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Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic
book review by Robert Baird

At its best, the making-of film book is a kind of biography of a movie’s birth and public life, providing insight and entertainment to both scholarly and popular readers. The most outstanding examples of this genre of film studies book – for instance Robert Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane (1985, 1996) – frequently offer significant contributions to film history, and, in the process, valuable reinterpretations of narrative meaning. Not every film and filmmaker, however, offers exciting, unexpected stories for the writer. Sadly, many of the historical artifacts of film production have simply disappeared, deemed unworthy of careful cataloguing. Even Hitchcock okayed the destruction of Vertigo outtakes and sound elements that, in recent years, would have been useful historically and commercially.

A good making-of film book depends, in part, on its subjects: film, director, and crew. While Hitchcock is likely the most interesting and "photogenic" of this century’s directors, much has already been written on him. Vertigo is one of the great film’s of this century (recently voted # 61 by the AFI for its top 100 American films). But the film’s birth and life is, compared to many films, rather uneventful, and the film’s backstory certainly pales next to the film’s frontstory. The magic and wonder of Vertigo is where it should be: up on the screen.

James Stewart, hanging from a roof, in Vertigo.

The best making-of film book concerned with Hitchcock is likely Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (1990), due largely to the oddness of the Psycho story as well as the production context. Consequently, Dan Auiler cannot be faulted that his Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic offers no great discoveries or challenging reappraisals of its subject. Doing his best to dramatize the-making-of Vertigo, Auiler himself concedes that a number of Vertigo crewmembers more fondly recall working on lesser films such as To Catch a Thief (filmed on location on the French Riviera), probably because those films offered "more exotic filmmaking experience for those involved" (174).

Nonetheless, Auiler’s making-of treatment of Vertigo is long overdue, as well as thoroughly up to date on the film’s recent reissue and restoration. Best, Auiler appreciates Vertigo’s high standing in the Hitchcock canon and in cinema, and wisely shies away from wallowing in Vertigo's most famous backstory: Hitchcock as Pygmalion to Kim Novak as Galatea. That story has already been exhaustively covered in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.

The freshest and most surprising material in Auiler’s study of Vertigo are the sidestories of the production, such as the lives of co-authors Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, who wrote D’Entre les Morts, the novel which inspired Vertigo. We learn also that the now obviously wonderful title "Vertigo" was insisted on by Hitchcock against the wishes of the New York office, which cabled with a long list of proposed alternates, some of the more engaging being Behind the Mask, Carlotta, Dream Without Ending, My Madeleine, Steps on the Stairs, Two Kinds of Women. The best alternate title to Vertigo, though, came earlier, from Vertigo screenwriter Samuel Taylor: To Lay a Ghost.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Other surprises: Auiler discusses Kim Novak’s less than star-like contract and her fight to renegotiate during production of Vertigo, a situation sadly emblematic of the men-designing/controlling-women theme central to Vertigo's story:

Harry Cohn’s Columbia was paid $250,000 for Novak to do Vertigo and the next picture with Stewart—but Novak herself was still making $1,250 a week. Interviewed after the fracas was resolved, Novak explained that her actual take-home pay was even less—around $250. ‘I was unable to buy sufficient clothes for myself,’ she told Bob Thomas of the Associated Press. ‘When I wanted to go to a party, I’d have to borrow a dress that Rita Hayworth had worn in a picture . . .. The studio was making a great deal of money off me, and I was seeing little of it. (71)

The book's chapter on production is decent, but the postproduction chapter is the real contribution to Hitchcock scholarship. In the production chapter, Auiler spends a good deal of time reading the "tea leaves" of Vertigo’s continuity script in an effort to guess at the on-set difficulty of this or that scene based on the number of takes recorded for each scene. The paucity of material that could help recreate the production process leaves Auiler grasping like Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie for a past not easily resurrected. The postproduction chapter, in contrast, offers excellent accounts of the wonderful work by Saul Bass for the film’s opening titles and Bernard Herrmann for the film’s soundtrack. Both elements are some of the best work ever done in film. The most interesting sidestory of all, however, deals with John Whitney, an avant-garde filmmaker who assisted Bass in Vertigo's opening titles. Whitney used post-war surplus equipment, including bomber gun turrets, to generate the "Lissajous spirals" famous from the film's opening. It’s the minor stories of Vertigo’s postproduction that are the real discoveries in this book.

The book is nicely illustrated, adding many items not typically found in mainstream film texts. Besides the obvious frame enlargements and publicity stills, Auiler and St. Martin’s Press have included an intriguing sampling of the paperwork that accumulates around major Hollywood productions. The storyboard sequences are wonderful, and a number of them are works of art independent of the film. Indeed, the film’s most romantic and haunting scenes (the bell tower and the redwood reverie) look equally impressive as storyboards, and such work makes it easy to understand the late success of the graphic novel, an art form that is a close kin to cinema. Also illustrating the book are letters, telegrams, shot lists, editing notes, location photographs, and some of Hitchcock’s personal sketches used for the film. The book offers a brief foreword by Martin Scorsese, an excellent description of the VistaVision process, and a cast list. One complaint: the book’s bibliography is not complete and a number of quotes are left uncited, reducing scholars to guessing at sources.

Auiler’s last chapter concerns Vertigo’s recent restoration by James Katz and Robert Harris. In interview format, Auiler asks Katz and Harris to explain some of their more controversial decisions regarding this process. Why, for instance, did Katz and Harris add a few select foley sound effects to Hitchcock's original sound track? Simply, they say, to cover occasional hisses and pops in the old sound track that were impossible to remove. This, of course, will not be the last word on the restoration of Vertigo, a film held in high regard by a good number of fans, critics, and filmmakers, all of whom might enjoy and learn from reading Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic.


Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic by Dan Auiler is now available from St. Martin's Press. Suggested retail price: $27.95 (hardback).

Robert Baird teaches film and serves as a Multimedia Consultant for the University of Illinois English Department. He is currently working on a book entitled How Movies Scare Us: A Cognitive Poetics of the Threat Scene.


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