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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.
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.
Vertigo is a great example for what color films really can look like! Not only do I want to praise the quality of the Technicolor dye transfer prints but also more the way Hitchcock used color to create moods. Many directors used light to create moods in black and white movies but only very few ever got so far as to use the much greater palette of colors for the same purpose. One wonders why. Some directors decide for an overall color look, which is often done in the lab, but not on the set.
Vertigo is full of scenes where the colors have been saturated or changed to create a special feeling. Hitchcock even went so far as to openly dye some frames is bright unnatural colors. He played around with colors in all his color films but never as much as in this one. Think for example on James Stewart's nightmare in the middle of the film. There are frames dyed purple and green; the cemetery scenes are red, inserted to the rhythm of the music with normal frames. Kim Novak is often bathed in colored light like in the famous hotel room scene, where she appears like a ghost with all the green light around her.
The shading is also important. In the scene in the bookshop we hear a dark and sad story while at the same time the light dimes down to simulate dusk. In the scene where Judy remembers the real events in the bell tower it starts with an outdoor scene, which we have already seen but it is now much darker than the first time. In the sequence where Stewart follows Novak to the cemetery everything feels unnatural since every scene glows through the use of a filter that creates a blur.
The non-color of Kim Novak's dress as Madeleine is also a very important aspect in the film. She has to color her hair to become Madeleine again at the end of the picture.
The way color is used in this film gives it this dreamlike quality that allows endless interpretations. A true masterpiece!
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
When it was first released, Vertigo didn't get good reviews and it didn't make money at the box office. People didn't understand the bizarre dream sequences that were so ahead of their time, they didn't feel sympathy for the characters (at the end, even Scottie is unlikable), and the BIG TWIST is given away in the middle of the movie instead of at the end, a la Psycho. Even I had my complaints about that last one, yet after a second viewing I realized that this movie wasn't even about what really happened to what really happened to Madeleine; it's about men's psychological--and sexual--desire for the perfect woman, even if she's out of touch with reality. This movie is considered Hitchcock's most personal film, as he could be domineering with his actresses, trying to mold them into his own dream. After the "failure" of Vertigo, Hitchcock never worked with Jimmy Stewart again, unfairly blaming him for not being able to draw a crowd on account of his age. Luckily for everyone, Vertigo has gotten better with age and is no longer forgotten. In the late 80s Vertigo started popping up on Top 10 Films of All Time lists, and today it's considered Hitchock's best film, and most definitely one of the best ever made.
The biggest reason for Vertigo's late success is because it is Hitchcock's most analyzed film and because it works on a psychological level; The film points out that men would rather have an unavailable, beautiful woman who is out of touch with reality than a woman who understands her surroundings and is utterly available. This is pointed out twice, once with Midge, an ex-fiancée and good friend of Scottie and later with Judy, who tries to make Scottie love her for who she is and not because she reminds Scottie of Madeleine. The first hour is drawn out very slowly, and while it's not as fast-paced as other Hitchcock's films, he uses it wisely. He starts by first gaining--later testing--our sympathy for Scottie; when he's hanging for his dear life in the opening scene, we pray for him (even though we know that there would be no movie if Jimmy Stewart dies in the first 3 minutes). When he's chasing Madeleine up the bell tower, we hope that he can get there in time and kiss his lover. And when the romance turns dark in the second outing to the bell tower, you feel just as caught in the middle as Scottie does in that moment. Hitchcock blurred the lines between victim and villain, and he earns our creative respect for him.
The key element to why Vertigo works so well in the end is because of the actors. It's practically impossible to think of anyone other than James Stewart, who embodied the everyman, and for that reason is so convincing in testing our sympathies. It's all in the minimalistic ways he does it, with the slightest crinkle in the forehead or the movement in the eyes doing evoking more emotion than most actors do screaming and crying. This is his best performance next to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Kim Novak is ravishing and haunting both as Madeleine and Judy, utterly convincing in both roles. With my respects to Grace Kelly, Novak just may be the most mysterious and convincing Hitchcock blonde to grace the screen. Their chemistry together, despite their age difference is explosive and natural.
