174. VERTIGO (1958)

“If Vertigo remains, unchallengeably, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, this is surely because there the attitude to the unknown and mysterious is not simply one of terror but retains, implicitly, a profound and disturbing ambivalence.”–Robin Wood, “Hitchcock’s Films

“Only one film had been capable of portraying insane memory, impossible memory: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”—Sans Soleil

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes

PLOT: During a rooftop pursuit of a fleeing suspect, John “Scottie” Ferguson finds himself hanging from a drainpipe; the uniformed cop who tries to save him slips and falls to his death. Suffering from debilitating acrophobia and vertigo, as well as survivor’s guilt, Scottie quits the police force. An old college acquaintance offers him a job tailing his wife, and Scottie becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious woman who believes she is possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor.

Still from Vertigo (1958)
BACKGROUND:

  • The source of Vertigo was the novel “D’Entre Les Morts” (translated in English as “The Living and the Dead”), by the French writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt the pair’s first novel, “Celle qui n’était plus,” but the rights were sold to a French company and it was made as Les Diaboliques by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Boileau-Narcejac would later write the screenplay for Les Yeux Sans Visage [Eyes Without a Face] (1960).
  • Hitchcock bought the rights to Vertigo back from Paramount (along with four other 1950s-era films), then willed them to his daughter. The film went out of circulation for many years. The rights eventually ended up with rival studio Universal, who restored and re-released the film theatrically (in 1983 and again, after a major restoration, in 1996) to great acclaim.
  • The dizzying “vertigo” effect (sometimes known as the “dolly zoom” or “trombone shot”) is the film’s most famous technical innovation: the camera tracks backwards on a dolly while simultaneously zooming the lens, resulting in  a disorienting visual experience of moving backwards and forwards simultaneously.
  • Abstract Expressionist painter John Ferren designed the dream sequence.
  • A controversial flashback scene reveals the “twist ending” about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Before the film’s release Hitchcock decided to remove this sequence, over the strenuous objections of his producer, Herbert Coleman. After preview audiences were unimpressed by the flashback-free cut, the studio ordered Hitchcock to return the film to the way it was originally shot.
  • Vertigo, which was exceedingly dark compared to the average Jimmy Stewart vehicle, was not as successful as Hitchcock’s previous hits such as 1954’s Rear Window, and barely broke even at the box office. The scale of its initial failure is often exaggerated, however, for the sake of a good story: it qualified more as a minor disappointment than a flop. The contemporaneous reviews were also mixed (leaning towards positive with reservations about plausibility and pacing), rather than universally negative, as is sometimes implied.
  • In the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll, Vertigo replaced Citizen Kane, the top vote getter every year since the poll’s inception in 1962, as the greatest movie of all time. (It ranked #7 on the director’s poll, where Tokyo Story took the top spot).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to come from the dream sequence. Although we chose Jimmy Stewart’s head floating against a shifting kaleidoscope background to illustrate this review, the most thematically significant image is the male shadow falling, first onto a terracotta rooftop and then through a white void (this figure is incorporated into the original Saul Bass-designed poster, where it combines with the movie’s other significant motif, the spiral).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Vertigo may be one of the most subtly strange movies out there. It’s entirely possible to watch it and see it as no more than a conventionally (if implausibly) plotted mystery. But peer into its vortex closer and you’ll see why this brightly lit but oddly dreamlike tragedy has fascinated generations of moviegoers: in its depths hides madness, illusion, necrophilia, sexual domination, a perverse longing for death, guilt, and the grinding gears of merciless fate. There’s a reason Vertigo is a cult movie. It doesn’t give up its secrets easily. Watch it again, with your weird eyes.


Re-release trailer for Vertigo

COMMENTS: Did any movie produced under the Hollywood studio system ever torture its protagonist as mercilessly as Vertigo torments Scottie Ferguson? The story starts out with a trauma from which Scottie barely escapes with his life. The script then tosses him into a variation of the same horrifying scenario again and again, each time with slight variations, but increasingly devastating results. It dips him into depths of catatonic despair, allows him to recover, and then coaxes him right back onto the same ledge. Scottie sins, certainly—he lusts for another man’s wife, he tyrannizes his lover as he remakes her into his romantic ideal—but the punishment he endures is far out of proportion to his failings. Like an acrophobic Sisyphus caught in a bad nightmare, Scottie is fated to live the same tragedy over and over again.

With a background theme of reincarnation, Vertigo is filled with doublings and triplings of characters and plot elements that suggest realities hidden behind masks and false identities, a bottomless pit of depths buried under fragile surfaces. To find out the truth in Vertigo‘s world is to lose the safe footing of what you thought was real and plunge headfirst into a new level of hell. The plot superficially evokes the notion of double identities—we know that Madeleine (Kim Novak) believes herself to be possessed by the spirit of her mad ancestor, Carlotta Valdez. But, of course, things are never that simple; Vertigo‘s world is one of layered facades. Consider the simple scene where we first see Madeleine staring, in a trance, at Carlotta’s portrait. The camera focuses on the swirl in Madeleine’s hair, then pans up to show the similar knot in the painting: the movie’s spiral motif, which when animated in the Saul Bass credits and in Scottie’s nightmare becomes a bottomless vortex and an infinite regress. In this picture, we see multiple levels of reality coexisting in the same space. Madeleine is looking at a portrait of Carlotta; Madeleine believes herself to actually be, in an almost literal sense, the dead woman. But, as we will find out, Madeleine herself is not the sleek, elegant blonde she appears to be to Scottie. There are at least three Madeleines in the scene: Carlotta, a false image of Madeleine that she believes to be real; the “real,” corporeal Madeleine, sitting there on the bench; and the ghostly presence of the real “Madeleine,” unseen and unknown to Scottie.

Similarly, Scottie will later discover that redheaded shop girl Judy is not who she appears to be, either. With each mask that is stripped away, the underlying reality Scottie uncovers is shabbier, less romantic, more debased than the illusion that initially caught his interest. It’s no wonder Scottie is driven to rebuild the beguiling phantom of romantic love with the idealized Madeleine that he once treasured, in order to escape his increasingly horrible reality of bitter and bereaved loneliness. But he cannot escape reality so easily; it pulls him back, with a clue he can’t ignore.

Echoes and doubles of characters are everywhere: like the recurring images of spirals and bouquets of flowers, which operate like psychological clues. Playfully, Hitchcock gives us an image of supporting character Midge as Carlotta, when the former paints an amusing self-portrait. This little joke, which parodies the mysterious resonance between Carlotta and Madeleine that exists in the painting, has a serious purpose, however; it draws our attention to the real similarity between Madeleine and romantic alternative Midge. Midge is a reality-based, attainable romantic interest—she is honest, safe, and guileless. She is Madeleine’s double, made of solid flesh as opposed to Madeleine’s ethereal shadow. Of course, Scottie (and the audience) finds Midge boring, even ridiculous, compared to Madeleine. (Just compare the sound of their names!)

Except for Midge, the rejected island of rationality and sanity in Vertigo, no one in the story is whom they seem to be. It’s significant that Scottie’s real name is John, but no one ever calls him that. Scottie, who begins the movie as a solid, principled man, explicitly on the side of law and order, doesn’t even know himself. He ends up, through too much peering into the abyss, an unintentional monster. In the end, after he has become corrupted, by almost imperceptible degrees, the once sympathetic Scottie unwittingly and ironically enacts the same wicked script as conniving Gavin.

