VERTIGO (1958)

  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writers: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
  • Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Tom Helmore
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#9), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 (#1), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 (#8), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Art Direction, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Peacock, Rent or Buy on AppleTV

I think Vertigo is an extremely interesting and enjoyable movie, and Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors. When I say Vertigo may not be in my five favorite Hitchcock movies, that’s not a knock on it in particular. In many of Hitchcock’s films, his plot mechanisms, the ways he builds suspense, tick over like a well oiled machine. Vertigo is the exception, a bit of a shaggy dog that may or may not make actual sense if you break it down. But it’s also probably the height of Hitchcock’s personal obsessions. He spent his career torturing smart blondes, putting them in green dresses and forcing them into whatever extremely specific box he wanted. Here he made a movie about a guy who forces a girl to dye her hair blonde, wear a specific green dress he buys for her, and talk like he wants her to.

And that’s why, I think, Vertigo has experienced the renaissance it has. At the time of its release, reviews were decidedly mixed. Hitchcock blamed the movie’s “failure” on audiences being unable to accept the 50-year-old Jimmy Stewart as a love interest for the 24-year-old Kim Novak. But in retrospect it has become the Hitchcock movie critics obsess over. For those who put stock in the auteur theory of filmmaking, this is the ultimate auteur movie. It’s not just a movie about obsession, without the obsessions of its director there wouldn’t be any movie here. It is a deeply weird movie, yet it has become the top threat on the lists we cite here occasionally to the traditional “Greatest Movie,” Citizen Kane. In 2012, after a 40 year reign by Kane at the top of the list, UK critics in the decennial Sight & Sound poll voted Vertigo the greatest film of all time. Yet Orson Welles himself reportedly hated this movie.

The plot is difficult to explain to anyone who’s not already aware of it. A fifty-year-old, slightly puffy Stewart plays a San Francisco police detective who is forced to retire after he nearly falls off a rooftop during a chase and develops the titular disorder. He is hired by a local rich dude (Tom Helmore) to tail his wife Madeleine (Novak), because he thinks she’s been acting strange. There follows about a half-hour of the movie with almost no dialogue, while Stewart tails Novak to a cemetery and while she stares at a painting at the Art Institute. Then, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge, she jumps into the bay, and he has to save her. She wakes up naked in his bed (because her clothes were wet, duh) and, inevitably, the two of them fall for each other.

But something weird is going on with Madeleine, and before long she runs to the top of an old bell tower at one of those original California missions. Stewart can’t follow because of his vertigo, and she jumps to her death. But then, several months later, Stewart sees a seemingly entirely different woman, Judy (also played by Novak) who looks just like the first woman, but with dark hair. She falls hard for Stewart, for reasons that make more metaphorical sense than actual sense, and he becomes obsessed with turning her into Madeleine. He buys her a dress just like Madeleine and forces Judy to dye her hair blonde. But more is going on here than meets the eye.

The plot of Vertigo may not make a whole lot of sense, but Hitchcock didn’t care. When Novak had her own ideas about her character’s wardrobe, she found that Hitchcock had been thinking about the costumes for “months” and he absolutely forbid her from wearing anything but what he’d picked out. Perhaps the movie’s most famous scene is the one in which Judy reveals her transformation into Madeleine. Her apartment is theoretically lit by a green neon sign outside the window. So she walks into the room as if in some sort of green fog. It’s like dreaming while drunk. 

Hitchcock also invented a simple and extremely effective technique to show the vertigo experienced by Stewart’s character, the “dolly zoom,” in which the camera dollies backward at the same time that it zooms in. This has been seen over and over in movies since and is often called the “Vertigo effect.” The movie even includes a bizarro animated dream sequence, which I was definitely not expecting when it first started out. Some critics have suggested that the movie’s weird (I keep using that word) feel is a result of the entire thing being the dream of the Stewart’s character, about to fall off the roof in the first scene. 

Roger Ebert once wrote that Jimmy Stewart basically played two characters in his career, everyman and everyman’s hidden psyche, and played them both perfectly. This is perhaps the definitive example of the latter. More revelatory is Kim Novak’s dual performance, which has been deservedly called one of the great female acting performances in the movies. She is sort of everything at once, both mysterious and vulnerable. We see Judy trying to rebuild herself into something like the movie ideal of a woman, rather than being herself. All that is there is Novak’s performance.

Novak is a very interesting person. After getting this part because Hitchock’s original choice of Vera Miles got pregnant at the wrong time, Novak went on strike in an attempt to renegotiate her salary with the studio. After Hitchcock insisted on having her the studio relented. While many actors changed more “ethnic” names to try and appeal to the American public, Novak insisted on keeping hers. When the head of Columbia Pictures told her, “Nobody’s going to want to go see a girl with a Polack name,” she reportedly replied, “It’s Czech, and I’m keeping it.” She went on to retire from movies when they no longer interested her artistically and has made a career as a painter.

Vertigo is one of the more drastic examples of critical re-evaluation in cinematic history, and is today considered perhaps Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It is both his definitive film, in the sense that it is the movie most obsessed with the things he’s obsessed with, and one of his most unusual movies. He is the master of suspense, and yet this is a movie where there’s a scene with at least half an hour left in the movie where someone explains the entire plot. It really does feel more like a dream than a movie. But it is Jimmy Stewart’s dream, or Alfred Hitchcock’s, or ours?

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