two filmmakers gone madder than Norman Bates! Dizzy spells among even the most hardboiled critics! What a wonderful opportunity, I thought, to wrap my head around this, particularly after Alan’s delicious piece on watching early delights by the Master of Suspense.

Hitchcocks’s films have been remade and rehashed often, of course, but who particularly cared for the sequel to The Birds (Land’s End, even starring Tippi Hedren), Rear Window (starring Christopher Reeve in what may be the most famous wheelchair-bound role) or the image-by-image copy of Psycho (1998) by Gus Van Sant? Someone as delightful as Angela Lansbury couldn’t top the thrills of The Lady Vanishes in its 1978 remake, and even though Diana Rigg and Kristin Scott Thomas have made for devilish Mrs. Danverses, the mystery of Rebecca was never as well explored as in the original. Even Hitchcock himself didn’t particularly improve when remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in 1950s Hollywood! With few exceptions, one could argue, all those attempts had one thing in common: they were wholly unnecessary.

Arguably, copying Hitchcock to make new movies and expand on his favourite themes has proven much more promising for certain other filmmakers: Mario Bava and Dario Argento clearly had him in mind when perfecting their own giallo slashers in the 60s and 70s (Argento even featuring Do You Like Hitchcock in his filmography), Pedro Almodóvar regularly takes a page out of the Hitchcock stylebook, not to mention the whole French film critic elite from Rohmer to Godard and, obviously, François Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black, in particular).

Whole catalogues of books and documentaries have also been dedicated to Brian de Palma’s obsession with the master, freely quoting or riffing off or shamelessly copycatting from Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window and many others in his thrillers: Sisters (1972) and Obsession (1976) did not only feature Bernard Herrmann scores, they also base their storylines and plot twists on Hitchcock’s classics, especially Vertigo. Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984) then took the Hitchcock tropes to new, sultry and at times unintentionally hilarious heights.

And yet with the exception of the music video for Faith No More’s “Last Cup of Sorrow” in 1997 (starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Kim Novak roles), no one has truly dared to claim a full-on remake of Vertigo. So what are we to expect of the endeavour? The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw has delightfully rooted for three options of how this could be achieved (replicating the film in Van Sant’s vein, adapting the original French source novel – or, more controversially, go nuclear by reversing gender roles and casting a middle-aged female cop obsessed with a beautiful young man). Even though I would certainly be curious about any of these variations, I’m still questioning anyone’s sanity involved in this project.

To me, Vertigo as it is certainly is perfect because it is a curiously involving and moving timepiece, even though it remained unsuccessful at the time of its release. The beauty of the film is how, in both its original and remastered forms, it has garnered appreciation and accolades only over many, many decades. More and more viewers have discovered the fascinating plot twists, the mesmerizing performances, the uber-romantic Herrmann score and the accomplished use of colour schemes, costumes and production design. Cadrage, motifs and themes have been analysed and volumes have been written about the movie’s apparent and hidden layers of meaning. Vertigo – even among our baristas – remains among the most discussed and referenced films.

So anyone seriously attempting to remake it better have a very good idea what they are about to do, because climbing up that steep tower to hopefully enjoy a successful view, one needs an excellent head for heights. Otherwise, the fall into the abyss of forgetfulness – as Madeleine, Judy and Scottie all know – could be vertiginous indeed!

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