All of this doubling and dissembling is enough to drive Scottie, whose nerves are already frazzled from his brush with death and his irrational guilt over the policeman who died in his place, to insanity. And Hitchcock doesn’t flinch from pushing his hero over that cliff. He parcels out very measured glimpses of Scottie’s subjective madness, which is where the movie gains enough hallucinatory traction to slip from mere psychologically intensity into full-blown weirdness. The first hint occurs the first time Scottie glimpses Madeleine’s face; she pauses for a moment, as if posing, against the red wallpaper of Ernie’s restaurant, and the lighting around her head brightens like a halo. The effect is almost subliminal, but it establishes her as an unearthly, luminous presence. We realize that we are seeing her through Scottie’s subjective view, because the reaction shot emphasizes his act of seeing by showing us how hard he is trying not to conspicuously stare and bring attention to himself. That ever-so-slightly unreal moment, easy to miss on a first viewing, is the crack through which Scottie’s madness will grow.

Hitchcock pulls out all the stops for the dream sequence, which in 1958 prefigures techniques that will later be used a decade later by psychedelic filmmakers to express drug intoxication. Scottie seems to bolt upright in his bed, although we know he’s still sleeping, and the film frame strobes blue and purple. He sees an animated bouquet of flowers hanging above him; the petals fall off and turn into abstract shapes. He sees visions of Carlotta and a grave, then his own disembodied head racing down an abstract kaleidoscopic corridor. The nightmare ends with a silhouette plunging into a white void.

The final explicitly hallucinatory moment occurs in the Empire hotel room; the unnatural green glow (from an improbably bright neon sign placed directly outside the room) recalls the bizarre color schemes of the nightmare, but this time Scottie is wide awake. When Judy emerges from the bathroom, she is encased in such a thick bath of green light that she appears to be a ghost. Then, when Scottie embraces her, Hitchcock gives us a 360 tracking shot that takes us out of the hotel room and places us back at the mission; Scottie looks up and appears genuinely surprised at the change in surroundings, but has the focus to return to the kiss. The force of his obsession has blown apart the wall between his dreams and his reality. From a moment of a subtle light shift to dreaming while wide awake, Scottie has passed into full-blown madness.

Although Hitchcock is careful to keep his subtext as subtext and distinguish reality from psychology, locating the events of the movie in a recognizable real world, Vertigo is in the DNA of every “is this real or inside the hero’s head?” psychological thriller that followed. The theme of personalities that dissolve and reform also prefigures cinema’s identity crisis cycle that begins in earnest with 1966’s Persona. Although it is a cliche, it really is true: Vertigo is a movie that you need to see more than once to understand its appeal and to get a sense of its dizzying depths. The first time through, you focus on Scottie’s external reality, the plot; you’re likely to recognize the talent involved, but you may be underwhelmed by the twist if you go in expecting a typical plot-based Hitchcock feature. In subsequent viewings, you pay attention to Scottie’s interior reality, which poses questions far more puzzling than the issue of whether Madeleine is or is not really possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. It’s clear that Vertigo isn’t really about what it appears to be about. But, what it really is about isn’t entirely clear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Film’s last minute… is a spectacular scene, gorgeously conceived. But by then more than two hours have gone by, and it’s questionable whether that much time should be devoted to what is basically only a psychological murder mystery.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“Nowhere else did Hitchcock’s perfectionism yield such feverish results, in an eerily perverse exploration of this director’s obsessive themes. Way ahead of its time in dreamily suggestive power…”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (1996 revival)

“Alfred Hitchcock’s rich and strange masterwork… the film’s dream logic has never cast a universal spell; mulish literalists, whom Hitchcock once bitingly dismissed as ‘the plausibles,’ can endlessly pick apart its convoluted plot, but that’s to neglect the prosaic resolution of many of its enigmatic mysteries.”–Bill Weber, Slant (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITES:

Vertigo – Universal pictures German site has pages (in English) devoted to Vertigo, with quotes from the cast and extensive notes on the restoration

Vertigo on DVD – By contrast, Universal’s domestic site has no information on the film, only on the DVD/Blu-ray

IMDB LINK: Vertigo (1958)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Vertigo Movie Review & Film Summary (1958) – Roger Ebert’s essay on Vertigo for his “Great Movies” series (focusing on the movie as a metaphor for the way Hitchcock controlled his actresses)

