Vertigo and How to Steal a Million – Two short reviews (spoiler-free)

Recently I saw these two classic films for the first time: Vertigo (1958) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  On the surface, they have really nothing in common, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to compare and contrast them.

Vertigo


Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock film, considered by many reviewers to be his masterpiece.  James Stewart plays a retired detective, Scottie Ferguson, who is commissioned by his friend to follow said friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, to determine if she’s become possessed with the spirit of her great-grandmother.  Matters become weirder when Scottie finds himself falling head over heels for the chilling but attractive Madeleine, who also seems to have a thing for him.  Scottie, unfortunately, suffers from vertigo and a fear of heights, which threaten to jeopardize his task and Madeleine’s life.

Let me just say I have mixed feelings about Hitchcock films.  This is how I’d rank the ones I’ve seen so far (best to worst):

  1. Rebecca
  2. Strangers on a Train
  3. The Wrong Man
  4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  5. Vertigo
  6. North by Northwest
  7. The Birds
As you can see, the popular ones I don’t care for very much.
Vertigo actually started out very promising, but somewhere around the halfway mark, it got very slow and tedious.  The plot is predictable and, at times, unduly macabre.  As usual with Hitchcock, I did find the cinematography to be stunning – with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as they looked in the 50s – but it wasn’t enough to carry the film through.  There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend, with an unlikely romance and one or two gaping plot holes.

How to Steal a Million

Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn?  That was all I needed to know.

How to Steal a Million follows an art forger and his loyal daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) who will do what it takes to keep her scoundrelly dad out of jail.  That includes staging a faux burglary to prevent a particular sculpture from being tested for authenticity. Enter Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who claims to be an expert burglar.  With great reluctance, he agrees to take on Nicole’s challenge and break into a high-security museum to “steal” her father’s own statue and save the family honor.
This was the dumbest, cutest, cringiest movie I’ve seen in a long time. (I guess that’s what rom-coms are?  I don’t usually watch that genre.)  O’Toole manages to make a creepy role extremely charming, and Hepburn’s cute innocence outshines even her chic wardrobe (designed by Givenchy and made rather a big deal of).  I’m pretty sure nobody except these two could play such lovable dorks.
As it is, what starts out as a cute comedy turns into a long-winded, tedious ordeal, during the greater part of which the two are trapped in a broom closet and exchanging risque jokes.  Again, rom-coms aren’t exactly my thing, so I was disappointed when the plot kind of fizzled out in the second half.

Lessons Learned

Here’s my takeaways from these two films:
  • If you’re going to make a movie – or write a book, for that matter – that is really unbelievable, your best outlet is comedy.  Tragedies have to be plausible for me to care.
  • Great actors/actresses can make bad films watchable.
  • A story should never start out more exciting and engaging than it finishes up.
  • Sometimes Amazon reviewers and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • I should probably stop watching Alfred Hitchcock films (but I know I won’t).
Thoughts…recommendations?  I’d be curious to hear if any of you like Vertigo.  It’s the kind of film where I at least understand its popularity.  I just didn’t care for it personally.  How to Steal a Million is pure fluff and I’ll probably watch it again, to my great chagrin.  

"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Fields Hawthorne Ticknor ca1863 byJWBlack
Portrait of James Thomas Fields (1817-1881),
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864),
and William Davis Ticknor (1810-1864).

Over on Instagram, I’d mentioned I’ve been getting into Hawthorne’s short stories again.  He’s a favorite author of mine, and when I read the collection Twice Told Tales (already five years ago, wow!), I was blown away by the craft of his shorter works.  I finally broke down and bought the complete Tales and Sketches, and for my first reading chose “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one of the more famous ones.

The story is set up simply enough: a young man and clergyman’s son, Robin, sets out one day to seek his fortune.  More specifically, he leaves the countryside and arrives in Boston in order to get in touch with Major Molineux, a relative who had once offered to help him get started in life.

It’s a dark, gloomy night in Boston.  Robin goes from door to door, inquiring for his kinsman.  Everyone laughs at him, while he wanders through the streets looking for at least one towns-person who will listen to him seriously.  Finally, he meets a man who tells him to wait by the church, because Major Molineux will soon arrive.  Shortly after, Robin hears the voices of a crowd in the next street.  When they at last turn the corner, he is unprepared for what he sees.

For such a simple, subtle buildup, this story ends with a punchline I was not expecting.  I’ve left out the ending to avoid spoilers, but in short, it was disturbing.  At the same time, this twist opens up the story to a larger realm of questions, just as it closes this peek into Robin’s life.  This is what makes Hawthorne’s style so powerful, even as it seems fairly conventional on the surface.

Have you read any of Hawthorne’s short stories, and if so, what are your favorites?

Books I Gave Up On

I gave up on Moby-Dick the first time – even after getting halfway!

Two weeks ago, I mentioned I was reading The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  Well…I’m still reading it, and I’m not even halfway.

