Saul Bass, Alfred Hitchcock and the Pursuit of Vision

Oh, a brief note on the appearance/theme of this blog: “Vertigo”, designed after Saul Bass. Not my design by any means, but instead developed by Matthew Buchanan (links at the bottom of the page).

Vertigo is one of my all-time favourite films. Last year, for the first time ever, it officially ousted Citizen Kane (which I also love, don’t get me wrong) at the top of the Sight and Sound best films of all time list, as voted by directors. What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Essentially nothing, other than to confirm that they’re both excellent films. You can find that out by watching them, and the determination that one is “better” than the other, though by consensus, is so subjective as to render the idea moot.

This is not saying I’m opposed to criticism, which I’m not: I believe in the ability to assess quality beyond individual enjoyment. At the VERY top end, however, you’re discussing very marginal assessments of the fractions which distinguish individual works of genius.

What I did find very interesting is that Vertigo tops the list as voted by critics, not directors. That struck me as odd as, more than Citizen Kane, Vertigo is about the directorial/authorial role, the pursuit of the perfected image in the face of all odds. Both “Kane” and “Vertigo” utilise and to an extent invent new directorial tricks: camera angles and shots, composition and frameworks, etc, etc. Whilst Kane is fundamentally a story of isolation and personal ambition, Vertigo is about the dangers of delving too deeply into a personal vision.

Not unusually for Hitchcock, the film is a suspense thriller about an icily beautiful blonde (more has been written on Hitchcock’s proclivities in this regard than I can go into here), but within that context, it’s a film about a pursuit of the desired image. Jimmy Stewart, usually one of the nicest guys in any picture, obsessively attempts to craft a human being into his image of what she should be. It’s (for those who haven’t seen it), suitably creepy but it also comments on the degree to which the obsessed party will strive to make his dream a reality, regardless of the cost. The film inherently links the director’s desire to capture the image with the desire to work one’s will on the world, and to an extent, the desire to rule the world within the frame. For Hitchcock, that’s a sexual act (spend some time looking at Hitchcock’s relationships with women if you’re keen for a psychological critical approach to some of the great films of the 20th century). Companion pieces might be the excellent ‘Shadow of the Vampire’, where the obsession with the image is presented as a reaction to the death-urge and immortality (Eros and Thanatos, indeed), or George R. R. Martin’s brutally self-reflective (and less shrouded in metaphor than the films mentioned herein) ‘Portraits of His Children’.

Hitch is definitely talking about the darker side of himself here. He knows how things are supposed to look, and supposed to be, and the initial consent of the participants strictly starts to crumble under the strain of trying to force the shape of things to match the life of the mind. Stewart plays the part in a manner subtle and thundering by turns, making a lot from glances and eye movements.

I’ve avoided discussing the plot and twists within the film, out of a fear of spoilers, but if you care about the drive of composition, of the desire of the author to play God with their creations, look at it soon.

Saul Bass’ abstract imagery is perfect to reflect these themes. The cartoons provide the effect of distance to give the viewer a sense of the role outside the frame, of the cardboard cutouts that are driven by the authorial voice into their place in the world. At the same time, Bass’ fonts and linework are jagged, and ever so slightly twisted, imbuing them with a crazed tension.

Saul Bass and Hitchcock both did other items of brilliance, but this is what I think of when I think of both of them. Had to choose this theme in their honour.


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