Hitchcock Reviews: “Vertigo” (1958)
Posted by therebelprince on April 28, 2012
Welcome back to my Hitchcock reviews. This week, I’m narrowing the focus to just one film: Vertigo.
“Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.”
– Madeleine, Vertigo
written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor, from the novel by Boileau-Narcejac
Retired detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) is assigned to tail the wife (Kim Novak) of an old friend, and is drawn into a web of deceit, love, and terror.
Alfred Hitchcock was, famously, a film lover. That desire to make the most of his chosen medium propelled the director through his early years in Great Britain, and, as the ’50s and ’60s gave rise to fascinating new schools of thought on film-making, Hitch would routinely screen the new works in his home or a cinema. Although he was (at least, for the most part) happy with the choices he had made, and the film styles he worked with, Hitchcock clearly felt the desire to keep challenging himself, and to evolve his techniques. By 1958, he was equally as celebrated amongst the European Cahiers crowd as he was amongst mainstream American filmgoers. From the day Psycho premiered in 1960, Hitchcock would face further and further mixed reactions from the public and the critics alike. But, for now, his future was golden.
Vertigo‘s critical fortunes have waxed and waned over the years. From initial critical indifference, the film was re-evaluated throughout the ’80s and ’90s, often considered one of the greatest films ever made. In the last few years, I’ve frequently seen it called “overrated” by a new group of critics, and I daresay it won’t be the last volte-face Hitchcock’s masterpiece undergoes.
Well, I guess using the word “masterpiece” has kind of tipped my hand. Along with The Birds, Vertigo is a film that significantly impacted my critical and creative faculties, so I can’t profess to be objective about things. Still, it’s hard to see what’s to dislike about Vertigo. A consummate work, the film is impeccably prepared, with each frame lovingly prepared by the director, creating a haunting San Francisco which increasingly alienates Scottie and Madeleine, the woman he is assigned to follow. Bernard Herrmann’s score, endlessly circling in on itself, is perhaps the greatest of his collaborations with Hitchcock, no less iconic than the two that follow. This is also Robert Burks’ greatest of his colour collaborations with Hitchcock, lavishly designed, unceasingly beautiful. Kim Novak’s grey suit is perhaps the most iconic element of the film, endlessly referenced in films since.
Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s most complicated-but-logical plots (it would be followed the year after by his most complicated-yet-illogical script). As such, he needed actors who could do justice to the characters at hand. Thankfully, he found them. Novak wasn’t one of Hitchcock’s closest collaborators (he’d wanted Vera Miles; Novak didn’t like the costume), but she’s undeniably the embodiment of the ‘Hitchcock girl’, the perfect midpoint between Princess Grace and Tippi Hedren. Her restrained, broken performance is a thing of beauty. James Stewart’s chemistry with Novak is unusual, offbeat, very Hollywood. I’ve said before that I prefer his more relaxed performances, notably Rear Window, to Rope or Vertigo, which required greater psychological depth. Yet, I’m doing Stewart a great disservice. I used to think he was too old for the role, but Stewart brings the right combination of earnestness and self-doubt to the role. On each rewatch, he manages to stand out from the crowd, and it’s becoming clear to me that there is a great psychological depth at play. He may not be Montgomery Clift or Henry Fonda, but Stewart delivers admirably. As Madeleine’s husband, Tom Helmore is right on the mark with a character whose motivations could easily have been confusing. Barbara Bel Geddes – playing Scottie’s close friend and former lover – is adorable and heartbreaking.
I’m not going to go into plot details, because Vertigo is a film that no-one should see spoiled. But its increasing theme is obsession: as both Stewart and Novak’s characters battle their internal demons, they build a relationship based not on lust or love, but on fear and need (perhaps the reason that the pair don’t need a Kelly/Grant chemistry to succeed). Hitch was reaching his peak of psychological exploration – as seen through the powerful troika of Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. Vertigo isn’t a laugh-a-minute, and the opening scene is more ‘thrilling’ than anything to come. The film is endlessly cruel to its characters, and avoids easy explanations at every opportunity. Yet, all this really means is that it’s not To Catch a Thief. While that film exemplified one area of Hitchcock’s interests, Vertigo is perhaps the ultimate expression of his more serious, intellectual thrillers. It’s a tale of obsessive, broken people, and it’s beautiful to the point of heartbreak.
(If we want to pick flaws, then I’ve only got one. I can easily put aside the complex machinations that get us to the final scene; that’s no problem. The poor special effect in that final tragic moment is unfortunate, and – although I hate to be a backseat driver to Hitchcock – he could’ve used a couple more seconds before the nun’s final comment. It’s just an editing issue that’s always displeased me, but for a man whose TV series was doing a wonderful line in effective twist endings, he should’ve known how to better evoke an emotional response from us in the closing moments of a piece!)
I don’t really believe in ranking the works of an artist liKe Alfred Hitchcock. Sure, one can make sweeping statements like “Rear Window is better than Mr & Mrs Smith“, but on an individual level such statements are pointless. The brooding symbolism of Rebecca is not the knowing byplay of Rear Window. The grotesque power of Psycho is equally but differently gripping to the haunting Vertigo. And the vast scope of performances, scripts, composers, and designers, with whom Hitch worked, leave each film open to interpretation. (The Paradine Case is let down by acting and writing, not direction; while performance and style elevate what could’ve been a shlock tale in Psycho.)
In spite of this, Vertigo stands alone, as an utter triumph. In my personal view, it was Hitch’s finest film to date: a summation of all he had achieved in film. Whether he would surpass this work is something we’ll have to look at, but Vertigo is – to me – one of the greatest achievements in film.
Hitch Cameo: For the last time, Hitchcock dons an instrument – this time a trumpet – as he walks down the street early in the film. Incidentally, he’s wearing a grey suit, because he wasn’t going to be upstaged by Kim Novak!
Next time: we’ll take a look at two of Hitchcock’s greatest mainstream successes, as his middle period gives way to the late one.