Tag Archive: Pierre Boileau


Review by C.J. Bunce

Acclaimed horror filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock′s first attempt at developing a film from the professional partnership of French writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was for their 1952 novel She Was No More He got passed up, but he wouldn’t miss acquiring the rights to their next novel published in 1954–another murder mystery–called D’Entre Les Morts, translated as From Among the Dead, or The Living and the Dead.  H.G. Clouzot would direct She Was No More and release it as the film Diabolique, but Hitchcock would go on to be known best for his adaptation of their work–the film classic Vertigo, labeled for decades by critics as his masterpiece, and even the best movie ever made by anyone.  As readers will learn upon returning to the original Boileau and Marcejac novel, later renamed Sueurs froides or Cold Sweat (the French title of Hitchcock’s film), and finally Vertigo in light of the film’s success, screenplay writers Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel significantly modified the novel for the screen.

The novel is a masterful, gritty look at five years in the life of a Frenchman in 1940 Paris, a lawyer traumatized by acrophobia and vertigo after watching a man die falling from a building, later suffering from depression and psychosis after a bundle of life experiences results in a sort of post traumatic stress disorder.  As the war comes closer, Flavières is asked by an old college friend to keep tabs on his wife, Madeleine, who he claims has developed a strange fixation on her dead great-grandmother who killed herself at Madeleine’s current age.  Flavières does as asked, but soon falls in love with Madeleine.  His love turns to obsession, which only gets worse as the story goes on, and he becomes a voyeur, and eventually controlling, possessive, and manipulative.  It would be nearly impossible for anyone to imagine actor James “Jimmy” Stewart playing the role of the novel’s protagonist Roger Flavières, so different from Stewart’s character in the film, Scottie Ferguson, a likeable San Francisco lawyer-turned cop.

Flavières follows Madeleine everywhere she goes.  As she sits and stares blankly at the gravestone of her great-grandmother, as she visits the dead woman’s apartment, as she drifts about the city in a trance state.  Is she possessed by her ancestor’s ghost?  This is the lingering question of the husband, of Flavières, and the mystery for the reader until the very end of the story.  While observing Madeleine from afar, Flavières watches her dive into the river Seine, and he rescues her, revealing himself, but not disclosing his work for her husband.  Her mysterious nature continues until he accompanies her to a church with a bell tower.  She runs up the steps, but his vertigo keeps him from following.  She screams, and falls to her death.  To this point–the midpoint of the novel–the movie is a close adaptation of the novel, except for the setting.  But the second half of the novel becomes a different journey for the protagonist than what the movie audience has seen.

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It’s one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest and most celebrated films.  Pairing Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, Hitchcock explored the ultimate con, the perfect murder, and a hopeless love story.  In Hitchcock’s stylish 1958 film Vertigo, the director also paints one of the most beautiful travelogues for the San Francisco Bay area.  The American Film Institute has declared it the all-time best mystery, the #12 best film score, the #18 best romance, the #18 best thriller, and the ninth best movie of all American films.  Over the years international critics’ polls have seen Vertigo move back and forth with Citizen Kane for the designation of best film of all time.  Celebrated directors François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese have heralded the film.  Vertigo is also the only film that featured Hitchcock himself as a trumpet player–you’ll just need to keep a watchful eye for his cameo.  And you can do that this weekend, as Vertigo is returning to theaters nationwide for two days to celebrate its 60th anniversary beginning this Sunday, March 18, 2018, as part of Turner Classic Movies, Universal Pictures and Fathom Events’ retrospective screenings of film classics.

Even more so than Otto Preminger’s haunting 1944 film Laura, Vertigo delves into obsession like no other film.  Stewart’s take on an ex-cop observing the beautiful wife of an old friend at that friend’s request is a character far removed from any other role Stewart had ever taken on.  And Novak really plays two women as the film is cracked into two halves–one a dangerous and enigmatic stranger, the other a young romantic from Salina, Kansas, trying to escape the decisions of her past.  You, too, will find it hard pressed to avoid becoming obsessed with the film (I’ve seen it at least twice in theaters and dozens of times on home video over the decades).

Behind the scenes film aficionados will appreciate that Vertigo was the first film to use the dolly zoom, the camera taking the dolly out while zooming in, thereby creating the dizzying vertigo effect throughout the movie.  John Whitney used an M5 gun director–an actual World War II anti-tank firing predictor, along with famed graphic designer Saul Bass’s spiral motifs, to create the film’s unusual opening title sequence.  Edith Head’s spectacular designs were behind Novak and Stewart’s memorable wardrobes.  The film was nominated for two Oscars, George Dutton for sound, and Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Sam Comer, and Frank R. McKelvy for Art Decoration/Set Decoration.

But probably most significantly for the ambience of the film, Bernard Hermann’s score is one of Hollywood’s finest, and Martin Scorsese summed up the music his way:  “Hitchcock’s film is about obsession, which means that it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again…  And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfilment and despair.  Herrmann really understood what Hitchcock was going for — he wanted to penetrate to the heart of obsession.”  Years later the 2011 Oscar winner for best picture The Artist would use the spiraling love theme from Vertigo to achieve the emotion needed for its key scene.

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