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Starting in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock directed a remarkable sequence of films
in a row, each of them a classic; Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest
Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Never has a director made four such
genuinely great movies in such a short space of time, either before or
The pick of this high standard bunch is undoubtedly Vertigo. From the opening titles, with their circling spiral imagery, to the dramatic final scene this is a movie that takes you to a different time and place. Specifically, to a San Francisco of the past; full of deserted parks, discrete rooming houses, oddly menacing art galleries and florists where the customers enter and exit through the back door. Through this landscape wanders Jimmy Stewart, towering in the lead roll as a former detective recently retired after a bungled arrest leaves him with chronic vertigo. Plot machinations lead him to the alluring Kim Novak (one of Hitchcock's famous "blondes"), the young wife of a friend who has started behaving rather oddly.
"To reveal more," as Leonard Maltin wrote, "would be unthinkable."
While the performances of Novak and Stewart are memorable, the movie is really set apart by the intelligent script and the stylistic touches provided by the director. Hitchcock is in his very best form creating hypnotic scenes and a general sense of unease and dread in even the most banal of situations. He is aided in this by the wonderful score of Bernard Herrman. A particular favourite of mine is the extended (largely silent) segment where Stewart follows Novak for the first time. Nothing much happens, but the atmosphere of these scenes is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat!
One of the all-time greats. They definitely don't make them like this anymore.
One of the many things that made Hitchcock such a great director is that he
did not just stick to the same formula time after time; all of his best
movies have their own unique feel and characteristics. "Vertigo" is
particularly distinctive, both as a complex story filled with suspense, and
as a fascinating study in psychological tension. While it lacks the humor
of some of Hitchcock's other masterpieces, and sometimes moves rather
slowly, it is unforgettable, and a great achievement by the director and his
If you have never seen it, you will enjoy it more if you do not know too much about the plot, although the actual story is somewhat secondary to the ways that the characters are tested and their weaknesses exposed by the various events. Hitchcock uses a complicated story, interesting characters, lavish visual detail, and deliberate pacing, plus a fine musical score by the incomparable Bernard Hermann, to produce a mysterious, almost unearthly, atmosphere. The tension rarely lets up, and the viewer is caught up completely in it, at times almost to the point of discomfort. It's the kind of film that repays careful attention, as almost every moment is filled with significant detail.
There are also some great acting performances. Jimmy Stewart is outstanding in a role far different from his usual screen persona. He enables the viewer to sympathize completely with him, even as we cringe at many of his character's actions and decisions. Kim Novak is completely convincing in a difficult dual role, and the movie would not have been as compelling without her fine performance. The rest of the cast all have much smaller roles, but are all quite good too, especially Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie's (Stewart's) old friend, who provides important insight into Scottie's character.
"Vertigo" is a classic by any standard. It's a must-see that remains just as impressive with each viewing.
Over the years, this film has been regarded as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces. Its been called the most personal, emotional, and complex of Hitchcock's films. I agree with all of these things except for one, this film IS Hitchcock's masterpiece work. All of the others pale in comparison to this. There are phenomenal performances here by Jimmy Stewart who plays the biggest anti-hero of his career and Kim Novak whose stunning beauty and exceptional personalities shine through this dark film. Barbara Bel Geddes provides great support as well. Everything about this film, the cinematography, the story, the depth, etc. leaves you mystified and transfixed on this dizzying, surreal artwork of a film. It truly is flawless. If you are a Hitchcock fan and haven't seen this you need to get up right now and buy, not rent, this as soon as possible!
I have seen ALOT of movies in my life, but none have moved me the way Vertigo has...It's simply brilliant...the more times one views it, the more one picks up from it...a true masterpiece from the master himself...When I think Vertigo, I think the colors red and green...when I think Vertigo I think obsession with love, and the film itself...This movie is so deep that you could write a thesis on it and keep adding to it from time to time...Hitchcock really gave his all in this picture...it's about the ultimate love...wanting to achieve the ultimate love, and, as happens in life, never having love turn out to be the way we want it to be...all star performances by Stewart, Novak and Bel Geddes make this visually stunning masterpiece a true film classic...Newly restored, the DVD version simply blows you out of the water....I have seen the movie about 20 times now, and everytime I love it more...Vertigo is the ultimate cult film for me, as I keep going back to it more and more...considering it's dark storyline, it must be a glut for punishment, but Hitch only keeps me wanting more....10 stars...only because I can't give it 100 stars!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although it got at best mixed reviews when first released, Vertigo is
now considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's classic films. A tribute to
the players, the director, and the composer of that haunting musical
score that will stay with you forever.
