Continuing my Halloween theme, I decided to discuss one of my favorite thrillers of all time. I’m not one for hype. In fact, if something is hyped up that generally makes me not want to watch it. There’s a certain cache to being apart of a fandom that has few members. You feel like you know a secret no one else does.
When I originally saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, I believe I was in elementary school. I remember thinking it was okay, but I certainly didn’t consider it one of my favorites; never mind the greatest film ever made. A few years back, I saw the film at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, as part of the American Cinematheque’s schedule and was blown away. Maybe it’s because I was older or because I saw it on the big screen. Whatever the reason, I was amazed by the artistry of this film: it’s a true masterclass.
If you’re unfamiliar, Vertigo, made in 1958, follows John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a San Francisco detective who suffers from acrophobia. He is asked by an old friend to investigate his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak). It begins as a ghost story. Madeleine shares a lot in common with her ancestor, Carlotta, who committed suicide. Scottie begins to think that Madeleine may be the reincarnation of Carlotta. Let’s just say, much drama and suspense ENSUE…
Here are just a few reasons why Vertigo is worth the hype:
This is probably Jimmy Stewart’s best performance, which says a lot considering how many classic films he starred in and how many amazing performances he gave. Stewart had already filmed It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and of course, Rear Window. In Vertigo, he’s his usual self – rugged, smart, and heartbreaking.
It’s difficult to imagine this film without Kim Novak. However, the Madeleine part originally went to Vera Miles, who later showed up in Hitchcock’s Psycho. She dropped out of the film because she got pregnant. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I will say that Novak plays two roles in this film. She’s mysterious, alluring, beautiful, and surprisingly vulnerable.
“Novak already had a reputation for being difficult, so perhaps it was not a surprise when she refused to show up for work on the Vertigo set in August, 1957. She was striking for more money from her home studio Columbia, who was paying her $1,250 a week even though they were receiving $250,000 for her loan-out for Vertigo and one more picture. The ploy worked and Novak got a raise (John M. Miller, TCM Article).”
Barbara Bel Geddes, who I’ve spoken about before when I discussed Caught, gets sort of the short end of the stick in this film. In truth, before seeing Caught, Vertigo was the only film I knew her from. Despite her sidekick role in this film, she makes an impression.
I’ve discussed some lesser known Hitchcock films on the blog, including Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes. He was a genius, but you already know that. You’ve heard his name a million times in reference to Psycho probably. By this time, his direction style was pretty well solidified. He loved messing with the audience.
He was most interested in Scottie’s obsession in the film, so much so that most critics theorize that the entire plot of Vertigo is the macguffin (something that gets the plot in motion but is not relevant to the audience) of the film.
This movie works on so many levels and obviously, as with all Hitchcock films, he was the one pulling the strings. If someone asks for a Hitchcock recommendation, this is the one I send them to.
Hitch loved getting the rights to novels and throwing away the story. He did the same in the case of Vertigo, gaining the rights to D’entre les Morts, or in English, The Living and the Dead, a French novel by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau. He changed the setting from Paris to San Francisco and added a new aspect of obsession to the story. Alex Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor penned the script which is all over the place in the best possible way. There are light, flirty, fun moments and dark, depressing, unbelievably thrilling ones.
I loved the idea that’s the main plot at the beginning of the film – that this woman may be the reincarnation of her ancestor. It’s creepy and thought provoking. It’s psychological and has us questioning not only Madeleine’s sanity, but our protagonist’s.
I don’t wish to ruin the film if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll just say that the story subverts expectations. It doesn’t go where you think it will and that only puts you more on the edge of your seat. It’s one of those films where no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you’re tense.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of Bernard Hermann’s incredible score. It functions as another character in the film and is hauntingly beautiful. Hermann was, of course, responsible for some of the greatest film scores ever written, including Taxi Driver, Psycho and Citizen Kane.
Robert Burks served as DP on most of Hitch’s films including Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and Dial M for Murder. At a base level, this film is just plain beautifully shot. The technicolor is absorbing and vivid. Hitchcock also broke ground on new camera techniques in this film, but it was always in support of the story. For instance, here’s how he dealt with showing Scottie’s fear of heights:
“It was 2nd unit cameraman Irmin Roberts who created the in-camera special effect that has since become known as a “contra-zoom shot”, a “trombone shot” or, most popularly, the “vertigo shot.” It is created when using a zoom lens to adjust the field of view while the camera is physically moving toward or away from a subject in the frame. This causes a distortion of the perspective – the background of a scene appears to change size while the main subject remains the same. Since this optical effect has no correlation to normal human perception, the result is mentally disorienting (John M. Miller, TCM Article).”
It’s suspenseful, creepy, and completely absorbing…
When the film was released in 1958, audiences didn’t really know what to think of it. It wasn’t particularly well received by the critics either. Over time and several re-rereleases, the film has become known as the greatest film ever made, or at least, on par with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Vertigo is a perfect Halloween movie. This is one case where I believe the hype fits the film. It is expert in every aspect and is necessary viewing for any film fan. Vertigo has so much to absorb that it REQUIRES multiple viewings. If you’ve never seen the film, I recommend trying to catch it on the big screen. Experiencing it with an audience is essential.
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