Vertigo

Vertigo

*****

Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Vertigo is the pinnacle of moviemaking. Its powerful and affecting story is concise, clever and unpredictable. Hitchcock is playing at the peak of his game, with great depth of character and storytelling, and his actors do not let him down.

It tells the story of John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), a semi-retired detective whose fear of heights has cost the life of a partner. He is persuaded to take the case of an old friend, Gavin Elster, to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has been behaving strangely. He learns that she has a connection with a certain Carlotta Valdez, who died a century ago. While trying to keep her sanity intact, Scottie falls deeply in love with the terrified Madeleine. They both wander across the city outskirts ("Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere"), looking at places that draw her toward the past life of Valdez. In a sudden moment of madness, she rushes up a bell tower and commits suicide. Scottie blames himself for Madeleine's death since his acrophobia would not let him save her in time. Devastated and broken, he suffers a nervous breakdown. His life is in ruins and the rest of the film is about his efforts to rebuild it.

Copy picture

You think I'm probably revealing too much. Oh, but this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Hitchcock's mastery and precision is one of the most horrifying things about the film. It is a sublime construction. From a director notorious for preferring planning and pre-production to production, every shot leads us further into a deepening and darkening mystery. It opens with a title sequence (designed by Saul Bass - Psycho, North By Northwest), showing a terrified female eyeball - later reused by Michael Powell in his vicious classic Peeping Tom (1960), which dissolves into slowly rotating circular pattern sketches of contrasting colour and design, set to Bernard Hermann's sweeping and majestic score. This simple and refined sequence leads its audience, like protagonist Scottie, into a swirling vortex of obsession. Humour is sparingly employed and its absence is not missed, since the story is so engrossing and its telling so captivating. It strikes us deeply with its themes of possession, sexual magnetism and death, the psychological makeup we all share but do not openly discuss.

Every shot is perfectly photographed, with expert use of colour (cinematographer Robert Burks just makes those primary colours pop from the screen), costuming and location shooting in San Francisco. Also, the unforgettable track-and-zoom special effects shots which along with a stunning musical harp sting simply and directly translates Scottie's acrophobia and dizzying vertigo in a chillingly real and direct way.

Hitch's narrative masterstroke is unraveling the story two thirds in and playing out the remaining scenes with such terrific dramatic irony that they become models of suspense without hiding anything from us. The story of a remembered necklace is drawn out so expertly, even repeat viewings cannot diminish its power.

The acting is stunning throughout - James Stewart plays the damaged Scottie with a conviction I have not seen before, or since, in him. His role is a revelation. He came close to capturing the purity of a written character in Capra's classic, It's A Wonderful Life, but in Vertigo he is a character driven by malignant and masculine force, manipulative, cruel and icy. He plays entirely against his usual role of the all-American nice guy. He plays heartbreak, desperation, dry wit and animalistic fury so well that nearly every scene needs him to become its anchor. Kim Novak, playing dual roles as Madeleine and a city woman, Judy Barton, who is a dead ringer for the deceased woman, is a genuine force onscreen. As Madeleine, she plays a prop, which is perfect, given Scottie's eventual objectification of her. As Judy, she is much more subtle and skillful, as she tries to help Scottie rebuild his shattered psyche.

A photochemical restoration, created in 1996 from the VistaVision negative, provides a sumptuous 70mm experience, complete with a controversial surround soundtrack, with Hermann's music in full stereo. This experience was the first film that showed me the true power of what the movies can do. It has yet to be surpassed. Hitchcock's crowning achievement, and my pick for the greatest film ever made. It is a masterwork, and no-one who loves the movies should miss seeing it on the biggest screen they can find, with a receptive audience. A home version is a mere memento.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2008
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Vertigo packshot
A detective becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who reminds him of someone else.
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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor

Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick, Isabel Analla

Year: 1958

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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