Buy--don't rent--this DVD and you'll find yourself falling for every detail of this brilliant 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.
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.
James Stewart is the key to the film. I think a lot of people misjudge the film by misjudging his character, police detective John "Scotty" Ferguson. They see him and see the guy who played amiable dipso Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" or noble Mr. Smith or George Bailey. The secret of Scotty is he's no nice guy, though. He's more than a bit of a heel, a hard and greedy man eminently deserving of the roasting he gets in Henry Jones' postmortem. Watch Stewart in Hitchcock's "Rope" or the unjustly overlooked "Carbine Williams," and you see the hardness Hitchcock was after, and got, from his lead here.
Scotty does a lot of mean things in "Vertigo," actions that feed his illness and lead to his doom. The character of Midge, subtly portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes, is a key for understanding this. His casual stoking early on of Midge's flames of unreturned desire, especially when viewed in retrospect, burns through their happy banter and demonstrates how miserable a man he is, nowhere more brilliantly or ruthlessly than when he cuts her off from his life over a silly gag. Watch "Vertigo" more than once, and you may find yourself hating the guy as much as I do. But you still follow his path of doom with total sympathy; because of the elegant, enveloping way Hitchcock draws you into this world of passion, cut off from all bounds of propriety, even space and time.
If Scotty was played by anyone other than Stewart, it's hard to imagine "Vertigo" packing the punch it does. You wouldn't have enough tolerance for the character to stick with his story. In its own day, "Vertigo" was a bit of a misfire, probably because audiences felt alienation from the Stewart image they were accustomed to. Yet now viewed from a decent remove, you get more of what Hitchcock was after, and respond to it better.
Still, it's easy to understand people not liking "Vertigo" the first time they see it. At least that's true with me. I didn't like "Vertigo" the first time I saw it. Here's what helps you find the right handle. Fall in love with the wrong person. Become bitterly disappointed. See the one that you loved in the face of passersby, in odd places, and in your dreams. Then you begin to get it. Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, as Billy Joel once sang, and trying to hold on too long is a recipe for self-inflicted pain.
Talking too much about "Vertigo" is not a good idea. There's too many obvious spoilers in recounting the plot of the film, in explaining why Kim Novak is so flat-out stupendous in her performance, and how you are left feeling by film's end. "Vertigo" is a uniquely personal film, not only for Hitchcock, but for a broad array of viewers who like me have latched onto its tragic story.
That's not to say it's perfect. There's a murder mystery wrapped up in "Vertigo," and all the pieces don't exactly fit when you think about them later. Hitchcock called it "icebox talk," something to leave the viewer pondering after the film was over, but maybe he left a few more loose ends than he should have this time around.
Still, what "Vertigo" is after is not making sense but magic, and it succeeds wonderfully, nowhere more so then when it bends the laws of reality. Take the moment when the bookstore owner tells the sad tale of Carlotta Valdez while the lights of the room around him dim in eerie, unnatural sympathy. Or the way the flowers in the shop Madeleine visits seem to glow in unearthly splendor as Ferguson, his eyes glowing strangely too, spies on his prey.
You may not like this film the first time you see it, but if you are left disturbed and uneasy from the experience, you owe it to yourself to see it again. "Vertigo" is a film that keeps on giving, with all the power and mystery of unrequited love, but unlike most forms of infatuation, this film has a way of returning the ardor with which it is held. Utterly timeless.
An old college friend gives him the job of following his blonde wife Madeleine who had some kind of mental problem or might even be possessed from beyond the grave by a figure from the past whose portrait she stares at in a museum
Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco and when she tries to drown herself in San Francisco Bay, he rescues her and falls promptly in love with her But Scottie' s vertigo made him powerless to save her when she climbed to the top of the bell tower at the mission at San Juan Batista, and jumped from the tower to her fatal end
Scottie must spend the second part of the movie regaining from the trauma His loyal ex-fiancée Midge helps him overcome his psychological torment
One year later, completely recovered from his nervous breakdown, he meets a red-haired woman who seems the living image of Madeleine...
