Vertigo – 1958 – dir. Alfred Hitchcock
I never get tired of talking about Alfred Hitchcock; he is my favorite director. His movies bear up under repeated scrutinies. They appear as fresh and as new on the 10th or 15th viewing as they do on the first. As I have said before — the least effort by Hitchcock is far superior to the best effort of a lesser director (same with Woody Allen). Both men became masters of their craft such that they are able to elevate even a slight storyline into the world of the sublime. Do you agree with me, or do you?
There is nothing “slight”, though, about Vertigo. The tremendousness of it has lasted long past its 1958 debut and, just this year, the British Film Institute of Sight and Sound Survey of the Greatest Films of All Time named Vertigo # 1 knocking Citizen Kane out of its revered and long-held spot at the top of the tree.
Vertigo tells the story of Scottie Ferguson, a private investigator hired by a husband to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster, and try to find out what, if anything, she is up to. I am not spoiling it for you when I tell you that something happens to the wife, that Scottie blames himself totally for the mishap and latches, quite obsessively onto a woman who just happens to look like Madeleine. He transfers the feelings he had for the first woman onto her doppelganger. And the mystery takes us from there…
Vertigo is an exciting story of love and betrayal. I have never heard it referred to as a “noir” but a noir it most certainly is — its story of an alluring femme fatale (the voluptuous and impossibly sultry Kim Novak, here at the height of her seductive star powers) who leads a kind, compassionate man to the brink of insanity (symbolized by the neurological — or is it? — condition of vertigo he suffers from) depicted by Hitchcock in swirling pin-wheels of kaleidoscopic onset and all, hypnotic, just as Madeleine Elster hypnotizes Scottie Ferguson. Her own confusion becomes his, and ours, a love more real than either of them realizes, a love too toxic for them to drink.
Critics of the 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 specialty involves being able to scrutinize people and piece together human jigsaw puzzles remain blind to the fact that he has met an entirely different person from the one he knew before? But haven’t you met or seen people who remind you so much of a former love that the passion you felt for the former paramour carries over to their double? I have. It happens in life a lot and it happens to Scottie because any magnificent obsession ensures that all common sense and logic will get tossed out the window when he believes he has found his true love again.
My favorite actor of all time has always been the marvelous Jimmy Stewart. In film after film, he never once disappoints. His range is astounding and the intensity of whatever emotion he is asked to portray is so overpowering yet so real (love, hate, rage, tenderness, terror) that he takes you on rides you never thought possible. As if his many gifts of expression are not satisfying enough for any moviegoer, he runs them all on a string of extreme likability making him one of the most accessible screen presences and one of America’s most beloved performers of all time. There seemed no end to what he was capable of — he played romantic leads, gunslingers, politicians, gumshoes, rubes, grandpas all with equal panache and skill. Jimmy Stewart was a wonder. And in Vertigo 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!
Kim Novak was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in the 50s and 60s. Here, she displays a keen sense of nuance and diversity, playing two women very different from each other. Novak didn’t need any camera tricks or special lighting effects to make her beautiful; her natural beauty and perfect profile illuminate the screen with an aura that is rare. But she was never just a pretty face and here she infuses her dual roles with complex depths of understanding. It is a real loss to the Hollywood community that an undiagnosed bipolar disorder caused her to flee at an early age from Hollywood and what was a very fine career.
Barbara bel Geddes is sensible and sane as Midge Wood, the girl who loves Scottie unconditionally. Hollywood greats Henry Jones and Ellen Corby do a super job in supporting roles.
No Hitchcock movie would be complete (dare I say — wouldn’t even work?) without the music of Bernard Hermann. His scores and Hitchcock’s stories were a match made in
heaven. Since Vertigo is about obsession, it keeps circling back to where it began — the mind cannot move forward too far — it keeps returning again and again to the beginning — and so Hermann’s music score does the same, the notes full, swirling circles going around and around, fulfillment followed by despair. The viewer cannot shake the music off any more than Scottie can shake his relentless yearning for Madeleine/Judy. It keeps coming back, a deadly bee that cannot be swatted away until it stings…
The legendary Edith Head uses clothes and costuming to highlight and enhance character development — she was a wiz at this — choosing sedate grays to ground and make elegant the polished and sophisticated, muted and mysterious Madeleine; brassy greens and reds to further cheapen streetwise, smart Judy Barton.
Vertigo popularized “the dolly zoom”, still used in movies today, an interior camera effect that alters perspective and perceptions to create dizzy spells or to preclude flashbacks.
Vertigo is so attractive on so many levels, so rich in multi-layers of expression, psychological intricacy, intrigue, plot twists, dreams and nightmares, facts and fictions. It is Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece.