By Leo Racicot
I never lose interest in the work of my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. His films hold up under repeated scrutiny. They feel as fresh on the fifteenth viewing as they do on the first. As I have written elsewhere, Hitchcock’s smaller efforts are superior to the greatest efforts of other directors. The might be said of Woody Allen’s work. Both directors became such masters of their craft that they could elevate even an apparently minor story to the realm of the sublime.
There is nothing slight, however, about Vertigo. The tremendous significance of the film has lasted long past its debut in 1958. Just this year, in fact, the Survey of the Greatest Films of All Time, a list compiled by the British Film Institute of Sight and Sound, placed Vertigo in the number one spot, knocking Citizen Kane out of its revered and long-held place at the top.
Vertigo tells the story of Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a private investigator hired by Gavin Elster to follow Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and find out what, if anything, she is up to. To mention anything more than the narrative core of the film—i.e., something happens to Madeleine, for which Scottie blames himself, subsequently obsessively latching onto a woman who looks identical to Madeleine, and transferring his feelings for Madeleine onto her doppelgänger—would be unkind to cinephiles and the general public who haven’t given themselves the gift of experiencing Vertigo. Let the mystery takes us from here…
Vertigo is an exciting story of love and betrayal. It might be the archetypical noir: an alluring femme fatale (the voluptuous and impossibly sultry Kim Novak, here at the height of her seductive star powers) leading a kind, compassionate man to the brink of insanity, manifested in Ferguson’s purportedly neurological condition of vertigo, depicted by Hitchcock in swirling pin-wheels of kaleidoscopic cinematography and all hypnotic, just as Madeleine Elster hypnotizes Scottie Ferguson. Indeed, Hitchcock’s masterpiece enacts its own themes. Form and content are one. The vertiginous experiences Ferguson suffers are mirrored in the experience of watching the film, taking the element of viewer-character identification into the beyond. Likewise, Madeleine’s confusion becomes not only Ferguson’s but also ours, and their love more real than either recognizes, a love too toxic for them to drink.
Critics of Vertigo’s plot say it stretches the elastic of credibility to the point of snapping. How, they ask, can Stewart’s character, a savvy private eye whose expertise is scrutinizing people and piecing together human jigsaw puzzles, remain blind to the fact that he has met an entirely different person from the one he knew originally? Maybe these critics haven’t had the uncanny experience of becoming romantically intimate with someone who reminds you so much of a former lover that the passion you felt for the previous paramour carries over to the new one. This phenomenon can plunge into a life. It does so in Scottie’s because his magnificent obsession with Madeleine’s doppelgänger means that common sense and logic will fly out the window when he believes he has found his true love again, albeit in a new form.
My favorite actor of all time has always been the marvelous Jimmy Stewart. In film after film, he never disappoints. He has astounding range, and the intensity of whatever emotion he portrays—be it love, hate, rage, tenderness, or terror—is overpowering yet real that he takes you on rides you never thought possible. If his innumerable gifts of expression couldn’t satisfy any moviegoer, they are all shot through with a string of Stewart’s extreme likability, thus making him one cinema’s most beloved and accessible performers ever. His capabilities as an actor knew no end: he played romantic leads, gunslingers, politicians, gumshoes, rubes, grandpas, and an iconic private eye with panache and skill. Jimmy Stewart was a wonder. His performance as Scottie Ferguson is as near to perfect as an actor can get. From the moment he falls for Madeleine, he has the audience in his pocket!
Speaking of Madeleine, Kim Novak was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 50s and 60s. In Vertigo, she displays a keen sense of nuance and diversity, playing two very different women. Novak also didn’t need any camera tricks or special lighting accentuate her natural beauty, which continues to light up the screen with her unique aura anytime Vertigo is played. Never just a pretty face, here she infuses her two roles with complex depths of understanding. It is a real loss for her and the Hollywood community that her career was tragically cut short by undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which caused her to leave the film industry at the start of a very fine career.
The supporting actors play a key role in the success of the film as well. Barbara bel Geddes is sensible and sane as Midge Wood, the girl who loves Scottie unconditionally. Hollywood greats Henry Jones and Ellen Corby do similarly superb work in their roles.
No Hitchcock movie would be complete without the music of Bernard Hermann. His scores and Hitchcock’s stories were a match made in heaven. Hermann’s scores have become so integral to Hitchcock’s films that one wonders whether the latter could function without the former. Since “Vertigo” focuses on obsession, it keeps circling back to where it began. The corresponding idea, which impels the film, is that the mind cannot move too far forward without returning to the beginning, and so Hermann’s music score does the same. The full circles of notes swirl around and around, mimicking fulfillment followed by despair. The viewer cannot shake the music off any more than Scottie can shake his relentless yearning for Madeleine and her doppelgänger Judy. Everything keeps returning, deadly bees that cannot be swatted away until they sting…
Costume designer Edith Head highlighted each character’s psychology and enhanced their development. Her invaluable and historically underappreciated contribution to the film was through costume design, without which Vertigo certainly wouldn’t have achieved its legendary status. By choosing sedate grays, she grounded and made elegant the polished, sophisticated, muted, and mysterious Madeleine; and with brassy greens and reds she further cheapened streetwise, smart Judy Barton.
Ever the innovative film, Vertigo also popularized “the dolly zoom”, still used in movies today, an interior camera effect that alters perspective and perceptions to create dizzy spells or as a prelude to flashbacks.
Vertigo is so enthralling on so many levels, so rich in its layers of expression, psychological intricacy, intrigue, plot twists, dreams and nightmares, facts and fictions. More than the masterpiece of one especially prolific and influential filmmaker’s career, it is a cornerstone of not merely American but world cinema.