Stewart gives a terrific performance of a man recognizing his own limits, suffering by his acrophobia... When he is given the chance to pursue this enigmatic woman, his boring life takes on new meaning... He is drawn into her romantic obsession with the past Madeline makes him feel important in her life This is something totally new to his world: a lovely straight-forward woman who takes him into a haunting dream... When he fails to keep her alive, his real world was suddenly shattered
Stewart delivers an accurate portrait of an annoyed human being searching for the unattainable He is a pragmatic man dealing with events in the light of his intuition
Kim Novak is so delicate as Madeleine Her performance is skilled and highly refined She is a pretty woman, very sensitive, not sensual, yet conscious of her charm and magic
This fascinating suspense masterpiece reveals something new with each viewing
Note: Hitchcock appears after eleven minutes of the beginning of the film, walking past a Shipbuilding Co.
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!
Vertigo tells the story of a retired San Francisco detective played by Jimmy Stewart who suffers from vertigo. Stewart's character is hired by an old friend to tale the friend's wife who has been exhibiting odd behavior recently, her husband believing she is channeling the spirit of a 19th century woman. The premise is well set up, and the starting paces play out superbly, but when the story starts trying to explain all of the supernatural with a Sherlock Holmes-style deduction, I find the film hard to swallow. The film becomes more far-fetched when it tries to explain realistically all of the supernatural events rather than just letting it be a ghost story. As well, the romance between the characters played by Stewart and Kim Novak, who portrays the woman Stewart is following, just develops too quickly to be believable.
As I said, it pains me to talk such as this. The film had been so built up before I finally saw it, that I guess I expected something completely different than what I got, but what I got was something that started out as one thing, and then midway through the film transformed into another that just negated all of the things I loved about the first half of the film. Want my advice, if you love Hitch, try Rear Window or North by Northwest. Way more suspense, way more mystery, and way more fun.
I give Vertigo a 4 out of 10!
When Boileau/Narcejac learned that Hitchcock wanted to transfer "Celle Qui N'Etait PLus " (=les Diaboliques" )to the screen,they immediately wrote "D'Entre les Morts " on the same pattern for Hitchcock to direct.
The first problem in Vertigo lies with the story's failure to establish Scottie Ferguson. We first meet Scottie as he fails to make the rooftop leap and is hanging by a gutter of a building several dozen feet from the ground. After this we see him making his decision to retire from police work. The audience is deprived of any referent to the type of person Scottie was before the incident on the rooftop. This failure to establish the character and set a benchmark to measure his return by in the closing minutes of the film deprives the audience of a vital connection to any character. But this problem could have easily been overcome had the third fatal flaw, which I will take up soon, been avoided.
The second problem in Vertigo is a decision by Hitchcock and George Tomasini, the editor, to insert a scene shortly after Scottie meets Judy that reveals all of the secrets the story holds. This throws away the element of suspense that might have had audiences on the edge of their seats during the final part of the movie, unable to relax even at the moment of revelation for Scottie's character as the movie would sweep them up and hurl them through the roller-coaster ride that the climax of the movie should have been. But I think Hitchcock and company made the decision as a direct result of an even earlier and worse mistake.
