Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: James Stewart (John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster)
Genre: Mystery / Thriller
Now sitting firmly atop the pile of Sight And Sound‘s prestigious greatest films list, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo seems to court more critical appraisal than ever before. I myself was only vaguely aware of the movie, having seen it once – years ago – and remembering little more than it’s most striking visual punctuation marks; the golden gate bridge, the oft-imitated forced perspective of a stairwell, James Stewart hanging from a drainpipe, and those psychedelic dream images. It’s elevation to the number one spot prompted me last year to look at the film again. I am so glad I did.
I’ve always had a curious relationship with Alfred Hitchcock’s work. I’ve seen less of his films than I feel I ought to have. The ones I have seen are the ‘obvious’ ones, and my reaction has usually been positive, if strangely muted. For all his masterful dexterity as a filmmaker there is always something so unusually gaudy about his work, it seems. A lurid tint. His colour pictures particularly have a slick, glossy finish like the pages of a magazine. Like an over-ripe fruit they promise goodness, but also offer up the prospect of something bad, something sickly.
Vertigo has this feeling, but it has a more pervasive one. With its ghost story trappings and the sadness of death and departure hanging over events, Vertigo feels chillingly forlorn. Coldly graceful. This is most evident in Bernard Herrmann’s sumptuously romantic score, which is allowed prominent foregrounding. In the first hour, when James Stewart’s John follows Kim Novak’s Madeleine, there is barely a word spoken for a quarter of an hour. There is just the sinuous music and Hitchcock’s economical yet strong images. Later, as Madeleine is compelled to the Spanish mission and John holds her in his arms, the music swirls like a vortex.
Now that I’m reunited with this picture, I find myself returning to it. It’s a film which generously reveals more to you with each viewing. It’s not immediately gratifying. Scratch that. It is immediately gratifying – it’s obviously a masterpiece – yet many of its treasures reveal themselves only on returning. Like some of the best films, you have to dig for victory. The subtleties are rich and rewarding, as rich as the deep red restaurant interior where John first sees Madeleine.
With John on sabbatical from police work, yet roped into a private-eye role by his old college friend, and with Madeleine’s mysterious secrets casting her as a kind of spectral femme fatale, Vertigo almost takes on the persona of a 40’s film noir. However the sinister suggestions of the supernatural twist the trappings of noir into something else. Madeleine’s (and John’s) fugue states see Hitchcock exploring dark interiors of the human mind, as opposed to shadowy alleyways of goons and conspirators.
In a move almost as jarring as Janet Leigh’s abrupt exit from Psycho, Vertigo is divided in half by Madeleine’s apparent suicide. It’s a southpaw from the story, which appears to have just moved into its second act. If the first-time viewer had made any assumptions about where Vertigo had been taking them, they are left cast adrift by this turn. Where exactly is the story going to go now, with an hour’s running left to fill? But what at first seems like a dislocating move, becomes an integral point in this tale. The best kind of twist.
Appropriately for John’s affliction of acrophobia and the film’s title, characters are frequently dwarfed by towering scenery. Stewart and Novak seem miniature when standing next to the giant trees of the forest. Earlier, when John is following Madeleine, buildings loom over him in the background, or vast gallery interiors reduce the leads to tiny figures lost in huge spaces. When John is struck with melancholia and Midge has finished speaking to his doctor, she walks away tight to the wall. The space in the corridor beside her seems so large. San Francisco is very much a character in Vertigo, but Hitchcock makes it a beautiful if intimidating maze befitting the script’s blind turns and dead ends. Looking at these characters from afar, we see their fates as predetermined. They are doomed.
Returning to his life, John becomes a vision of what Madeleine seemed to be before him; a haunted soul trapped in a loop, visiting locations from a former life, attempting to conjure the past into the present. When this wish appears to be fulfilled, Vertigo looks set to provide an even more mysterious second half. The viewer is asked to jump to all manner of supernatural conclusions… but we are again wrong-footed by a surprise reveal of information. The balance is suddenly tipped; the viewer knows more than John. With these tables turned, the real tragedy of Vertigo comes to the fore and we are helpless to watch the final events unfold.
Famously far less of a hit on its release than it’s now revered status would imply, Vertigo has endured and improved over the years just the way that it endures and improves on repeat viewings. The greatest film of all time? That’s a tough one. The question itself is arguably foolish. It’s all down to personal taste. Perhaps one reason Vertigo scores so well is it’s preoccupation with obsession, something that invested fans of cinema know about only too well. Scrutinising the film, we are all John.
What can’t be denied is that this film is masterfully realised. It’s not an easy picture. It’s a lament, a requiem, a eulogy. John’s desperate attempts to recapture the past are horribly sad. An impossible dream that, at one time or another, we can all relate to. This universal quality breathes life and emotion into Hitchock’s film. And like John’s stubborn attention to detail, it’s Hitch’s equally fastidious approach the makes this film what it is. The devil is in the details, and the devilish, the lurid and the tawdry have always been so appealing. They’re the hooks that draw you in. However the final twist is just how human Vertigo is.