James Stewart plays Scotty, a recently retired detective crippled by Agoraphobia (fear of heights), hired by an old friend to trail his wife (Kim Novak). After rescuing her from San Francisco bay, Scotty becomes obsessed.
Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s most powerful film and amongst the very best of all time. These days, words are cheap and “Masterpiece” is bandied around without really considering what it means. If I had to pick one from his incredible career, Vertigo would be Hitchcock’s.
A traditional Film Noir, the plot is very straightforward. Unusually for Hitch there is little to be gleaned from the premise; a retired detective follows a woman at the behest of her husband, who happens to be an old friend. If anything, it’s obvious. Anyone who understands Noir will immediately think they have the whole thing sown up!
Vertigo is very ambitious though. That basic story is pretty much done inside 80 minutes starting from the most memorable opening of his films (the much imitated dolly-cam shot), but the fallout is devastating to Scotty. Still it feels like an ending with a wonderful dream sequence reminiscent of Spellbound and certainly the film changes aesthetically, with deep primary colours lighting the hotel room where Scotty’s obsession dangerously manifests and the narrative delicately shifts to Novak’s character as roles are reversed in a superb sequence. It’s a master-class for anyone interested in film writing. Later we return to the room and attention moves back to Scotty for an unforgettable finale after typically Noir-ish revelations following another “false” ending.
The two leads are incredible in the most demanding roles of their careers. That either can hold the audiences sympathy while they suffer from deep rooted obsession and guilt is testament to their skill. Stewart is the less surprising given his prolific career (although some may be surprised who dismiss him as an everyman), but Novak is fantastic in what is at least a dual role. Almost forgotten is Barbara Bel Geddes as Scotty’s very close friend. It isn’t her fault, but the screenplay bravely uses her without giving her a resolution.
I say the screenplay bravely uses her, because this isn’t an audience friendly film. There’s more than a few elements that wouldn’t have got passed the studios that couldn’t allow Cary Grant to be a villain just a few years before. No-one gets treated well during this film, least of all the viewer! There is little-to-no humour, no set-pieces, no gimmicks, no showing off; even the famous dolly-cam shot feels integral. Hitch commented in an interview that he’d tried to do it for Rebecca, but perfecting it for 15 years pays off by using it so perfectly here.
Vertigo is a powerful study of a man losing his marbles while trapped in a doomed love affair and it’s as pretty as it sounds. But like the central character, you can’t help but lose yourself and it rewards the multiple viewings you will surely have with hitherto unseen layers. This is down to the incredible skill of the director, supported by Robert Burk’s photography and Bernard Hermann’s score (script notes show his absolute faith in Hermann). While the middle act really cuts lose with colour, the finest moment is possibly Novak’s sublime introduction in a club with daring contrasts (to signify the heart of the story perhaps), fluid shots and a gorgeous theme. Hitch really knew how to photograph women and like Grace Kelly before her, gives Novak an entrance to die for.
There has been much said about this film showing up Hitchcock’s own obsessions and dark-side, especially with blondes, but I think that’s rubbish. He was a master technician who enjoyed playing with perception and he couldn’t have pulled this off if he wasn’t at his most potent and self-critical. He does treat the characters more bleakly than he has ever done before, which is proper Film Noir, but even more powerful than the average example. It’s interesting that he follows The Wrong Man with this. Perhaps doing that true story gave him the confidence to trust the audience to follow a character down a darker path than before. Certainly the way he plays with the narrative is very audacious for the time and sets the scene for what he did with Psycho, although that was much more a genre piece.
It may be that you won’t enjoy Vertigo, but don’t dismiss it. It isn’t trying to entertain you. It’s one of the most important films ever made, so if you come out of it with a frown, invest another couple of well-spent hours watching it again.
The marvellous DVD contains several easter eggs, including an alternative (or at least additional) ending that Hitchcock was forced to add on originally. Pesky studios like closure! Still it is an excellent scene and he does very well to add a splash of humour and keep it in the mood of the film. To see it, select ‘Bonus Features’, the ‘Obsessed with Vertigo’ documentary and then the chapter list. Go to the last two pages and after the last marker for the actual documentary, there are more chapter stops. As well as the ending, there are also trailers and production art.