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Jeff Simon: A life haunted by Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'

My life changed forever on May 28, 1958. It was a Wednesday. That was the day of the week that movies opened back then.

That was the date that Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" premiered in America. This Wednesday, part of its exceptional Hitchcock series, Turner Classic Movies will show a visually optimal version of "Vertigo" at 8 p.m.

I was in the opening day line for the film at Buffalo's late-lamented Paramount Theater, which used to be located next door to the Shea's Buffalo.

I'm a little abashed to admit now that I wasn't drawn to the film as much by Hitchcock's name as I was by the genius of Saul Bass. The ad campaign in Life magazine began with Bass' tantalizing graphic artwork in bold aggressive red with neither the name of the film nor the cast. By the time later that Bass' ads finally started appearing with the film's title I was hooked. I was 13, a perfect age to be manipulated by advertising genius.

What I saw onscreen at the Paramount changed forever everything I knew about movies. I would never say now that I immediately understood everything I was seeing back then. But I've never been able to get it out of my head either – nor would I want to. (I make a habit of seeing the film every three or four years.)

The film has, quite literally, haunted my life ever since. Emotions that I was far too young to have imagined, let alone felt, somehow swept me along in their power, even though I didn't really get them. I understood the devastation of Jimmy Stewart's depression over the death of Madeline (Kim Novak) and somehow went along with his obsession to recreate her when he spotted her near-double Judy on the street.

Absolutely nothing in the life of a spoiled 13-year old boy connects directly or indirectly with what goes on in "Vertigo," but that is what swallowed me whole for the rest of my life.

What I was watching was, in fact, as incomprehensible as a dream – but also as hauntingly logical in its way. I had never seen any movie that allowed me to dream while being fully awake in the dark. Movies, up to that point, had been entertainments; minor things to which my coddled life was vastly superior.

"Vertigo" was mysterious and powerful and separate from life in a way nothing had ever been before. I had paid lip service to the idea of visual art before seeing it but I really didn't understand it yet.

After seeing "Vertigo," I did. It was something you could be in awe of and, with luck, stay that way for the rest of your life. What I was experiencing was that contentment with mystery that I later discovered John Keats had called "negative capability."

Everything changed for me after those two hours of dreaming wide awake in the dark. I wanted to see all the art films that were suddenly coming to America in the wake of Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" in 1959 (another dream film, just like "Vertigo") – the French New Wave films, the Italian masters, the films from Indian and Japan that were shown by Fred A. Keller when he began showing movies at the first Circle Art Theater on Connecticut Street.

On Sept. 8, 1960, I virtually repeated the "Vertigo" experience by standing in line at the Paramount for the Buffalo premiere of Hitchcock's "Psycho." Many would argue that the premiere of "Psycho" was the most influential event in modern American film.

People have asked me all my life what my favorite movie is. It's a question I've never been able to answer. The list is far too long, not to mention mutable, day-to-day, hour-by-hour. What I always wind up saying is that "Vertigo" is the movie that changed everything I understood about movies.

To put it mildly, its effect on the world wasn't the same as its effect on me at the time. It was neither a commercial or a critical hit (how it struck Bosley Crowther, the legendarily clueless film critic of the Times in 1958: it's "all about how a dizzy fellow chases after a dizzy dame, the fellow being an ex-detective and the dame being – well, you guess.").

1958 in general wasn't exactly a good year. There was a World's Fair in Brussels, but a recession had hit America. 5.2 million people were unemployed. Packard Motor cars went out of business. Elvis had left the building – and gone into the Army.

It was not a year that looked for awe or even encouraged it.

For a couple of decades afterward, there was a slow accretion of critical understanding of a masterpiece that was way before its time. Finally, in 2012, a poll of critics for Britain's Sight and Sound Magazine voted it the greatest film of the sound era. It was the first time anything had ever beaten Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" for that title.

I have shown the film at various venues over the years and talked about it – sometimes in places where the system of projection was guaranteed to make a hash of the film's visual splendor. I've noticed that some audiences in the postmodern world have trouble now seeing the obsession of Stewart as Scottie to be heart-wrenching and tragic in its near-pathology.

It is too strange and implausible and even silly for some people. The idea of a dreamlike movie about an absurd world that has the logic of dreams seems foolish to those coming from a post-Saturday Night Live world where irony rules.

Unless you could watch that gorgeous collision of dreams and reality in the movie with the understanding that its climax will be deeply tragic.

And in a way that – if you're with it – you'll never forget.

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