Release Date: May 28th, 1958 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Ellen Corby
ernard Hermann’s hypnotic, haunting score and an eerie title sequence moving about a woman’s face are the harbingers of Alfred Hitchcock’s fascinatingly cabalistic “Vertigo.” It’s a spellbinding mystery, an engrossing thriller, and a vivid romance all rolled into one, featuring that recognizable touch of foreboding and nail-biting suspense that marks Hitchcock’s works. Frequently ranking on critics’ lists of the greatest of all films, it is a truly one-of-a-kind concoction, based on the French novel “The Living and the Dead” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – the follow-up to their collaborative “She Who Was No More” (adapted into 1955’s “Les Diaboliques”), which was itself an astoundingly Hitchcockian product.
During a rooftop chase of a suspect, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and dangles from a lofty precipice, causing an officer to fall to his death while attempting a rescue. Permanently marred by guilt and only able to blame his severe acrophobia (the fear of heights) and subsequent vertigo, he quits the police force. Ex-fiancée and current frequent companion Marjorie “Midge” Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) suggests that another equally shocking occurrence might be the cure for his occasionally crippling disorientation.
When Scottie is contacted by college chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), now a shipbuilder, a premise for just such a situation arises. He’s asked to spy on Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), a detached blonde seemingly possessed by the spirit of a dead madwoman. On the first day of tailing Madeleine’s activities, Scottie witnesses the girl visit a museum to study the “Portrait of Carlotta,” which she endeavors to resemble with her hairstyle and accessories. He also learns that she’s becoming obsessed with mimicking elements of the real Carlotta’s (her own great-grandmother) life, despite being completely unaware of the jealousy and depression that resulted in Carlotta’s eventual suicide several generations ago. The following day, Scottie is in for a surprise when he must dive into San Francisco Bay to save Madeleine from what appears to be a suicide attempt.
The pacing is masterful, slowly building tension and intrigue in equal portions, adding details to an intricate story with uncanny characters. Similar to “North by Northwest” (made a year later), the flirtatious repartee between Stewart and Novak adds humor and intensity to a world of enigmatic, terrifying happenings. As the plot progresses, the use of recollecting disturbing dreams, toying at insinuations toward character’s sanities, blank stares, spontaneous actions, and an unexpected twist right in the middle of the film (and then a striking reveal shortly thereafter, not far removed from the shock of offing Janet Leigh early on in “Psycho” ) creates striking anticipation and a uniqueness in structure rarely, if ever, duplicated onscreen.
Scottie wishes to explain everything with sensible facts, so there’s a striking irony to his mental deterioration and unyielding obsession at the hands of a brief romance plagued by convincingly supernatural touches. Deceit leads to Scottie’s maddening, controlling attempt to recreate a forbidden image – his own maniacal method of repairing emotional torment, which ultimately leads to momentary clarity, damning truths, and perverse justice. Although the conclusion is abrupt (an aspect contemporary audiences won’t as easily forgive, and for which extra footage exists as a foreign censorship cut), and the overuse of zooms and day-for-night lighting issues are noticeable, the kaleidoscopic animation, flashing colors, and shots fading into one another are much more inspiring, creating a dreamlike quality to transitions and the passing of time. And, of course, there is also the famously fraught ascending of the bell tower. “Vertigo” is one of Hitchcock’s finest achievements, layering drama, a love story, adventure, and hair-raising suspense into a psychological murder-mystery that simply has no peers.
– Mike Massie