Film: Fear is the key

Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock (PG) The Spiral Staircase Robert Siodmak (PG) By Adam Mars-Jones

In a dull week for new releases, two classics more than compensate: Hitchcock's Vertigo from 1958, thoroughly restored in both vision and sound, and Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase from 1945, in a crisp new print that shows off the excellence of Nicholas Musuraca's black-and- white photography. The two films have themes in common - in fact, Vertigo takes the motif of the spiral far further than the film whose name includes it.

There are traumatised central figures in both films (Dorothy McGuire as Helen in The Spiral Staircase, unable to speak, and James Stewart's Scottie in Vertigo, terrified of heights) who, at the end of the films, are left cured in the ruins of everything they have known. There is much emphasis on the ambiguity of seeing, complete with extreme close-ups of watching eyes, prying but also trapped, unable to look away. Roy Webb's music for The Spiral Staircase gives way at heightened moments to the spooky, muffled shriek of the theremin, just as Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo, famous for its recycling of Wagnerian love-death, also features sustained high trills on the electric organ, the quintessential sound of 1950s cheesy menace.

The difference is between a thriller that hardly bothers to thrill but has an extraordinary ability to haunt, and a genre product that touches all the bases without leaving any more to trouble the memory, perhaps, than a single image. Everyone seems to have noticed the singularity of Vertigo, including its unenthusiastic original audiences, who did not want to have their sensibilities extended in this sombre fashion. No previous film made by a Hollywood studio had dared to enrich a second viewing, at the expense of a first, by revealing the plot's secret so early.

Yet The Spiral Staircase could just as easily be said to have personal elements. Siodmak brought with him from Germany not only a distinctive approach to cinematic lighting and composition but, as a Jewish refugee from Nazism, a certain amount of experience of the ideology of the murderer in the film. In Mel Dinelli's script, adapting a novel by Ethel Lina White, the victims are all in some way disabled, and their killer makes it clear that he is ridding the world of weakness and imperfection (in a posthumous attempt to impress his proto-fascist father).

The heroine's defect is an inability to speak out. Helen's attempts to find her voice, though, to break her silence, have to do mainly with the need to say "I do" to the nice doctor who's taken such an interest in her, and these sequences are very mildly nightmarish compared to the film's single truly memorable shot. The heroine is mouthing words in the landing mirror while the killer spies on her, and we see her as he does, with a gauzy blur where her mouth should be.

This subjective shot in the film's first half hour brings us closer to the murderer, for a moment of jolting complicity, than we ever are to the heroine, despite our routine identification with her. Yet Siodmak goes no further in this line, and perhaps for that reason falls short of achievements of pre-war German cinema such as Fritz Lang's M, where the psychology of monstrousness isn't so disappointingly shelved.

If evenness of tone were a pre-requirement for masterpiece status, then Vertigo would be a non-starter. There is nothing in The Spiral Staircase as hopelessly misjudged as the nightmare sequence. James Stewart's face on his pillow is bathed in a series of lurid colours, then we see the bouquet carried by the enigmatic Carlotta Valdez coming to feebly animated life (this, presumably, is the "special sequence" credited to John Ferren), and we're off on a clanking roller-coaster of back projections and stubbornly uncontagious terror. Perhaps the original 20-minute dream sequence, designed by Salvador Dali and shot for Hitchcock's Spellbound, wasn't the great loss it has always seemed.

The script, by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, transforming a French source novel and transplanting it securely to San Francisco, has its own preposterous logic, but a script editor might have pointed out that if you cast youthful Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie's loyal not-quite-girlfriend Midge, then you have to eliminate the bit of dialogue that makes them college sweethearts. Other oddities are clearly intentional, even when slightly baffling: now that the film has been so comprehensively restored, audiences must just accept that the light is supposed to drain greenishly away in the course of a bookshop scene where the story of Carlotta Valdez is rehearsed for the first time.

Vertigo has been an astonishingly influential film. Its themes of repetition and compulsive romanticism, its lush bleakness or bleak lushness, have inspired paraphrases such as Brian de Palma's Obsession (1975), and Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace (1979), where at least the female lead was as ambiguous as the male, and Janet Margolin got to express the range of emotion denied to Kim Novak in the original. The shot devised by Hitchcock for the film and named after it, combining a zoom in and a tracking shot out, leads it own independent life, appropriated and parodied in all sorts of contexts. It provides the single most powerful moment in Jaws (a reaction shot of Roy Scheider on the beach); it introduces the heroine in the Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. Yet the "Vertigo shot" in Vertigo itself is used rather flatly and repetitiously. It happens rather quickly, for one thing, with the ground dropping away rather than sliding, so that it seems to convey the simple fear of falling rather than a more complex state of terror and longing.

It's different with the film's other customised shot, the kiss across time, in which Scottie, embracing one woman while the camera revolves around them, seems to return to the place where he first kissed another. Hitchcock is more sparing with this even more powerful effect, which seems to convey the disorientation of fulfilment, the subtle terror that you'll have to think of what to do next, what to want next, now that you've got what you set your heart on. It doesn't damage this moment to know that the actors were on a turntable - nor even to realise that the same shot is used on television, most nights, to sell an Irish beer.

'Vertigo' from tomorrow at the West End Lumiere, London WC2 (0171-379 3014); 'The Spiral Staircase' in rep from tomorrow at the NFT, London SE1 (0171-928 3232)

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?