The music is probably more important here than in most films, let alone most Hitchcock films. Because for most of the first half of the film and a great deal of the second half, it is without dialogue. In fact Kim Novak does not have a spoken line until about 48 minutes into the little more than 2 hour feature. She's under James Stewart's surveillance and the whole story of his growing obsession with her is told through his facial expressions and through Bernard Herrmann's music.
Stewart is a cop retired on disability who is hired by an old college friend Tom Helmore to follow his wife. Helmore tells Stewart a tale about his wife falling under the spirit of her dead great grandmother who committed suicide. The wife he's following is played by Kim Novak. Novak in fact makes a suicide attempt and by jumping into San Francisco bay and Stewart jumps in and saves her.
In a brief prologue the reason for Stewart's disability is told. While on the police force, he lost a man while pursuing the suspect in a rooftop chase. Another cop was killed trying to save Stewart who had slipped and was hanging on to a roof gutter for his dear life. After that Stewart acquired an understandable fear of heights with accompanying dizziness, vertigo.
Later on at an old mission which has significance for Novak's family, Novak runs up to the top of the bell tower and Stewart because of his Vertigo can't pursue her to prevent her from jumping off and taking her life.
Later on he spots Kim Novak again with a different color hair and this time essentially stalks her until they meet. By now he's totally obsessed with the dead Novak who he fell in love with.
Alfred Hitchcock is plumbing some depths of the human psyche in Vertigo. Certainly good old all American Jimmy Stewart would not be one you would think of casting as a voyeur and a stalker. But he pulls off the performance in probably the film with the least dialogue Alfred Hitchcock ever made since sound came in.
Kim Novak is hauntingly beautiful in Vertigo, she has to be or the whole plot would make no sense. Barbara Bel Geddes is in this also as Stewart's girl friend who finds herself losing him to an obsession with a ghost. She also serves as a sounding board for Stewart as he expresses some of his feelings to her.
This was the first of two films Stewart and Novak made together. Ironically enough the second one, Bell Book and Candle, is about a witch played by Novak who actually uses witchcraft to ensnare Stewart. Given Stewart's obsession with Novak in Vertigo, if Hitchcock had thrown in witchcraft into the plot, the audience would certainly have believed it.
Of course this is an Alfred Hitchcock film and therefore not all is as it seems. I can't sat any more, but there are no happy endings for anyone in this haunting film.
John "Scottie" Ferguson is a San Francisco cop who decides to quit the
service after his acrophobia results in him being unable to save the
life of a colleague. Whilst taking it easy he gets a call from an old
school friend, Gavin Elster, asking him if he wouldn't mind doing a
little bit of detective work for him. The job is simply to tail his
wife because she's obsessed with an ancestress who committed suicide,
and the wife, Madeline, is showing signs of herself being suicidal.
Ferguson tails her diligently and as the tail progresses, Ferguson
himself starts to become ever obsessed about the demur blonde Madeline.
As the story twists and turns, Ferguson's obsession will have far
reaching consequences for both parties...
Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock's most discussed, dissected and critically reappraised film, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau called D'Entre Les Morts, (also writer of Diabolique), Vertigo was not well liked on its release and unable to be viewed for some time due to copyright, the film was restored from a destroyed negative into a glorious 70mm print, and now in all its glory it can be seen as one of the greatest films to have ever been made. What is most striking about Vertigo, outside of Hitchcock baring his innermost that is, is that its plot on the surface is simplicity personified, but delving deeper, and repeat viewings are a necessity, its apparent that Vertigo is a chilling force of cinema, taking great delight in gnawing away at your perceptions, perhaps even your own capabilities as a human being.