SparkNotes: Vertigo – Basic analysis of the film from a commercial study guide

AFI: 10 Top 10 – The American Film Institutes page listing Vertigo as their #1 mystery film includes the trailer, a detailed synopsis, and videotaped reflections from celebrity actors

A Very Different “Slice of Cake”: Restoring Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – A very detailed review of the restoration by Steven DeRosa

Haunted by Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ – Some reflections on the movie by San Francisco writer David Thomson (contains spoilers)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Hitchcock’s Films Revisited – Robin Wood is often credited as the first critic to spark the reappraisal of Vertigo, anointing it Hitchcock’s masterpiece at a time when the movie had largely been dismissed

Madeleine E. – genre-bending mix of fiction and film criticism by Gabriel Blackwell, reviewed here

Vertigo (BFI Film Classics) – The British Film Institute Classics analysis of Vertigo, by film professor Charles Barr

Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic – Dan Aulier’s book (with a forward by Vertigo fan ) focuses on the classic’s production history

DVD INFO: Universal has re-released Vertigo on DVD several times, usually with the same extra features. The 2012 DVD (buy) is essentially the same as 1998’s “Collector’s Edition.” The bonus materials are the informative 30-minute American Movie Classics documentary “Obsessed with Vertigo,” which covers both the production of the original film and the restoration; the original and the (less-spoilerish) re-release trailer; an epilogue (added to please censors, and fortunately not used in the U.S. print) showing the villain getting his just deserts; and an epic commentary track hosted by the team responsible for the restoration and producer Herbert Coleman, with “guest appearances” by Kim Novak and others. Text production notes and cast and crew bios comprise the rest of the extras.

The 2008 20-disc “Legacy Special Edition” (buy) contains the same extra features but adds a second commentary track by director , a complete episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (“The Case of Mr. Pelham,” which deals in doppelgangers), excerpts from the famous Hitchcock interviews conducted by Francois Truffaut for “Cahiers du Cinema,” and some short documentary featurettes.

The lineup above is essentially what appears on the 2014 Blu-ray release (buy), minus “The Case of Mr. Pelham.”

Universal also packaged Vertigo in a couple of Hitchcock collections: 2011’s “The Essentials Collection” (buy) (together with Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds). This set also comes on Blu-ray (buy). Even more impressive is the Blu-ray only 15-disc “Masterpiece Collection” (buy), which includes all of the Blus above plus Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot–wow!

Naturally, Vertigo is also available digitally (buy), although strangely enough only for purchase, not for rental. A download is still the cheapest way to own the film, although you miss out on the special features.

 

2 thoughts on “174. VERTIGO (1958)”

  1. I have mixed feelings about ‘Vertigo”. I like the obsessive thick atmosphere but the highly contrived murder mystery chops away at it’s spell. And though the Bernard Herrmann score is memorable and essential to the atmosphere, it also overly underlines every emotion in the manner of many a typical Hollywood soundtrack. In many ways the film is more a clumsy melodrama than truly “weird.” There ARE some weird moments in it (the dream of the open grave, the location change during the embrace, etc), but the mystery is too often punctured by plot machinations. Had Hitchcock not shown the literal scene of Gavin’s wife being thrown from the tower, the overall haunting ambiguous nature of the film would’ve vastly improved. True, the ending wouldn’t have “wrapped things up” but would’ve left plenty of room for interpretation and induced far more mystery. Lastly, being decades old, the film exudes a certain wistfulness that permits viewers to feel emotions that are hard to muster in today’s cinema – the distance allows a tangible nostalghia. However, as seductive as this might be, it does not make “Vertigo” a great film.

  2. i pretty much agree with Steve Mobia. vertigo is a beautiful film to look at and it is hypnotic to watch. but i don’t consider it remotely “the greatest ever”. i don’t even consider it hitchcock’s best film, for me, psycho blows it out of the water.

    but if vertigo can be considered to be that important a movie, then i need to gather up my thoughts and write a proposal for my favorite horror movie, robert wise’s The Haunting. it has every bit as much depth and resonance and etc as vertigo.

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