Published on May 9th, 1958 | by Padraic Coffey0
In 2012, Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo managed a feat that no other film had accomplished in fifty years; usurping Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its seemingly immoveable position at the top of Sight & Sounds coveted ‘Critics’ List’ of the greatest films ever made. Just how much any poll can determine the relative strengths and weaknesses of art is questionable at best, and few sensible minds would hold the Sight & Sound list up as anything other than a catalyst for lively and enjoyable debate. Nevertheless, Vertigo remains an usual choice, for while it is one of the most discussed and iconic of the English directors formidable canon of works, it is also one of his most difficult to love. There is a nihilism running throughout the film, coupled with its offbeat pacing, that has the effect of distancing viewers from the plight of the central protagonist, retired detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart).
After the famed, nightmarish opening credit sequence – designed by Saul Bellow and scored by Bernard Hermann, Hitchcock’s perennial composer of choice – we are plunged into the action with Scottie chasing an assailant across the rooftops of San Francisco, a scene the Wachowski Brothers would pay homage to in The Matrix over forty years later. When Scottie slips and is left dangling, with an accompanying officer plunging to his death in an attempt to help, his resulting agoraphobia causes him to retire from the police force. Scottie’s skills are sought again, however, when an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), enlists him to monitor his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Elster suspects Madeleine is suffering from a condition of believing herself to a doomed ancestor, which poses a threat to own safety. Scottie agrees, and becomes fixated with Madelaine, saving her life when she drops into the San Francisco Bay. Sadly, further tragedy ensues.
While it may seem redundant to resist divulging the secrets of a film that is over half a century old, first-time viewers of Vertigo should experience it with a fresh mind unsullied by too much foreknowledge. Hitchcock is often praised for the way he diverted audience attention midway through Psycho, or pulled the rug from under them in its final moments, yet Vertigo‘s plot machinations are at least the equal of that film. Perhaps the reason Vertigo is not as revered for its plot twists is in the way Hitchcock handles them. Vertigo avoids the neat three-act structure as witnessed in many cinematic thrillers. Early portions of the film, devoted to Stewart’s tailing of Novak, are languid and drawn-out. Conversely, the final act of the film, centring of revelations about Madelaine’s fate, seem slightly hurried. One moment, centring on the writing of a letter, was left in at the insistence of the President of Paramount, Barney Balaban. Hitchcock himself had advocated the removal of the scene, though as a piece of plot exposition, it is nowhere near as universally panned as the infamous ‘Psychiatrist’s explanation’ coda in Psycho.
Credit must be given to James Stewart for his performance as the compulsive Scottie. Stewart had been an American hero, both on and off-screen, since the 1930s. As well as grandstanding roles in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart had rose from private to colonel in the U.S. Army during World War Two. His role of Scottie ranks alongside blue-eyed Henry Fonda’s cold-blooded killer Frank in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West as an example of playing bravely against-type. Early scenes, featuring Scottie and his former fiancé, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), are almost comedic, and make Stewart’s transformation by the film’s conclusion all the more unsettling. At one point Scottie is told he was “the victim”, though the truth is that Madeleine is more of a victim than anyone, manipulated by both Elster and Scottie at different intervals throughout.
Hitchcock pioneered the cinematic technique known as ‘dolly zoom’, where the camera pans backwards from a subject, while simultaneously zooming in. The disorientating effect caused by this angle mimics the vertigo felt by Stewart at key moments, and would subsequently be used by Steven Spielberg in Jaws and Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. Other experimental flourishes, such as a dream sequence bordering on the silly, are less successful.
Vertigo was extensively restored in 1996, and now looks more beautiful than ever, with the vibrant blues of San Francisco Bay captured in stunning detail. Despite the many accolades it has received, Vertigo remains a much harder film to cherish than Rear Window, North by Northwest or even Psycho (the latter featuring allusions to grave-robbing and incest). These films were all released during the same period in Hitchcock’s career, and it could an indication of Vertigo‘s success that it stands out among them. The devastating bleakness of the film’s final shots, predating George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead by a decade, remain among the most downbeat in cinema. That any film can be dubbed “the greatest” is quite laughable, and Vertigo does not merit such a lofty title. That said, it demands to be seen, to further fuel the lively and enjoyable debate of which Hitchock would no doubt have approved.