Should I Watch..? 'Vertigo'
What's the big deal?
Vertigo is a psychological thriller film released in 1958 produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the novel D'Entres les morts (known in English as The Living And The Dead) by French duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the film follows a former detective plagued by personal issues as he investigates the unusual behaviour of the wife of a close friend. The film stars James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes and Tom Helmore and features a score composed by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Originally receiving mixed reviews from critics at the time, the film has since been considered to be Hitchcock's masterpiece and in 2012, it replaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time by the critics of Sight & Sound magazine. The film regularly appears in lists of the best films in history and was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 1989.
What's it about?
San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson suffers from a fear of heights and vertigo, which tragically affect his career after a rooftop chase leads to the death of a colleague. Unable to continue his career, Scottie is forced to retire and decides to overcome his fears with the help of his friend and ex fiancee, Marjorie "Midge" Wood. However, he doesn't get much opportunity to try as an old friend from his college days, Gavin Elster, gets in contact with him with an unusual proposition. Gavin wishes to hire Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine as he believes that she is in imminent danger. Reluctantly, Scottie agrees.
Scottie follows Madeleine as she visits a florist, the Mission San Francisco de Asis church and the Legion of Honor art museum. Madeleine seems to take an unusual interest in a woman called Carlotta Valdes who is buried at the church and who has a portrait hanging at the gallery. Finally, she enters a hotel but upon investigation, it appears that she is not there. The more Scottie investigates, the more confused he becomes - what links the long-dead Carlotta to Madeleine, what happened to her after she checked into the hotel and how much is Gavin not telling him? And as Scottie continues to conduct his investigation, he slowly realises that he is starting to fall for the mysterious Madeleine...
John "Scottie" Ferguson
Barbara Bel Geddes
Marjorie "Midge" Wood
Alec Coppel & Samuel A. Taylor*
Release Date (UK)
22nd May, 1958
PG (2012 re-rating)
Mystery, Romance, Thriller
Academy Award Nominations
Best Set Decoration, Best Sound
What's to like?
Hitchcock has a well-deserved reputation for being the Master of Suspense but I feel that he isn't credited enough for being a ground-breaking and innovative director. Vertigo is a technical tour de force with camerawork, scripting and soundtrack combining to make the film a genuinely absorbing watch. For example, the film features the first use of a dolly zoom - when the camera zooms in on a subject whilst moving simultaneously moving away - in the now-famous shot of Stewart looking down the spiral staircase he's climbing while Herrmann's score (and even Saul Bass' influential title sequence) are also based around the spiral feeling that vertigo generates. There is a level of attention to detail in the film-making here that I have rarely seen before.
The narrative might seem a little complex at first but it rewards the attentive and patient viewer by being a thoroughly engrossing story of obsession, madness and despair. Stewart puts in a typically great performance as Scottie, determined to see the case through but increasingly losing his grip on reality while Novak becomes one of the classic examples of the cinematic femme fatale, leading a merry chase through the picturesque setting of San Francisco. And with Hitch behind the camera directing, the film slowly grinds through its gears until you find yourself hooked and unable to tear yourself away until you fully understand what's going on. It's no surprise that this film is often compared to Citizen Kane because the first time I saw it, I was similarly stunned at how complete a picture it is. I can honestly not think of any other film that impressed me as much - it made me reassess precisely what a film could be capable of when so much thought goes into it. Compared to much of today's cinema, this is simply fantastic.
- The dolly-zoom, invented by cameraman Irmin Roberts, is frequently called 'the vertigo shot' after its use in this movie. The staircase use of the dolly-zoom was shot on its side as it was impossible to shoot vertically at the time and cost $19'000 for just a few seconds of footage.
- Hitchcock was very bitter about the movie's critical and commercial failure, blaming Stewart for looking too old to attract audiences to the film. Despite their long working relationship, HItchcock would never work with Stewart again after this film's release.
- Vertigo is often credited for a popular misconception that the word 'vertigo' means a fear of heights, which is actually acrophobia. Vertigo is the feeling of objects around you moving when they are still, often brought on by looking down from a great height.
- Hitchcock was famous for appearing in brief cameos in many of his films and this is no exception - he appears in a grey suit walking past Gavin Elster's shipyard carrying a case.
What's not to like?
It does feel somewhat churlish for a guy who's never made a single movie in his entire life to criticise such a revered picture as Vertigo but such is the nature of my work. If I'm being really honest, the ending felt like a bit of a cop-out and a little unsatisfactory for me personally. Frankly, it smacked of the writers getting themselves stuck in a corner and failing to write themselves out of it properly (something I do have experience of) thanks to unlikely coincidences and impossible chances. The film also lacks some of the pace of other Hitchcock films I have seen like Psycho or North By Northwest but again, I admit that this is a personal opinion. After all, it isn't like I was bored at any point during this film.
It might not be my favourite Hitch picture but Vertigo does more than enough to justify its place on the list of his best films. I think a little narrative polishing would have helped but if that's the only real fault you can find with a picture then you know that you have a quality product. The film remains a solid watch after all this time although it lacks some of the more memorable Hitchcock moments besides the famous dolly-zoom down the staircase. It isn't as brutal as Psycho or as thrilling as North By Northwest or as chilling as The Birds but a happy medium between all three.
Should I watch it?
For anyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock or gripping mysteries, this should be an absolutely essential watch. With the director in complete control of his artistic vision and a story that will keep you guessing throughout, the film is an excellent example of how little it takes to make a genuinely pioneering picture that is as technically sound as it is absorbing. I would question whether it's the best movie of all time but it's certainly a damn good one.
Great For: film historians, Hitchcock fans, mystery lovers, residents of San Francisco
Not So Great For: actual sufferers of vertigo, the easily confused, Citizen Kane
What else should I watch?
Most scholars agrees that Hitch's golden years were in Hollywood between 1954 and 1964 and with classic films like Rear Window, Dial M For Murder, The Birds and Psycho, it's hard to disagree. Psycho is probably my favourite Hitchcock film - a dark and brooding film that effectively birthed the slasher genre and inspired countless others such as John Carpenter's Halloween. But it could be argued that Hitchcock's stature is such that his films aren't the only gift he gave cinema - he popularised the concept of the MacGuffin, an object or event that motivates the characters in the film but not the film itself such as the statuette featured in The Maltese Falcon. Early Hitch films well worth a viewing include the 1935 version of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and 1941's Suspicion.
The dolly-zoom has since popped up in many films since the release of Vertigo, perhaps most famously in Jaws when Roy Scheider realises the shark is about to strike unaware beach-goers. It's also used in Martin Scorsese's gangster epic Goodfellas, Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and even animated Disney feature The Lion King. It has now become a staple of movie-making and while it might not be as innovative anymore, it remains an iconic and understandable technique to depict fear, horror, realisation... and vertigo, of course.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox