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Back in 1958 Vertigo was considered a misfire from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but now over 50 years later, with a strong restoration and a number of clever reissues, many deem it one of Hitch’s best films and maybe his most personal. Like Notorious before it, underneath the suspense it’s a love story, but a twisted kind of love, obsession. Jimmy Stewart finishes off his Hitchcock trifecta after The Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window (not counting the much earlier Rope), putting a twist on his everyman and giving one of the most complicated psychological performances of his career. Vertigo also proves to be career peaks for the stunning Kim Novak and for film composer Bernard Herrman. If you can get past some of the plottyness of the film's first act Vertigo proves to be a film worth obsessing over.
The film is based on the novel The Living And The Dead by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, who also wrote the deliberately Hitchcockian thriller Les Diaboliques (whose film version by Henri-Georges Clouzot had a big impact on Hitch and helped to push him in the more shocking direction that lead to Psycho and later Frenzy).
Stewart plays Scottie, a retired San Francisco police detective. He suffers from acrophobia, acquiring an extreme fear of heights after nearly falling from a building (where his partner was killed). Spending his days chit-chatting with his confidant and one time fiancÃ© Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), he is called on by an ex-colleague bud Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) for some investigation work. Elster is worried about his wife Madeleine (Novak), she hasn’t been herself, she seems to be obsessed with a dead woman (her great grandmother) whose portrait she stares at in the museum. Scottie agrees to follow her and eventually saves her from killing herself next to the Golden Gate Bridge. The two get close and Scottie falls hard for her. Later she falls from a Mission bell tower and is killed, it’s declared a suicide. And that’s just the first half of the movie.
The second half finds a depressed Scottie roaming the streets, going to Madeleine’s old stomping grounds. He spots a woman, Judy, who reminds him of her (also played by Novak, but now with different hair). Scottie stalks her, then woos her, then gets real creepy and tries to remake her so she looks and sounds more like Madeleine. It turns out she is Madeleine, only she was just posing as Madeleine, Scottie never saw the real Miss Elster, it was an elaborate plot by Gavin to kill his real wife. Complicated? Yes. And this is the simple version; on screen the film is even more insane.
Vertigo is a film about madness and obsession. Stewart’s Scottie lives in an almost nightmare state, first obsessed with his past accident and then over Madeleine’s. Stewart is phenomenal in the role. In an era when the great method actors were beginning to dominate film, Stewart proves he had just as much emotional depth at his disposal without the theatrics. Kim Novak in her signature role was known more as a glamorpuss, tabloid darling than as a great actress, but she proves to be perfectly cast in Vertigo’s duel roles and brings a dreamy, haunting quality to her work in the first half and a sad unglamorous feel to the second.
Vertigo is shot in lush colors by Hitch’s usual go-to guy of this era, Robert Burks. They manage to give the film almost a Douglas Sirk melodramatic touch. To this day it still has the quintessential images of the Golden Gate Bridge ever put on screen and works as a great travelogue to 1950s San Francisco. After decades of iconic scores (from Citizen Kane to Psycho to Taxi Driver), Bernard Herrmann creates perhaps his greatest. On the outside it’s romantic, but underneath there’s an eerie sound of desperate emotion running through it, like the film itself. Its score is now the standard for obsession thrillers.
The complicated plot and over two hour running time put off audiences in 1958. Hitchcock would follow it with the more audience friendly North By Northwest, a massive hit, and then challenge audiences again with Psycho (his biggest hit). But why did it take first French film critics and then decades later a much ballyhooed restoration and re-release for people to recognize it as one of Hitchcock’s best? In the film world it had been imitated for years, its influence can be felt in the work of Truffaut (The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid), Polanski (Chinatown, Frantic), and most obviously De Palma (Obsession, Body Double). Like many great films that were not appreciated in their day, often it takes time and history to feel their impact. Now we know what audiences didn’t fully realize then - Hitchcock was way ahead of the curve.
Vertigo was nominated for two Oscars: Best Art Direction and Best Sound.