Very much a film of two great halves, Vertigo first seems intent on being an almost ghost story like mystery. Once the prologue has introduced us to Ferguson's fear of heights, we then enter an almost dream like sequence of events as Ferguson tails the troubled Madeline, the suggestion of reincarnation bleakly leading to death hangs heavy as Hitchcock pulls his atmospheric strings. Then the film shifts into dark territory as obsessions and nods to Dante's Inferno and feverish dreams take control, Hitchcock, as we have come to learn over the years, lays out his soul for us the audience to partake in, the uneasy traits sitting side by side with fascination of the story. All of which is leading us to a spine tingling finale that is as hauntingly memorable as it is shocking, the end to our own dizzying journey that Alfred and his team have taken us on.
Technically the film is magnificent, the opening credits from Saul Bass brilliantly prep us for what is about to unfold, while Bernard Herrmann's score is as good as anything he ever did, unnerving one minute, swirlingly romantic the next, a truly incredible score. Hitchcock himself is firing from the top draw, introducing us to the brilliant zoom-forward-track-back camera technique to induce the feeling of Vertigo itself, with that merely a component of two hours of gorgeous texture lined with disturbing little peccadilloes. The two leads are arguably doing their respective career best work, James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson goes real deep to play it out with an edgy believability that decries his aw-shucks trademark of years since past. Kim Novak as Madeline is perhaps the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, perfect with the duality aspects of the role and playing off Stewart's ever creepy descent with seamlessly adroit skill. It however should be noted that Hitchcock and his loyal subjects had to work hard to get Novak right for the role, but the result proves that Novak had ability that sadly wasn't harnessed on too many other occasions.
Vertigo is a film that I myself wasn't too taken with on my first viewing, it's only during revisits that the piece has come to grab me by the soul and refuse to let go, it not only holds up on revisits, it also gets better with each subsequent viewing, it is simply a film that demands to be seen as many times as possible. Not only one of the greatest American films ever made, one of the greatest films ever made...period, so invest your soul in it, just the way that Hitchcock himself so clearly did. 10/10
I get a bit tongue-tied talking about Hitchcock's greatest movies because they are just so remarkable, so astonishing, so entertaining, so multi-levelled, that it's very difficult to put into words what makes them great. Hitchcock made some of the greatest movies ever made, and 'Vertigo', though by no means his most accessible film, is quite possibly his crowning achievement. It is without any doubt a masterpiece, and I cannot fault it in any way. Every time I watch it I am knocked out, and every time I see something new, some nuance or moment that I appreciate more than I did the previous viewing. Jimmy Stewart, one of the most popular movie star in Hollywood history, gives a remarkable performance throughout, one of the best in his career. Stewart had worked with Hitchcock before, and had always been superb, especially in the much copied suspense classic 'Rear Window' a few years prior to this, but he plays against type in 'Vertigo' and is jaw-droppingly good. It's difficult to remember now that 'Vertigo' is regarded as a movie milestone, that it received many bad reviews when it was originally released, and was a relative failure for Hitchcock. A lot of this had to do with Stewart's intense performance I think, and also the difficult subject matter. 'Vertigo' is essentially a tale of sexual obsession, something most people were probably not expecting at the time! Almost as good as Stewart is Kim Novak ('The Man With The Golden Arm') in a role that she will always be remembered for. 'Vertigo' is a virtuoso piece from Hitchcock, and a movie that will no doubt continue to inspire other film makers over the years to come. However the most important thing about it is that it is still wonderful viewing, and a movie experience that you will never forget. In my mind it is one of the three of four greatest American movies. Simply astonishing.
Retired detective, who is scared of heights, is hired to follow another mans wife and there follows intrigue, mystery and suspense. A super melodrama! The acting,directing, sets, costumes, script, music, etc are all excellent. And near the start of the film there is one brilliant 10 minute period when there is no dialogue but the action is controlled only by the music. A sensational analysis of the movie is by Roger Ebert: see external reviews. This picture is worthy of maximum marks.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Vertigo divides audiences more than any other Hitchcock film.
For one critic it is "one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us." A poll of 150 international critics has three times voted it the second greatest movie ever made (after Citizen Kane). However, many viewers find it a crashing bore.
I have sympathy for both camps.
Vertigo is the film in which Hitchcock comes closest to dealing directly with his own personal demons. The surface story makes no sense by itself and only works if you respond to the powerful undercurrents in its subtext. But Hitchcock still has to get the surface story right. It must fully embody the subtext and engage with its audience. For many people, it doesn't quite do either.
