Movie Review: Vertigo

This year marks the 60th anniver-sary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was originally released in May 1958. For Hitchcock, the 50’s was an especially fruitful period, during which he turned out one masterpiece after another with almost monotonous regularity. In the space of ten years, he gave us such unforgettable films as Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and Psycho, among others. All of those films are now considered classics, but it could be argued that Vertigo is the greatest of them all. Noted author and film critic Robin Wood, in his excellent book Hitchcock’s Films (1968), calls Vertigo, “Hitchcock’s masterpiece to date and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us.” In the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo even replaced Citizen Kane as the best film ever made.

It begins with a scene at night on the rooftops above San Francisco. We see a uniformed policeman and a plainclothes detective, John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), pursuing a sure-footed suspect from one rooftop to the next. Shots are fired, and the suspect leaps across… Well, see for yourself.

How’s that for an opening scene!

We next see Scottie in the apartment of Marjorie “Midge” Wood, (Barbara Bel Geddes). Scottie and Midge are old friends, in fact they were engaged briefly while they were in college. Scottie has recovered from injuries he sustained during the rooftop chase, but has been diagnosed with acrophobia – a fear of heights – and has retired from the police force. He informs Midge that he’s been contacted by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants to meet with him in his office. Scottie agrees to the meeting, at which Elster tells him of his concern about his wife Madeline (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by the spirit of someone long since dead. Elster wants Scottie to follow Madeline, to find out where she goes during her recurring spells. Despite his reluctance to get involved, Scottie agrees…

Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeline. The more time he spends with her, the more determined he is to protect her, and to solve the mystery of her spells. Part of the reason for his obsession is his detective mentality. He’s the “hard-headed Scot” who must try to make sense of the mystery he finds himself in. What he doesn’t realize is that he is the target of an elaborate deception, one which succeeds because, as unlikely as its premise may be, it is still the most plausible explanation for all that Scottie has witnessed. What other possible explanation could there be?

Vertigo was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The screenplay is by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, and the beautiful costumes are by Edith Head. Both James Stewart and Kim Novak give performances that easily stand the test of repeated viewings, and the supporting cast is first-rate. The magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann is a constant presence in the movie, but so well suited to the mood and the action on screen that you may scarcely be aware of it. It is one of the truly great film scores, which you can hear in its entirety here.

One of Hitchcock’s great achievements in Vertigo is the mood he creates and sustains throughout the entire movie, a tension that persists until the very last frames. Critical to that mood is Hitchcock’s faultless pacing, which is the antithesis of the breakneck pacing you find in so many movies today. There is nothing rushed in Vertigo, which unfolds in its own leisurely way. It was his pacing as much as his mastery of plot development that earned Hitchcock the title, “The Master of Suspense”, to which I would add, “in Perpetuity”.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on June 30, 2018 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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