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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

Dominic Corry: The most vertiginous movies ever

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Inspired by the terrifying cinematic heights of new Hillary drama Beyond the Edge, movie blogger Dominic Corry names his most vertiginous movies ever.

Chad Moffitt as Ed Hillary & Sonam Sherpa as Tenzing Norgay in 'Beyond the Edge'.
Chad Moffitt as Ed Hillary & Sonam Sherpa as Tenzing Norgay in 'Beyond the Edge'.

The fantastic new Hillary-conquers-Everest 3D docudrama Beyond The Edge (which opens in cinemas this week) works for many reasons, but what I appreciated most about the film was how it so effectively captured a sense of cinematic vertigo.

The agoraphobic expanse of Mt. Everest comes through loud and clear in the slickly mounted re-creations of Hillary's historic climb, and I often caught myself gripping the arms of my seat during these moments.

As I mentioned in my blog about Gravity a few weeks back, I love it when films tap into my fear of heights. However, there aren't a lot of films that do this.

To celebrate Beyond The Edge's achievements in this regard, I am going to cite what I consider to be the most vertiginous movies ever, in rough chronological order.

The first film that comes to mind when considering such things is of course Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece Vertigo, now considered by the most authoritative source on these matters to be the greatest film ever made.

Vertigo is a dizzingly good film that taps into all sorts of obsessive fears and desires, but ironically enough, doesn't represent Hitchcock's best work in the realm of vertiginous filmmaking.

The opening rooftop action scene has a pretty cool falling death, but it's the psychological aspects of Vertigo that make it work so well, not the high-up set-pieces.

And while the shot the film is most famous for - the simultaneous reverse dolly/forward zoom known as the 'Vertigo effect' - is a fantastically unsettling visual technique and a great metaphor for Jimmy Stewart's psychological torment, it has never inspired actual vertigo in me. Just mild dizziness.

For me, the most vertigo-inducing scene Hitchcock ever directed came earlier, in 1942's espionage thriller Saboteur. The film famously climaxes atop the Statue of Liberty, where an intensely vertiginous scene plays out as the hero attempts to stop the bad guy from falling. It's great stuff.

Hitch explored similar territory in the climax of 1955's North By Northwest, set atop Mt. Rushmore.

Outside of Hitchcock, the most memorably vertiginous movie from Hollywood's Golden Age is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1947 masterpiece Black Narcicuss.

Concerning a bunch of nuns losing their rag in a convent high up in the Himalayas, the staggeringly beautiful film features numerous breathtaking cliff-side scenes. It's all the more impressive considering the whole thing was shot in a studio - all the plummeting drops are exquisitely-rendered matte paintings! No CGI cliffs have ever done as good a job of making me think I was going to fall off them.

The proliferation of large scale World War II movies in the '60s allowed for some bigger budgeted attempts at cinematic vertigo, none more famously than 1968's Where Eagles Dare, which tellingly has one of the most vertiginous movie posters ever.

The cable car action scene in this Boys' Own classic may not quite live up to the drama promised on the poster, but it's still an enduringly vertiginous moment in a film that has many.

The vertiginous possiblities of cable car action were later exploited by one of cinema's greatest purveyors of the vertigo-inducing action scene - the Bond series. 1979's Moonraker features a fantastic cable car action scene that occurs high above Rio De Janeiro.

The mountaintop monastery assault that climaxes the subsequent James Bond film, 1981's For Your Eyes Only, also has some pretty cool high-up action; as does the Golden Gate Bridge-set finalé of 1983's Octopussy.

I also felt my vertigo glands being tickled by the sight of Timothy Dalton dangling out the back of a cargo plane in 1987's The Living Daylights.

The modern James Bond films have yet to do much in the area of vertiginous action, save perhaps for the construction-site set-piece at the beginning of Casino Royale. I hope they amend this in upcoming installments.

Although the optimistically-titled 1985 action movie Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (it was retitled as the less ambitious Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous for the international release) was intended to be the first in a more blue collar alternative to the Bond series, only one film was ever produced.

But what a film it is! In addition to starring my all-time favourite actor, Fred Ward, in one of his best-ever roles, this features some of the most vertiginous action scenes ever filmed. The dazzling set-piece that occurs atop a scaffold-laden Statue of Liberty (it was being cleaned) contains numerous instances of inner ear-challenging action that keeps me coming back to the film year after year. All hail Remo!