The prologue leaves Scottie hanging over an abyss. By not showing his rescue, Hitchcock effectively leaves him hanging there for the rest of the movie and his vertigo becomes a metaphor for his spiritual condition; he is poised between a longing for life and a longing for death. In rejecting the (real) life-affirming Midge and in his infatuation with the (illusory) death-obsessed Madeleine, he makes his fateful choice.
However, the prologue also supports a literal interpretation of his vertigo and the next scene doesn't really establish that Scottie's problems go deeper than his understandable fear of heights. We learn that he and Midge were once lovers but there is no follow through that explains why he broke off the relationship or why he becomes besotted with what we later learn is just a fantasy women.
The next scene, with Elster, is even more unfortunate and its defects reverberate throughout the movie. Elster could have been depicted as a sort of Mephistopheles, who sees Scottie's weakness and tempts him to his doom. In fact, he is thinly-sketched and is just a device for kicking off the story.
More crucially, he tells Scottie too much about Madeleine's obsession with Carlotta. This virtually forces Scottie into being the level-headed sceptic and makes his subsequent neurotic behaviour even more arbitrary and difficult to believe. It also undermines the ten-minute wordless sequence of Scottie trailing Madeleine around San Francisco.
If Elster has simply asked Scottie to investigate his wife's aimless wandering, we would have started out expecting something mundane (like an affair) only to be drawn into the much more intriguing mystery of her identification with Carlotta and her apparent sleepwalk towards suicide. As it is, the sequence merely confirms what Elster has already told us and often tries the patience of the audience. For many, the picture never recovers.
Moreover, because Scottie's character is under-developed (and Stewart's performance is unable to realise what the story implies) the rest of the movie can be viewed as the tale of an ordinary man who becomes infatuated with an attractive, troubled, woman whose life he has saved. The shadow of Carlotta then becomes an incidental detail and we get only a weak sense that Scottie's love is an unhealthy obsession. His eventual break-down is then under-motivated and seems imposed on the picture rather than being integral to its structure (a feeling reinforced by Hitchcock's decision to present it in an abstract, symbolic way).
I don't view Vertigo in this way, but I can sympathise with those that do.
With Scottie's breakdown, the picture reaches a second turning point. When Midge walks down the hospital corridor and the screen fades to black, it feels as if the movie is over. Of course it isn't and what happens next is crucial. Nothing up to that point makes any sense without it. But a second structural flaw immediately emerges. We are three-quarters of the way through the movie but only half-way through the story. Just when Vertigo needs time to re-engage our interest after the false ending it suddenly accelerates.
We get a montage that establishes Scottie's continuing obsession with Madeleine, then he spots Judy, follows her home and we are immediately plunged into a flashback that 'explains' the plot. This meeting needed much better preparation and the subsequent relationship needed more time to develop.
By revealing the plot twist so early, Hitchcock is inviting us to see how self-defeating Scottie's neurotic behaviour really is: in recreating Madeleine he is inevitably destroying his own illusions. But he rushes through this process. We have no time to get to know the real Judy before we are confronted with Scottie's bizarre plan to transform her. Then, at the very moment the transformation is complete, Scottie immediately spots the deception so the picture gallops to its climax and then slams to a halt.
As a good professional, Hitchcock was wary about letting any of his pictures run over two hours, but if he wanted to impose this discipline on himself, then he should have been more ruthless in pruning the first half of the story. In fact, he should have just accepted that this story couldn't be told effectively in two hours and have let it run on longer.
We rightly admire Hitchcock's movies for their great set pieces, but tend to overlook their fragile story sense and relatively weak dramatic structure. Mostly, that didn't matter, but in an ambitious picture like Vertigo it is a fatal flaw.
There is much more to Vertigo than its detractors acknowledge, but it is far from being the near-perfect masterpiece that its most fervent admirers would have us believe.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Although it was only modestly successful in theaters, time has been
kind to VERTIGO and now many believe this is Hitchcock's masterpiece.
