Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo is my favorite movie of all time.

It’s a mesmerizing psychological thriller that beguiles on multiple levels, and has come to be known as the film that most reveals the man behind the camera, Alfred Hitchcock (Rear WindowThe Birds).  Vertigo is an exercise in patience, not a taut thriller in the classic sense, but one that unfolds its mysteries in complexly fascinating ways.  Quite possibly the most analyzed of the Master’s films, the fractured narrative begs for repeated viewings, and in each repeated session we’re left trying to squeeze out hope and happiness for this dysfunctional pairing, but it remains, as it always is, forever elusive.

The great Jimmy Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective suffering from vertigo, a dizzying feeling resulting a fear of heights, after suffering near-fatal trauma trying to apprehend a criminal on the rooftops of the city.  He gets a curious call from a man who claims to be an old school chum of his, Gavin Elster, who hires him to keep tabs on his suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak).  Elster asserts that Madeleine believes herself to be possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother, also a woman who took her own life at the same age.  As Scottie follows Madeleine around, he finds her to be more than just another assignment  he begins to enjoy following her around, and begins to develop feelings for her, an infatuation.

There’s much more to the story than this, but to reveal anything else would deny those who haven’t seen it one of the genuinely great mysteries ever put on film, although the plotline has often been emulated.  It’s a beguiling and impalpable work, and one of the true masterpieces of cinema, only growing better with each successive year.  To think that it was dismissed as a middling work for Hitchcock at the time of its release in 1958 for its slowness and repetitive nature.  Quite possibly, the initial reaction was due to the lack of time to contemplate the complexities of the themes, not able to see the film more than once.  Or perhaps it didn’t meet expectations, being different than the lighthearted fare that was Rear Window.

As much as I can rave on and on about what a masterwork this is, at the same time I realize that this film is not for everyone.  It’s a dark and sometimes depressing look into the heart of obsession, and just when happiness dangles within reach, Hitchcock keeps snatching it away, never allowing us but a moment’s contentment.  That’s also because it is one of Hitch’s most romantic of films, with imagery and imagination that takes what could be just a fling between a detective and someone else’s wife and makes it something special.

Vertigo is based on “d’Entre les Morts”, a book by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, which they had written especially for Hitchcock, after he lost out in gaining the rights to shoot their other masterwork, Les Diaboliques.  I’ve read an English translation of the book, and it is recommended for the curious, although Hitchcock had screenwriters Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel change a great many things, seeming like a much different work than the print version, but the cinematic touches are so brilliant, you won’t miss a thing.

Even on a level above the story itself, Vertigo transcends its medium by being a beautiful, moving painting, with some striking scenes that capture a beauty that speaks to the romantic side of the themes.  Watching Scottie pull Madeleine out from the Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing Madeleine staring thoughtfully at Carlotta’s painting, the kiss near the ocean, the sweeping embrace of reunited lovers, and the haunting images of the bell tower, they all stay with you long after you first see them.  That Bernard Herrman (Taxi DriverThe Trouble with Harry) surrounds these things with one of themost gorgeous scores put to celluloid is just icing on the cake.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t generally recommend Vertigo until you’ve seen some of Hitchcock’s more populist works, like Rear WindowNorth by Northwest, and for those who like a darker thrill, Psycho.  Once you graduate from those, and feel a ravenous desire for more, Vertigo is the coup-de-grace in making you a true Hitchcock-phile.  I can’t guarantee you’ll enjoy it as much as I do (which would seem an impossible feat), but it’s the kind of film that you don’t just enjoy for two hours, you are enriched by it for a lifetime.

Qwipster’s rating: A+

MPAA Rated: PG for adult themes
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Samuel Taylor, Alec Coppel