The third, and most glaring, mistake Hitchcock made with Vertigo was in the casting. Most of the cast does work ranging from passable to outstanding, with one notable exception: Jimmy Stewart. In Aulier's account of the Vertigo project he details how Stewart came to star in this movie, which had a lot more to do with the desires of Lew Wasserman, agent to both Stewart and Hitchcock, than good judgment. Jimmy Stewart was the wrong man for this role, and Aulier recounts that Hitchcock himself blamed Stewart for Vertigo's dismal showing at the box office. Hitchcock concluded that Stewart was too old for the part and refused to cast him in North by Northwest because of this. But I don't think Stewart's age was the real hindrance here, I think Jimmy Stewart tried to step way beyond his range as an actor and falls flat in certain key scenes. Mr. Stewart does a passable job in the first half of the movie, and is quite believable as the ex-detective brought low by his vertigo-inducing acrophobia. The first real hint of trouble comes in the last scene of the first half, Scottie sits in a sanitarium incommunicado and withdrawn as his stalwart friend Midge tries to engage him in conversation. Stewart's playing of this borders on the comedic with a deer-in-the-headlights gaze that calls to mind one of the Warner Brother's toons after being conked on the head rather than a man ravaged by guilt. It drags the scene down so much that Barbara Bel Geddes is left to carry it on her own, and she does make a valiant attempt but her efforts are hindered by Stewart. From this point forward the movie enters its most crucial phase and Stewart's ineffectualness grows more obvious in each successive scene. In the scene where Scottie tries to convince Judy to change her hair color Stewart's phrasing and pitch are semi-comedic. The lack of chemistry between the two leads brings the haunting scene of Judy's emergence from the bathroom to a crashing halt as Stewart is unable to infuse his performance with even a modicum of passion. But a few minutes later Stewart's performance goes completely south as the movie's climatic moments unfold. Scottie is righteously angry as the truth dawns on him, but, unfortunately, Stewart does not play angry well at all. His maniacal and slightly feminine delivery from this point on detracts from what could have been cinematic magic. At a point in the movie where Scottie should have regained his senses and his sense of manhood his tone and pitch shrilly foreshadow the strident tones of Mrs. Bates in Hitchcock's next project.
No doubt my remarks here will be met with disdain by some of the film's more ardent boosters on IMDb. I shall join the ranks of the great unwashed heathens who do not understand great cinema nor Vertigo's rightful placement at the apex of that pyramidal structure. I do appreciate Hitchcock's use of color as subtext in the film (I am particularly fond of the color and lighting shifts in Midge's apartment when she allows Scottie to view her painting). I also appreciate and easily grasp the undertones of Hitchcock's own obsessive behavior with the leading ladies of his work, but wonder if that subtext was intended as dramatic irony or whether Mr. Hitchcock was even aware of the mirror he was peering into. But, the brilliant touches of a master artist are not enough to make up for what this film lacks. Hitchcock was indeed The Master, and his body of work stands above a field of mostly mediocre efforts that his peers were turning out, and even today not one exists who can approach his mastery, but to suggest that Vertigo is the cinematic equivalent of Leonardo's Mona Lisa is ludicrous and undeserved.
As the song says, the hunter is captured by the game. Soon Scottie and Madeleine are mad for each other -- but it seems poor troubled Madeleine is also mad in a less romantic way. When she confides in Scottie about her recurring morbid dreams about the Mission at San Juan Bautista, Scottie brings her there in hopes of curing her obsession. Bad move, Scottie -- Madeleine bolts to the bell tower. Scottie gives chase, but his vertigo paralyzes him halfway up the stairs (great spatial F/X here). He hears a woman screaming, sees a body fall past the window...and his beloved Madeleine is no more.
Or is she? After he recovers from a grief-induced nervous breakdown, Scottie spies shopgirl Judy Barton (the versatile Novak again). Except for her red hair and somewhat tacky fashion sense, Judy's a dead ringer for Madeleine! As their relationship grows, so does audience apprehension as Scottie obsessively tries to give Judy the ultimate makeover, recreating his lost love. (Where's the WHAT NOT TO WEAR crew when you need them? :-)) Judy's a quick study -- because she's really Madeleine! See, Judy was Elster's mistress, and he coached her to look and act like the real Madeleine Elster as part of a murder plot. 'Twas the real Mrs. Elster who died at the mission that day, and Elster's real purpose for poor Scottie was to witness the "suicide." Since Judy truly loves Scottie, has all the self-esteem of a squashed grape, and doesn't want to spill the murder plot, she's willing to play Eliza Doolittle to Scottie's macabre Henry Higgins. But the jig is up when, post-makeover, Judy wears a necklace Scottie recognizes as part of Madeleine's Carlotta Valdes collection. Furious at being played for a sucker, he takes Judy to the mission tower and forces her to confess. A black shape looms. Guilt-ridden Judy is so spooked by what turns out to be a curious nun (Judy must've gone to one of those tough parochial schools) that she loses her balance and falls...and a shattered Scottie loses his Madeleine a second, final time, looking like he wants to join her.
