Idiosyncratic films have an interesting relationship with genre. The fact that they are so unique separates them from more formulaic movies. But more often than not idiosyncratic films bear traces of generic structures that make them palatable to audiences. Idiosyncratic films have the potential to create their own genres, but more often than not they create their own sub-genres.
This is most true of some of the greatest noir films. Brick is “high school noir,” Blade Runner is “tech noir,” and as my professor Tim Bell once said, The Big Lebowski is “stoner noir.” Most of these sub-genres apply to multiple films, in particular tech and stoner noir. But there is one noirish film that created a subgenre so particular that it only has one entry: Vertigo.
Vertigo is best described as “fairy tale noir.” I would define fairy tale noir as something that takes the plot elements and iconography of film noir and filters them through a fairy tale aesthetic. Hitchcock does this throughout Vertigo. He twists traditional noir elements in a more fantastic, kinky direction. For example his protagonist, Scottie Ferguson, is a fedora wearing detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. But his acrophobia and increasingly controlling ways make him seem more like some type of wounded prince that changes into an ogre by night in a Brothers Grimm story.
Many cinephiles associate film noir with black and white movies. The cinematography for Vertigo, however, is full of bright primary colors. The sequence where Scottie first sees Madeleine takes place in a restaurant that has vivid, scarlet red walls. A later shot of Madeleine buying brightly colored flowers feels like something out of a technicolor wonderland. The visual palette of this film is somewhat reminiscent of Donkey Skin, a cinematic fairy tale Jacques Demy directed in 1970.
The setting for Vertigo also straddles the line between noir and fairytale. San Francisco has been used as a location in films noir since 1941. Nathaniel Rich even wrote a book about the city’s status as a noir haunt called San Francisco Noir. But Hitchcock’s San Francisco has a somewhat wilder feel than that of The Maltese Falcon. This is reinforced by the locations Hitchcock films at outside of San Francisco proper. In particular, the Mission San Juan Bautista has a wonderfully gothic feel. It would have felt right at home in Jean Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast.
But for all of the fairy tale trappings, Vertigo has a dark and noirish heart. This is most clearly seen in its depiction of people buckling under an oppressive past. Ferguson’s inability to overcome his acrophobia prevents him from saving the woman he loves. Patterns of human nature and twists of fate doom Ferguson and his love interest to repeat their pasts. The fact that this dark story plays out in such a strikingly beautiful environment is evidence of Hitchcock’s singular genius.
Vertigo screened at IU Cinema in the fall of 2011 as part of the Sound and Vision: Herrmann and Hitchcock series and again in 2016 as part of Themester: Beauty. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) screened in 2015 with live orchestral accompaniment and the U.S. premiere of a new musical score by Neil Brand. In 2015 the Underground Film Series included Experimental Hitchcock Shorts Program, which featured experimental work using appropriated Hitchcock’s work as their own raw material. Shadow of a Doubt was part of City Lights Film Series in 2014. Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder – 3D screened in 2013. The International Arthouse Series featured Kent Jones’s documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut in 2016.
In 2015 The Big Lebowski sold out during a Midnight Movie screening and the Science on Screen Series provided Sci-Fi fans the chance to see Blade Runner in three different versions: the theatrical release, Director’s Cut and The Final Cut.
Explore the life and work of another film noir auteur this week and next as we screen the documentary David Lynch: The Art Life.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed three short films.