Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Runtime: 128 minutes
Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones
Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller is based on the 1954 novel by Boileau-Narcejac called “D’entre les morts” (“From Among the Dead“), and was adapted for screen by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. With a wonderful musical score by Bernard Herrmann and Cinematography by Robert Burke, Hitchcock was once again pushing the boundaries to give audiences a thrilling ride with a good story.
San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) suffers an experience which leaves him scarred with a case of acrophobia (fear of heights), and vertigo (a false feeling of spinning to the senses). He retires early from his job but is soon roped back into action when an old friend from college, Gavin Elster, asks him to follow his wife Madeleine. She is acting strange and he rescues her on more than one occasion. Things turn bad though when she ascends a church spire, and he is unable to follow her due to his condition. Frozen by fear he sees her plunge to her death from the rooftop. Later, after the dust has settled and Gavin is receiving treatment in a sanatorium, Scottie can’t shake the case. One day he runs into somebody who looks exactly like Madeleine but claims to be Judy Barton. This drives Scottie to taking things further, much further in fact, to the point where he won’t settle for what he believes has happened. Could Judy be Madeleine? Is it all a ruse? If so, why?
… or… here’s a Summary in 180 characters of less
Detective develops fear of heights and quits job. He is offered an unofficial case to work which consumes him and almost drives him mad.
This thriller is often mistaken as just looking at acrophobia and vertigo, but there is another theme in play here and that is psychological obsession. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine/ Judy more and more until it becomes blinding – and frankly, a little weird towards the end of the film too. He can’t see any other reality but the one he is trying to figure out which involved Madeleine. He can’t even see that Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) loves him, or maybe he is too focused on Madeleine to care. On this point, is the director suggesting that men would rather chase the unavailable beautiful woman who is out of touch with reality – or is that a projection of Hitchcock’s own psyche (in an interview with François Truffaut he said “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who is dead.”). This happens at least twice for Scottie, from Midge, but also from Judy when she wants Scottie to love her for who she is rather than as somebody who reminds him of Madeleine. The obsession becomes a little forced and almost violent later in the film, which was not to everybody’s taste, but Scottie is disturbed and probably, by today’s standards, should have had more counselling for post traumatic trauma. This interesting psychological film really plays to Hitchcock’s talents and has plenty of suspense to keep the audience guessing, it is a little darker than some of his other films, but still not as dark as a film which is around the corner in his directorial career.
Fun Fact: Hitchcock’s signature cameo is walking down the street carrying a trumpet case
James Stewart plays his part well enough here. The character he portrays goes from tragic hero, but in my opinion, becomes a bit of a weird antagonist towards the end – but hey, that’s madness! Stewart handles the role well enough and does well to remain the average Joe throughout, relatable to most of the audience. It is one of my favourite performances of his in his long career, and I say that now because there is a ‘ying’ to my ‘yang’ too… I personally think other actors may have been more suitable to the role (don’t hate me). One of the reasons he was not cast in “North by Northwest” (1959) is because Hitchcock thought he was a little too old and limited. There are times in this film where he doesn’t look comfortable in what he is being asked to do or say – maybe that’s my flaw in not interpreting the performance right, but maybe not (everyone has an opinion). Using Stewart was heavily suggested to Hitchcock by their shared agent, Len Wasserman. So, the casting almost becomes a favour rather than directly because of ability. I like him in this, probably more than in “Rear Window” (1954), but I there were times when I didn’t buy it – sorry.
Something that let me down with the character when I watched and re-watched the film, is the backstory. This is down to the writing rather than Stewart’s performance this time though. We weren’t given any kind of history; we are just expected to accept that Stewart as the titular character was probably brilliant at his job. There is no benchmark to suggest that he was actually that good so perhaps he was always slightly unhinged and therefor the journey he takes could have been more natural rather than the result of the catalytic incident that brought him to follow/stalk Madeleine.
Fun Fact: There is an argument that this is the first film to use computer graphics. Saul Bass uses computer graphics in the memorable intro that he creates for the film.
The Madeleine character was originally supposed to be played by Vera Miles who played Lillian Crane in “Psycho” (1960). Due to Hitchcock falling ill, and then Miles becoming pregnant the role was recast and Kim Novak was brought in. She does well in her dual-role, her cold and detached portrayal really makes her character look haunted. With dialogue that only really starts towards the hour mark, her casting was as much for looks as it was for any talent. Hitchcock is famed for casting stunning blonde leading ladies, so Novak in this is fitting a mold as much as anything else. This film is not really about Novak’s performance though, it is pretty much a film that looks at the leading man. There are times where Novak is just eye-candy so despite the grace and potential she brings to the film, she is an underused asset which can, and is, tossed away freely when she is not integral anymore.
While the story is entertaining and the audience is taken on a ride, I always wondered if it was not a little far-fetched too. The plot and ruse that Scottie and the audience is subjected to could have unfolded a lot easier in other circumstances, instead of a massively overcooked plot. Why not a simple accident, or poisoning, maybe a spoonful of rat poison or arsenic. Maybe though, that’s just my post year 2000 brain working there – for the 1950’s a contrived plot made for a nice long film and was almost Sherlock Holmes-esque for the audience to unravel.
In regard to the technical aspects of the film, “Vertigo” brings the birth of the dolly zoom. That is, when a camera is moved forward while zooming out, or moved backwards while zooming in. Referred to as the “Vertigo effect” (or the “Contra-Zoom”/ “Trombone Shot”), the technique allows a simulation of the disorientation that Scottie might have experienced. Pioneered by Irmin Roberts, the effect has been widely used in cinema since, one famous instance I can think of off the top of my head is “Jaws” (1975)…
Another technique which was employed here centers around the use of colour. Hitchcock always had an eye for good colour, and well-cast shadows. In this he is playing around a lot more to create moods or styles to help the film. In some places the film looks wonderfully colourful, while in other places the dyed film really helps with the sense of madness unraveling. Prime examples of this include James Stewarts nightmare scene which had the frames dyed purple and green. Kim Novak is often bathed in light too making her more striking than she already was, and sometimes making her dreamlike or ethereal and ghostly.
The music by Benard Herrman plays an integral role in the film. For most of the first half of the film there is not a massive amount of dialogue, there are times, especially when Scottie is stalking Madeleine, where the music is the main driving force. The score is memorable and haunting and really adds to the tension. Even when there is a lot of dialogue – and remember; this is a film of the 1950’s so there is going to be a lot of fancy dialogue used when it gets going. Even then, the music compliments what is happening and helps the dialogue be transcended to a different level.
While this film suffered slightly when it was released, it became one of those film that you re-watch and see more in. That made it a slow burner that audience eventually came around to. For myself, I first watched this while studying film in the 1990’s, I was impressed with it’s boldness at the time and it’s a film I’ve enjoyed subsequent viewings of. I know that it has become one the films that many a film studies lecturer and students enjoy dissecting because it is rich with techniques, themes, and craftmanship. As well as the images, the techniques, the sound – let me just put it out there, the cinematography by head of photography by Robert Burke is brilliant. Some really lovely locations, with some wonderfully crafted scenes are richly presented throughout the film.
Strong film-making techniques make “Vertigo” a memorable film and helped cement its place in many a ‘top 100 films’ lists, and the US National Film Registry too. A great marriage of image and sound makes for a hauntingly hypnotic and surreal film which I have enjoyed many a time. Despite any reservations I have opinioned here, for me the film is still a solid 9 out of 10, and is an absolute must for fans of the director and movies that made history too.