My all-time favourite movie, the 1974 conspiracy thriller The Parallax View, opens with an assassination that occurs at the top of the Seattle Space Needle. In the resulting scuffle, a man stumbles off the edge. It's hauntingly vertiginous, and looks like they really shot it up there.

Deadly Pursuit (aka Shoot To Kill), an otherwise unremarkable 1988 action thriller starring Tom Berenger and Sydney Poitier features some quite cool high-up mountain path action that involves more than one dude being shoved off a cliff to his doom. I find such scenes stangely compelling.

The 1991 mountain-climbing drama K2 contains some quite cool hanging-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff scenes, as does the 1975 Clint Eastwood non-classic The Eiger Sanction, according to my faded memories of said film, at least.

A significant turning point in cinematic vertigo came with the underrated 1993 survival film Alive which told the true tale of the Uruguayan rugby team whose charter plane crashed in the Andes mountains in 1972.

In addition to setting a visceral new standard for plane-crash scenes, Alive broke new ground its portrayal of mountainous terror.

In the latter section of the movie, some of the survivors attempt to trek through the mountains to reach help and are plagued by invisible snowy ravines and jutting rocky precipices. I still get nervous watching these scenes.

For all Alive's vertiginous glory, the same year would see the release of the most vertiginous movie ever - the Sylvester Stallone action epic Cliffhanger.

In my mind, this remains the gold standard against which all subsequent attempts at cinematic vertigo are judged. It also happens to be one of the best action movies of the '90s.

The legendary opening falling scene is justly iconic, and still very effective. The rest of the film features heaps of cool cliff-side action and vertiginous filmmaking, and holds up awesomely well on repeat viewing.

Unfortunately, fickle test screening audiences resulted in what could've been the coolest scene of the movie being excised before it was released.

As director Renny Harlin explains in the deleted scenes on the Bluray, just after the rope bridge is destroyed, we were originally supposed to see Stallone's character performing a "King's Leap" - i.e. hurling himself out over the open gap attached to a rope with the goal of landing on the opposite cliff to provide a way across for himself and Janine Turner's character. It's a moment that was heavily hyped in the trailer and even features on the poster in silhouette.

Alas, some fool decided this was a step too far into superhumanism for Stallone (compared to the stark realism of the rest of the movie, one imagines) and cut out the scene. The money shot from the King's Leap scene (the shot featured on the film's poster) was awkwardly inserted into a different action scene of the movie, robbing the potentially heart-stopping moment of all its power. Blerg.

Seven years later, a film that took considerable inspiration from Cliffhanger would feature a King's Leap of its own, and it was pretty freaking great.

The New Zealand-shot Vertical Limit was neither a flop nor a hit, but it won me over big-time by seeming to exist solely to showcase hardcore vertiginous action.

It shamelessly rips-off Cliffhanger with its own opening scene featuring a traumatic falling death that haunts the main characters, but I think I almost prefer Vertical Limit's energetic take on this gambit. The heart-stopping cliff-side set-piece always gives me chills.

The only movie I can think of released between Vertical Limit and Gravity that really tapped into my vertiginous fears is the 2008 documentary Man On Wire, but the power of that film wasn't so much visual as psychological.

The cliffside ninja scene in this year's G.I. Joe: Retaliation was pretty cool I suppose, and the underrated 2010 horror Frozen - which concerns three friends who get stuck on a ski field chairlift overnight - achieved some decent vertiginous thrills.

With both Gravity and Beyond The Edge currently in theatres, fans of vertiginous cinema have a lot to be thankful for, but my thoughts are focused on what the next great vertiginous movie will be. I feel like the Final Destination series could have something to offer in this area.

Do you like vertiginous movies? Which examples have I missed here? Is The Eiger Sanction worth revisiting? Holler back if you love Remo! Comment below!

- NZ Herald

Dominic Corry

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things movie.

One of New Zealand's most vocal and enthusiastic film critics for over ten years, Dominic's cinematic opinions can also be heard on radio and seen on television. His list of favourite movies is always evolving, but is generally likely to feature The Lady Vanishes (1938); Vertigo (1958); The Parallax View (1972); Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978); Aliens (1986); Midnight Run (1989); Metropolitan (1990) and Primer (2002). He also reviews snack food.

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