For a story about a family moving to the jungle, this book is extremely slow.  I keep thinking “I’m finally getting into it!” only to get bogged down by endless descriptions of Allie’s (the dad) smart-aleck comments and ego bigger than the commune he’s founding.  So yeah, I’m thinking about calling it quits.

It irritates me to give up on a book…I’m a completist by nature.  Since 2012 (when I started keeping track), I’ve given up on 14 books, which spread out over 6 years is still more than I’d like.  On the other hand, there have been books I wish I’d given up on (Kafka’s The Castle) but for whatever reason just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

With that in mind, which are the 14 that made the unlucky cut?  In roughly reverse-chronological order:

    14. The Kill by Émile Zola – I talked about this a few months ago.  What started out as an interesting family drama turned into a squicky romance novel.  TMI for this reader.

      13. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald – This had some of the worst parts of The Great Gatsby (adulterous affairs) without any of the better parts (compelling backstory and interesting characters).  Couldn’t relate at all.

      12. Rhett & Link’s Book of Mythicality – This was a tough disappointment.  I shared some thoughts on Goodreads.

      11. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway – The title story really pulled me with its misogynist protagonist.  /sarcasm

      10. The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroI get really, really tired of Christians being the bad guys.

      9. Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature by Robert Michael Pyle – I was hoping for some interesting anecdotes, but most of the essays I read were more like lectures.  Might try it again in a decade or two, but not now.

      8. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu – Fantastic concept: Chinese history and steampunk!  Sadly, after 100 pages I did not care about any of the characters, though I tried very hard.  Needed better character building and less description.

      7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – This dude is supposed to be under house arrest, but he has a more comfortable lifestyle than your average college student.  After he got a girlfriend (a pushy one at that), I gave up worrying about him.

      6. On Basilisk Station by David Weber – This is book 1 in a series which is supposed to be like Horatio Hornblower meets Star Trek with a female protagonist.  My expectations must have been too high – I couldn’t get past the first chapter; the characterization and settings didn’t ring true.

      5. The Republic by Plato – Will probably try again someday.

      4. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzeziński – Boring start.  Didn’t get very far, but I’ve read another of his books so could sorta guess where it was going.

      3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier – Another one that was hard to get into.  I meant to try it again when the movie came out; will eventually do so.

      2. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark – The language/tone turned me off.  I might try it again someday.

      1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – This also started out boring, but I plan to try it again.

      Judging by this list, it looks like “boring” used to be a big factor, which means I’ve either got better at giving books a chance, or managed to choose books that are bound to be interesting.  I guess that’s a good thing?

        Guest review ~ Five Weeks in a Balloon

        Africa Map from 1870sFive Weeks in a Balloonis a Victorian book that takes place in 1862 and was written by Jules Verne.  It is about three individuals, Dr. Samuel Ferguson, his servant Joseph Wilson, and a hunter, Richard Kennedy, who set off in a balloon off the coast of Zanzibar to cross the African continent.
        I liked this book a lot because it is very detailed and adventurous and has some science and physics in it (nothing too complex), and since I am interested in the Victorian and Edwardian times, the British Empire, and its exploration and expanse, this was quite satisfying and intriguing.
        I would give this book 5/5 stars.

        Thanks to Barnabas, my brother (and fellow Jules Verne fan), for this review! 

        Stark Munro, 13 Days, and Master of the World

        The Master of the World
        Jules Verne
        4 out of 5 stars
        A sequel to Robur the Conqueror, this 1904 Verne novel is centered on one of his classic themes: a vulnerable public terrorized by unknown and indisputably more powerful technology.  Here, U.S. lawman John Strock is sent to investigate “the Great Eyrie,” in what becomes a sort of Americanized version of 20,000 Leagues.  Though it is hardly one of Verne’s best, The Master of the World takes you into Verne’s world with very little cumbersome prose, and I found it to be a rather fun read (and the Niagara Falls scene was truly exciting!).

        The Stark Munro Letters
        Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
        4 out of 5 stars
        This interesting, often humorous series of letters can be best read as a fictional Doyle memoir, based on some real events in his early medical career.  For the medical side, read Round the Red Lamp – for the personal side, read this book.  Doyle fans will like it, as will anybody researching late Victorian life.  I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if the character Cullingsworth at least partly inspired the eccentric side of Sherlock Holmes…
        Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis
        Robert F. Kennedy
        5 out of 5 stars
        Exemplary history?  No.  A great historical memoir?  Absolutely.  As President Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was in a unique position to record the events of the crisis in Cuba.  In Thirteen Days, he gives us a firsthand account combining political and personal insights, something you can’t get from a history book.  Yes, the history is one-sided and incomplete, but it is a memoir, and the original letters/speeches are included in the appendix.  Altogether, it is an invaluable resource to accompany a more in-depth study.  If you are interested in the Cuban missile crisis and/or Cold War diplomacy, this is the book for you.