Vertigo (1958)

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Film review of the thriller about sexual obsession, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount.

 

Cast & credits

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock.
Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor.
Camera: Robert Burks.
Music: Bernard Hermann.
Sets: Henry Bumstead, Hal Pereira.

James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby.

Synopsis

San Francisco cop ‘Scottie’ (Stewart) suffers a nightmarish attack of vertigo as he pursues a criminal during a rooftop chase, his inactions leading to a fellow policeman falling to his death. After he has recovered, an old friend (Helmore) hires him to watch his strange wife (Novak), thinking she is posessed by the spirit of a long dead beauty. ‘Scottie’ gives chase one day and saves her from committing suicide. They fall in love, but he is unable to prevent her from jumping to her death a little later. Desolate, he finds himself irresitably drawn to Judy, who is the dead ringer for his lost love.

ReviewVertigo poster

A million words have already been written about Hitchock’s films, their subtle (sometimes unsubtle) textual meaning and his influence on world cinema, there is probably little extra that one lone reviewer can add, but suffice to say I will and Vertigo remains my favourite Hitch flick.

Psycho may have infamous shock-value in spades as the general public favourite from his ouvre, but one can almost picture the ‘old master’ rubbing his hands with delight whilst making this film, which seems like the perfect embodiment of all the themes, motifs and obsessions that one can detect throughout his career. It also helps that we have a thorough understanding of what drove him, not just from his candid interviews with French auteur/superfan Francois Truffaut, but also from the recollections of those close to him, such as his female stars.

Vertigo is a swirling, head fuck maelestrom of duplicity, greed, sexual obsession, control, manipulation, mental instability and ultimately murder. If made today, it would end up as a depressive sociological drama on a rainy West Midlands council estate. In Hitchcock’s hand, accompanied by Hermann’s luscious score swelling in the background and presented in Burks’ throbbing technicolour (all bold reds and cold greys), it emerges as nothing less than delicious romantic fiction. Romantic fiction where people kill themselves and women are degredated by sexually crazed men, but delicious romantic fiction none the less.

Hitch sugaring the psychosexual pill for us, if you will.

Hitchcock once famously said that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder, so it’s surprising Vertigo waddles in at over his usual two hour maximum (by eight minutes for those with stopclocks). Writers Coppel and Taylor go hell for leather with the requisite Hitchcock red herrings and plot twists, to the point where it nearly makes the room spin. This is a film of two distinct parts, so top marks to them for making sure the interest never lets up.

Stewart, the ‘Ordinary Joe’ of American cinema long before Tom Hanks was a glint in his father’s eye, played against this type with huge acclaim for Hitchcock, as a wheelchair bound convalescent turned voyeur in Rear Window and in Rope he played a schoolteacher who, after seeming to condone murder in a lecture, helps to solve one committed by his pupils. Audiences were so used to seeing him play in It’s a Wonderful Life cack these film’s must have been a welcome surprise and this was certainly the best performance he gave under Hitch’s direction – a tortured, pathetic but also bullying man, just as delusional as the women he loves and hounds. Mental/sexual intensity was not something Stewart essayed much during his lengthy career, but when he did, he could be electrifying.

Frigid, icy Novak is as cold as the Golden Gate Bay she plunges into, a terrific turn in a demandingdual role made even more difficult as it was originally written specifically to star another woman. She and Hitchcock did not get on during the shoot, so full credit to her for seizing on her character’s disconnected, split personality allure and making both characters so beguiling. Vera Miles, the much admired star of Hitch’s previous film The Wrong Man, found herself on the odd, possessive side of her svengali when he started dictating the clothes she should wear off set. Her pregnancy to former Tarzan Gordon Scott just as production was due to start on Vertigo cost her this film and Hitch’s patience with her ran out. Miles has gone on record to correct a number of assertions Hitchock made about her as he attempted to make her a top-flight star (although they went on to reunite for Psycho).

The supporting cast, as always in Hitchcock films, adds extra depth to the main themes he explores. Bel Geddes is just as obsessive as Stewart, going so far as to paint herself as the object of his desires. Helmore’s tan should raise alarm bells about his suspiciousness; he is slimy, corporate villainy personified. Corby, Grandma from TV’s The Waltons pops up in a small cameo as a clueless landlady, who runs a boarding house that looks spookily similar to Norman Bates’ in Psycho.

Technically, Vertigo also excels itself as it employs some eye-boggling camera trickery (the shots that signify Stewart’s dizzying acrophobia are called ‘Dolly Zooms’ – the camera is focused on one object and then pulled back away from the object). Forget the silly, Saul Bass designed nightmare sequence, which is more of a daft cartoon than anything else, this is first-class Hitch all the way, made during a period when the man was making several back to back classics (North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds)

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