Four years ago a film other than Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane finally topped one of the most revered “Best Films of All Time” lists—the annual poll of 846 critics, programmers, academics, and distributors issued by Sight and Sound, the highly respected international publication of the British Film Institute. That film is Alfred Hitchcock’s mesmerizing Vertigo. It had been closing in on Kane for a few years, in 2012 won the top position convincingly, and has remained there since. Even if, like many of us, you regard almost all kinds of Best Lists (even the reputable ones) as general barometers rather than infallible dicta, Vertigo’s ascendancy coincides with a widespread resurgence of interest in Hitchcock’s canon—both popular and critical—as evidenced by new crops of retrospectives from London, to New York, Denver, Sydney, Tokyo, and around the globe, and fresh perspectives such as Kent Jones’ award-winning documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut which debuted last year at the Cannes Festival and is now showing on HBO. Hitchcock’s international standing as a giant of his medium is at an all-time high, and the time is ripe for taking another look at Vertigo, which had a disappointing reception in 1958 and is not considered by most fans his masterpiece. Despite the fact that it lacks the usual addictive Hitchcockian wickedness, eschews the characteristic gambits of suspense the director trained his audiences to relish, and has a structure that can bewilder some and seem artsy and contrived to others, Vertigo—a curious, haunting film—has managed to attain the apex of regard and distinction. Why?
First of all, it has a unique intensity. Unlike many of Hitchcock’s films, in which he teases us with sly hints of deviance and mayhem beneath the clockwork plots and sometimes glossy contexts, Vertigo has much less of the clever gamesmanship on view. The location settings of San Francisco in the late ‘50s (before it lost much of its distinctive color and individuality) are a feast and one of the film’s prime assets. Nonetheless, we suspect from the outset that something darkly serious is going on, and that along with the director and the principal characters we are being drawn into something potentially mad, that something about our deepest fears may somehow be exposed.
Even if one were so inclined it would be almost impossible to give away the plot. Adapted from a 1954 novel entitled D’Entre les Morts by the French crime-writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the screenplay has retired detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) engaged by former college acquaintance Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow—and make sense of the increasingly odd behavior of—his wife Madeleine. Kim Novak comports herself well in what unfolds as the very challenging, very tricky role of Madeleine. (Sadly, you have to look beyond the awful industry styling of the era. The young actress loathed the platinum hair and overdrawn brows but was given no choice—it was the de rigeur studio packaging of late-‘50s starlets.) Though Elster does not suspect Madeleine of conducting an illicit romance or of lying, she occasionally cannot account for periods of time or her whereabouts. She seems deeply distracted, and Elster confides in Scottie that he is concerned because he has learned that the women of her family have a troubled history that includes emotional trauma and mental illness. With the help of his only close friend Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes, who is excellent), a commercial artist, Scottie, who’s a bit of a loner, becomes increasingly fascinated by the mysterious and elusive Madeleine. The mystery resolves in a genuinely shocking finale—at which point the film opens as a sort of diptych: it has a bizarre “mirror” plot, a second half in which Scottie’s fascination becomes obsession and in which he tries to replicate and atone for the first. There is conspiracy, there is fate, insanity, love. And it is somehow entirely possible for a viewer to find the almost operatically jumped-up plot rather maddening and yet be deeply affected by the film.
Everyone has favorite Hitchcock films and Vertigo has, over time, worked its way into this reviewer’s upper tier—as it has for many others. The director certainly made more harrowingly scary ones (Psycho, The Birds, Frenzy), more tautly suspenseful ones (Strangers on a Train), more engagingly edgy ones (Rear Window), more whimsical (The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief)—and so many in between that defy easy classification (Rebecca, Stage Fright, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and on and on). His productivity and the range of his experimentation are hallmarks of his long and remarkable career. Vertigo stands alone in his canon of works and is probably best approached as an extraordinary mood piece. Its psychology and emotion are subtle but have the undeniable force of an undertow. From the opening notes of Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score—one of the most powerful and evocative in all of film history—and the eidetic swirling geometries of Saul Bass’s title and credits design, we are pulled down helplessly into a vortex of obsession. Rather than arresting us with elegant games-playing or white-knuckled moment-to-moment suspense, this film seems to engage the unconscious—the director’s, the characters’, the viewer’s—and it simultaneously unsettles and seduces. However demanding or perhaps stilted we may find its structure, the film accrues power like a dream and, if the viewer is open to its potency, its hypnotic effect can become irresistible.
Vertigo was ahead of its time. In the last days of the We-Like-Ike world of the 1950s, viewers who had come to know Jimmy Stewart as one of their American icons of righteous earnestness and aw-shucks wit didn’t know what to make of his Scottie Ferguson. The character is prickly, skittish, inward—we can’t wholly know him and can’t be sure that he does himself. (Elliptical references from Midge afford hints as to his closely-held emotional past.) His Scottie is at once cool and vulnerable and, in a not insignificant aspect, unsympathetic. It’s unarguably one of Stewart’s richest performances—cannily judged, layered, oblique. Another factor in the film’s late-blooming recognition as a classic among classics is that it is, by its every essence, a film that asks for repeated viewings. It’s logical that a film about a repetitive pattern of romantic obsession makes more sense and becomes correspondingly more enticingly dreamlike with each viewing. This sense is heightened by Hitchcock’s cinematic art in his prime. Rarely before or since did his brilliant control of palette and texture, his innovative camera angles and effects (such as the dolly zoom, evincing the perspective of a character in relation to his surroundings)—and his capacity for telling a story visually rather than with didactic narrative and expositional dialogue—match with such nightmarish force his signature psychological themes of obsessive love, voyeurism, and the uneasy cohabitation of id and superego.
Frame by unhurried-but-fraught frame, Vertigo leads us on an ineluctable tightrope walk across an abyss of regret and hope. In a profound sense that defies precise analysis the film itself is that abyss—and we continue to fall.
– Hadley Hury
(Available on Netflix Streaming and DVD, Amazon Prime, TCM, and other select outlets)