When I first saw VERTIGO in my college years during its 1980s re-release, I thought it was well worth seeing, but Scottie's necrophilic mania to recreate Judy as Madeleine really upset me. I found myself rooting for, angry at, and sorry for Scottie and Judy all at once. Stewart's portrayal of a man obsessed is tragic and unnerving; Hitchcock really knew how to tap into his leading man's dark side. As if the ghoulishness of Scottie's romantic obsession and the malleable Judy's heartbreaking lack of self-esteem weren't frustrating enough, even the department store salespeople and salon personnel in the film go along with Scottie's demands ("The gentleman certainly seems to know what he wants.") despite Judy's anguished protests. My husband Vinnie aptly noted that everyone on screen acted like Scottie was having a dog groomed.
On my first time around, it seemed to me that Hitchcock gave away the mystery's solution too soon, making the rest of the film anticlimactic. But my appreciation for VERTIGO grew over the years as I matured and learned more about life, people, and emotions. By the time we saw the beautifully restored version of VERTIGO at NYC's Ziegfeld Theatre in 1996, Judy's revelatory letter touched my heart and added to the suspense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for Scottie. There's no question that VERTIGO has long since become one of my favorite Hitchcock films!
The plot: John Ferguson is a retired detective suffering from acrophobia. A rich old friend (Gavin Elster) hires him to investigate the activities of his wife (Madeleine), who he believes is being possessed by the spirit of a dead ancestor (Carlotta Valdes). After seeing Madeleine, Ferguson agrees. Later on, we see that Madeleine half-lives in Carlotta Valdes' house, spends a lot of time in front of a Carlotta painting in a museum, and generally models her behaviour after Carlotta. Also, Madeleine suffers from blackouts, during which she isn't in control of herself. Ferguson forms a relationship with her. He then pressures her to get rid of the past by dwelling on it, visiting places where Carlotta lived etc. During such a visit, and in the same day Carlotta died, Madeleine commits suicide by falling from the bell-tower of a chapel. Ferguson is unable to rescue her due to his acrophobia.
Following this, Ferguson is placed in a mental hospital, suffering from catatonic depression. After some time, we find Ferguson released from the mental institution and in better shape. He then meets a woman who looks a lot like Madeleine. Nevertheless, the woman, Judy Barton, seems less perfect and more vulgar than Madeleine. Ferguson forms a relationship with her, and is trying to model her after Madeleine, buying her the same clothes etc. But during one of their encounters, the truth is revealed due to Barton's carelessness. She used the same jewelry as Madeleine. Barton and Madeleine is the same woman. In truth, Madeleine/ Barton was a "doppelganger" to Elster's wife. Elster hired her in order to kill his rich wife, and manipulated Ferguson's illness so that he was a witness to the "suicide". It was the wife, and not Madeleine that fell from the tower.
Unaware that Ferguson knows the truth, Barton continues the relationship and the "transformation" to Madeleine. She now is in love with Ferguson, but Ferguson is intent on freeing himself from his acrophobia. As Barton is completely transformed to Madeleine, Ferguson takes her to the same chapel and to the bell tower. Forcing her up, she confesses the truth. She claims she is in love with him. She then sees a shadow emerging, panics and falls into the void. It turns out that the shadow was just a nun. Ferguson stands and watches from above. He is cured.
This is not an easy film to analyze. It is very dense and has lots of hidden meaning beneath the surface. The most obvious theme is the one of fixation and impotence. Ferguson suffers from vertigo; Madeleine seems to be possessed by a dead spirit; Ferguson's friend Midge is in love with him but unable to express her love and conquer him; then when Madeleine dies Ferguson becomes obsessed with her.
Madeleine represents the ideal love, perfection.
In the meantime, there are some other interesting ideas floating in the background. One is that in the second half of the film we witness a reverse situation than that of the first half. In the first half, Elster and Madeleine manipulate Ferguson's impotence. In the second half, it is Ferguson that manipulates the less-than-perfect version of Madeleine (aka Barton), even though she regrets her accomplice and is genuinely in love with him.
