US (1958) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a sufferer of acrophobia and vertigo is forced to quit the force after his condition leads to the death of a policeman during a rooftop chase. An old friend of Scottie’s Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), believing her to have been possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, an ancestor of hers who committed suicide aged 26, the same age Madeleine is now.
Recently voted the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine and highly rated by Hitchcock aficionados as his finest film, Vertigo was a modest success upon its initial release, barely breaking even, faring little better with the critics. So, at the risk of committing treason, blasphemy, heresy and booking myself a one way ticket to the nearest gallows, while I enjoyed this film I find myself unable to completely concur and endorse the aforementioned accolades that have bestowed upon it.
Unable to get the rights to film the French novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (which became Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques), Hitchcock picked up their next novel The Living and the Dead (D’entre les morts) instead, another mystery with a subtle supernatural undercurrent to add an extra spicy twist to the story. Scottie is feeling fragile after a colleague fell to his death due to his problem with heights, and even the support of his ex-fiancée Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) can’t help him. When Gavin presents Scottie with his proposition, it is knocked back until he mentions the possession idea which sounds too ridiculous for Scottie’s ears that his police instincts take over.
Madeleine is a smartly dressed blonde (surprise surprise) who Scottie follows to her to a florists, then the grave of Carlotta Valdes and finally to an art gallery where a portrait of Carlotta hangs, the subject bearing an uncanny likeness to Madeleine. The next day he follows her to Golden Gate Bridge where Madeleine throws herself into the San Francisco Bay. Scottie saves her and takes her home where they finally talk. Madeleine explains in detail the macabre dreams she has of being at a Spanish mission and of her death. Scottie pinpoints the location as Mission San Juan Bautista, where they visit hoping to bring some closure for Madeleine but tragedy strikes when Madeleine rushes to the top of the bell tower, with Scottie’s vertigo preventing him from stopping her.
Being a Hitchcock film and a mystery this is far from the end of the story and after a plodding start, things really pick up from here. No spoilers for anyone who may not have seen the film but if you have, you know the great twist that surfaces to shape the tense final act of the film. It’s fair to say this is a film of two distinct halves with the first being a mid paced pseudo ghost story, the second a psychological thriller which puts an interesting twist on the possession theme. I’d love to talk more about the genius of this but that would require giving the plot twist away.
This is where Hitch comes alive with his trademark experimentation with the visual effects, including a partly animated surreal nightmare sequence and simply innovative camera tricks to emulate the effects of Scottie’s vertigo. The pacing leaps into second gear and never lets up, building a nice tense path towards the shocking denouement. Whereas Hitch would usually rely on mood music and innovative lighting techniques, the full effect of the tonal shift is provided purely through the acting. Scottie undergoes a drastic personality change and his treatment of the recipient provides an uneasy sense of claustrophobia to equal the discomfort of the vertigo.
Marking the fourth and final time Hitchcock worked with James Stewart, Vertigo sees the much acclaimed nice guy obliging this reputation until he wanders down a darker path in the final act, showing another side to his personality all the while remaining good old Jimmy Stewart. It’s refreshing to see him with act an edge and honestly, I doubt if anyone other than Hitch could have pulled such a performance out of the perennial good guy, but he rises to the challenge and its is presumably his work in this role that helped this film earn the high praise and beatification it has received.
Stewart however does not carry the film alone. Kim Novak first appears to be the archetypal Hitchcock leading lady – blonde, glamorous, a little mysterious – which she is, but once Madeleine’s fraught psychosis begins to take over her personality we learn there is definitely more to her than meets the eye. Then in the second half of the film (slight spoiler) Novak is given a completely different role to play, a transition she makes with some ease, disarming the audience into being convinced that perhaps it is not the same actress. Novak undergoes both a physical and attitudinal change and inhabits both skins almost naturally with a dedication to making them overtly different, such are the nuances and observed traits relative to each persona.
Perhaps it is a case of living up to the hype and the lofty praise heaped upon it but while I can see Vertigo is prime Hitchcock I personally have been more impressed and invested in Hitchcock’s other works (Psycho, North By Northwest, Rear Window, even Rope) than this although I cannot deny an appreciation for Vertigo. Perhaps on a re-watch I might “get it” but for now, I can only declare it as a great film and a great Hitchcock film but – prepares to duck – not his best.