Time was NOT kind to the original prints of the film, and in the
mid-1990s Universal Studios put up one million dollars for a two-year
restoration of the film. This is covered completely in a fairly
fascinating 29-minute extra on the DVD, originally broadcast as an A&E
special. The entire original film-making process is covered, the movie
was first called "From Among The Dead", and includes current interviews
with many principals, including Novak and Bel Geddes, plus the
techniques used for the restoration. This special edition DVD should be
a must-own for any fan of the film VERTIGO. The sound and picture are
just fabulous for a film made in 1957.
My review, following, contains certain SPOILERS which are necessary for my summary. Please read no further if you have not seen the film. Watch the film first, you will not be disappointed.
The film starts with cops chasing a crook on SF rooftops, Scottie (James Stewart, 49) misses one roof, is hanging high from a gutter, cop returns to offer assistance, but instead falls to his death. This traumatic experience triggers the vertigo in Scottie, makes him unsuited for police work, he quits, and Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) tells him only another emotional shock will bring him out of it. Midge, an artist, not so secretly wants Scottie, but while they are good friends, he just doesn't love her.
Old college friend, wealthy shipbuilding magnate, hires Scottie to follow his wife who had been acting strangely. He meets Madaleine (Kim Novak, 24) and follows her to find that she visits the grave of Carlotta, who died at 25 in 1857, also visits the portrait of Carlotta at the art museum, has "visions" of being in a Spanish mission, all indications are that the dead Carlotta is taking over Madaleine's mind. While following her, saving her from a jump into SF Bay, and keeping her from jumping into the Pacific, Scottie is falling in love with her, the first time he has had such feelings.
Scottie feels he needs to take Madeleine to the old mission 100 miles south of SF to free her of this possession, but instead she climbs up the mission bell tower, Scottie is unable to follow quickly enough, his vertigo holding him back, he hears a scream, sees what looks like Madeleine's body falling to the red tile roof below, dead. A quick inquest ruled it a suicide, the friend gets out of shipbuilding, travels, while Scottie tries to get over his great loss, his first ever love, includes a stay in a mental hospital.
Not too long after, Scottie sees a woman remarkably similar to Madeleine walking to her residence, a hotel, he follows her, knocks on the door, she is dressed differently, has different color hair, a different personality, speaks differently, and says she is Judy, from Kansas, has lived there 3 years, even shows Scottie her ID to prove it. But Scottie has not gotten over Madeleine, is obsessed with recreating her, asks Judy to dress like her, get her hair colored, all the while Judy just wishes Scottie would like her for who she is, not because she looks like someone else. But she gets completely back to the Madeleine look, same clothes, same hair color.
By now we have seen through Judy's flashback what is really going on. The wealthy husband had hired Judy to impersonate his wife, Madeleine, and had set up the incident at the mission so that he could shove the already dead wife off, Scottie would be the manipulated witness that she had climbed the stairs and jumped off, and after being paid off, Judy could resume her life. To her detriment, he also gave her the heirloom, Carlotta's necklace, and her wearing that is what got Scottie suspicious of the whole scheme. He catches on, brings Judy back to the mission, they climb to the bell, a nun approaches to see what is going on, Judy panics and falls to her death on the roof. Scottie no longer was in love with her, feeling lied to and manipulated, he has no emotion, but goes to the edge of the ledge and looks down, his vertigo gone. The emotional shock that Midge spoke of has cured him.
The story is a tragedy of two lives that only through misfortune become intertwined, Scottie's and Judy's. He is not young, now retired, and had never found true love. In Madeliene he thinks he found it, only to be shocked then disillusioned when the full truth came out. When Judy died, he was back where the film started. Maybe Midge was the one after all. Judy was very flawed, enough to participate in a murder plot and feel no apparent guilt over it. All she wanted was to be loved by Scottie, but a relationship built on fraud has no chance, especially since Scottie was an honest man.
James Stewart is known for his ability to play an "everyman" character, and is superb as Scottie. Kim Novak is a bigger mystery. She was not the first choice for the role, received it virtually by default, but after watching the movie it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the dual roles of Madeleine and Judy, she pulls it off so well. A big bonus is her commentary on the making-of extra, seeing her after all these years. She was only 24 when Vertigo was filmed, but she looked 40, a glamorous and beautiful 40. Actresses today who are 24 often still play teenagers. How things have changed in the movies!
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