The ending, as well as the first half, is shrouded in the metaphysical and supernatural. The shadow that Madeleine/ Barton sees could be anything: a ghost, her guilt, Elster, the dark side of her relationship with Ferguson etc. Ferguson models Barton after Madeleine with almost necrophiliac obsession. Just before the second time that Madeleine "dies", she and Ferguson kiss, representing the ephemeral happiness in vain. After she dies, Ferguson is freed from his impotence, but we don't know his feelings, we just see him watching from above. Basically Ferguson is haunted by his search for perfection (an ideal love, a god to believe in?). There is a clear parallel between that and his impotence (the vertigo). When he tries to transform the down-to-earth Barton to the perfect Madeleine, the illusion isn't working. In order to cure himself from the impotence, he kills her (he was the one that dragged her to the chapel).
Moreover, what the film seems to project is the vortex of the human psyche. Both in the first and the second half, the conclusion is the same: the woman dies. It's the behaviour of the male protagonist alters dramatically. In the supernatural first half, the protagonist is crippled, while in the down-to-earth second half, he is more free but also less happy.
The real moment Ferguson is freed is when he realizes the truth about Madeleine. Madeleine/ Barton is sitting in front of a mirror (representing the dual personality). Then Ferguson sees the jewel and immediately thinks of the portrait of Carlotta Valdes (a symbolism of the original sin? He and Madeleine had an adulterous affair after all). Vertigo projects the male-female relationship into the conflict between the human and the ideal (the supernatural, the belief in the perfect). But there is no way out. Both stories (the first and second half) are two sides of the same coin.
The acting and character are as stock as any movie from the era. Nothing separates our lead beyond his paranoia. Worse yet is the romantic relationship between James Stewart and Kim Novak. Cinema snobs love to bash Hollywood blockbusters for their contrived romances, but pretend films like Vertigo are somehow better. They know each other for a day, yet we're supposed to believe Stewart has a romantic obsession after her death? Give me a break. Their passion is as brilliant as a wet paper bag.
Vertigo is supposed to be a great psychological thriller. I found myself bored. I can't care about the characters when their relationship is so contrived. And nothing impressed me in terms of audio, cinematography, or plot twists. When Kim Novak is killed in the last minute of the film, me and my friend were laughing - because we didn't care about the character, and had no time to witness anyone's sorrow. It had no point in the narrative. And as the ending to the film, it gave me nothing to take away from it.
And I'm not someone who only likes films made after a certain date. But legitimately good films remain relevant decades after their release. The Great Dictator, 12 Angry Men, and The Godfather all hold up. I don't see any of that quality in Vertigo. Some may cite how it was shot, or how it influenced films for years to come, but as a 21st century viewer, Vertigo fails to illicit any emotion. My mind is sufficiently intact.
A film like Vertigo depends almost entirely on raising the viewer's interest in its characters. Disappointing, then, that its two principals play their roles as if they're half-asleep on drugs. James Stewart has many times played with success the seemingly slow-witted, slow moving character who's aware of a lot more than it appears. In Vertigo this Stewart stock persona is inappropriate. One wonders if they first shot the scene where he's mute, staring and unresponding in the hospital and he decided to continue in this mode but mouthing the script lines as they came along.
How anyone could begin to fall in love with such a frigid, boring personality as played by Kim Novak is beyond comprehension. She is consistently out-performed by trees, buildings and props throughout the piece. Far from conveying an intriguing, sexually arresting character, she leaves the viewer marvelling that nobody thought to save budget by substituting a tailor's mannequin.
Had Vertigo been directed by anyone without Hitchcock's reputation (one that's deserved but which, most unusually, seems to encourage enthusiasts to believe he never makes a clunker) it would have been written off as poor stuff — indeed it was correctly regarded as mediocre when it first came out. It isn't a bad film, in the sense of godawful, laughably inept. It's just so far from good that people with normally functioning eyes and ears will shrug and say "ho-hum!"