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A Serious Man and Vertigo

There's going to be a little change to the Movie of the Month this year. Now instead of being about one movie or a long watch list of movies, I'm going to write about pairings of movies. These will often pair a movie from a great director of the twenty-first century with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. There might be months where I write about another great director from the past rather than Hitch, but for the most part, I'll be going through his filmography and comparing it to a movie with a related theme of some sort. For the first month I'm kicking it off with Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and the 2009 Coen brother's movie, A Serious Man.

"Hey, I can see my ma from up here. Hey Ma, get off the dang roof!" A Serious Man Poster, 2009.

The British Film Institute does a poll from people in the film industry of the movies that they find to be the best in history and Vertigo is the top movie on the Sight and Sound Poll. Citizen Kane is number two. It’s the Hitchcock movie that touches on so many different kinds of movies. It’s a thriller, a ghost story, a story about obsession and fear. It could be seen as horror, a detective mystery or an insight on psychology. On their faces, Vertigo and A Serious Man are not especially linked as movies, although they do both involve neurotic main characters trying to figure out seemingly supernatural questions in their lives. Vertigo is considered one of the two best Alfred Hitchcock movies of all time, and A Serious Man could be considered one of the two best Coen Brothers movies with No country For Old Men, as well.

Vertigo is the story of a former detective who is hired to tail a woman played by Kim Novak who seems possessed by the ghost of a woman from the past. She dresses as the woman with a spiral in her hair and spaces out in front of her portrait at the local art museum. In her daze she tries to kill herself only to be saved by Jimmy Stewart's character. Jimmy's character is obsessed with this case and the woman he is following even though it would be much healthier for him to focus on his good friend Midge, who had been taking care of him. Kim Novak's character seems to die, yet Jimmy Stewart finds a dark haired version of her later on who goes along with him as he tries to dress her up as her seeming doppelganger. She is later found to have been conning him the whole time and Jimmy is later able to somewhat handle his fear of heights. Novak's character doesn't handle heights well as she falls from a bell tower to her death.

Kim Novak awakes after a brisk swim. Public Domain, 1958.

There is quite a debate over the ranking of the best Coen Brothers movies of all time. They like to deal in heists, westerns, dark comedies and dramas, sometimes mixing some or all of the genres in the same movies. The Big Lebowski was one of the biggest cultural hits of their career, Raising Arizona was their break out, Fargo established them as great filmmakers, A Serious Man is the most personal dive into a character and No Country for Old Men is simply a western masterpiece.

Comedian Paul Rust recently ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies using emojis. I certainly needed help deciphering what every movie was, but the easiest one to figure out was the ranking of The Ladykillers as last. It’s a movie with some weird missteps, mostly around the use of Marlon Wayans character who is a weird caricature that is more Wayans Brothers than Coen Bothers. Yet, it’s still an entertainingly dark movie. It is still perhaps the worst thing to come from the Coens, but still good.

Yes, it does require a bit of help deciphering. Paul Rust, Twitter, Oct. 20, 2018.

Vertigo is thought of as one of the best movies of all time, yet I don’t think I would place it in my top ten favorite Hitchcock movies. At the very least it ranks above Young and Innocent (1937) from Hitch’s days in the UK. The earlier film is a fun “man on the run” movie that Hitch enjoyed making over and over again with the likes of Saboteur and North by Northwest. That is with the exception that it has an unsettling turn in the final sequence where a key character hides out in performing jazz band where all of the musicians are performing in blackface. That is the easy answer for “What is the worst Hitchcock movie,” and luckily is pretty hard to find.

Vertigo does have its high points. It doesn’t hurt to have Jimmy Stewart in a movie, the Midge character is pretty awesome and deserved her own movie, the set design, costumes by Edith Head and score by Bernard Herrmann are perfect and the movie never shows its hand where it is heading. The pull in shot at the beginning where Stewart is hanging from the building is revolutionary and lends itself to one of the best moments of The Fellowship of the Ring where the hobbits hide on the side of the road from a Nazgul.

Oddly, I don’t think technicolor is right for this film. The yellows and blues look fantastic, but the greens purples (that are sometimes also red in the same scene) look sickening while some of the skin tones look a little off despite Universal’s restored editions on blu-ray. The eye color of some of the actors are a little too vibrant compared to the rest of the movie, although it is unfair to attack genetics. Stewart’s fear of heights is supposed to be essential to the plot but it is more comical than persuasive when he shakes as he steps up a ladder. Hitchcock was always fascinated with showing characters with psychological impairments although he would often portray them in an unrealistic way for dramatic effect.

Vertigo, 1958. Public Domain.

The fear of heights isn’t Stewart’s only hang up that hinders him in his day to day life. He is an obsessed man. He shouldn’t be so fixated on Kim Novak’s spaced out woman from another time, but it leads him into trying to control the second incarnation of Novak late in the movie. He wants to make her in his idealized image. A bit like Hitchcock and his blondes. Perhaps this is why it is the most revered Hitchcock movie, it’s the most personal to the director.

It is the neurosis and use of dreams and uncertainty of reality that binds Vertigo with A Serious Man. Both leading men struggle through their day to day lives with the simple things. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Serious Man struggles with confrontation whether it’s from a student trying to bribe his way into a better grade, Columbia House Records, his wife who is trying to leave him and treating him like a child or his boss who dangles tenure at him for validation of his professional life.

Story-wise, A Serious Man is closest to another Movie of the Month focus, Cleo From 5 to 7. That 5 to 7 is the time that Cleo learns she has to meet her doctor to talk about a diagnosis to the time that she gets the news. Along the way we learn a bit more about Cleo who inches her way from being a vain yet complex person to someone a little more thoughtful and brave in the face of illness. Stahlbarg’s character gets an X-Ray at the start of A Serious Man (well, after a vignette about superstition in Judaism) and ends with the call for a meeting about his results. He does not get his actual results but he is certain of the outcome based on the doctor’s tone and the viewer is faced with an oncoming storm that is charging God’s fury toward the characters we have gotten to know in the movie.

Vertigo trailer with Kim Novak at the Golden Gate Bridge. Public Domain, 1958.

There is a little bit of God’s intervention in Vertigo as well. A nun scares the crap out of Kim Novak leading her to tumble off the bell tower to her death. Perhaps the nun isn’t literally God’s fury, but nuns are scary and they work for God. In the end, both Stewart and Stahlbarg were better off sticking around with the middle aged women next door.

Next month: 12 Angry Men and Rope.

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