In most conversations about Alfred Hitchcock’s films, “Vertigo” often finds itself mentioned as the quintessential Hitchcock movie. It’s called a masterpiece and is considered by many to be one of the best films of all time. While I don’t personally agree with that level of praise, there’s no denying that “Vertigo” is a cleverly crafted and stunningly stylized psychological thriller. “Vertigo” can never be branded as shallow or conventional. It has it’s fair share of mystery and suspense while also delving into more disturbing subjects such as mental breakdowns and romantic obsession. It’s takes it’s time playing out, but it’s still quite rewarding for those who appreciate it’s complexity.
The great James Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective. Scottie struggles with serious acrophobia which ends up contributing to the death of a police officer during a rooftop chase. The incident combined with his ailment cause him to retire early from the department. That’s when Scottie is hired by an old acquaintance named Gavin to follow his wife who he suspects has been possessed. Scottie doesn’t buy the supernatural assertion but still agrees to help. This sets the movie down it’s first of many twisty, unpredictable paths.
It’s said that Hitchcock later stated he thought Stewart, who was 50 years old at the time, was too old and many critics initially felt he was miscast. Personally I think Stewart is fantastic here and it’s nice that over time his performance has garnered more appreciation. When first released, “Vertigo” was dismissed by most critics and Stewart became the easy scapegoat. The movie does have it’s flaws but it’s hard for me to associate any of them with Stewart’s performance. He’s grounded and believable and Stewart never loses control of his character even as things unravel around him.
Kim Novak plays Gavin’s wife Madeleine. She wasn’t Hitchcock’s first choice for the role but she ends up making the character her own. It’s impossible to talk about her character without giving away too much but Madeleine isn’t what she seems. A lot is required of Novak as her character branches out into several directions and for the most part she succeeds. She icy cold and mysterious yet we also see her as pitiful and sympathetic. She’s an essential character and while not as polished as Stewart, Novak’s performance works.
“Vertigo” is a technical marvel with some truly gorgeous camera work. Hitchcock keenly uses trickery and sleight of hand in several scenes to enhance the effects. The well-known vertigo zoom shots are still mentioned in most conversations about the film and the surreal use of lighting really dictate the tone of several scenes. I also love the wonderful locations. Hitchcock includes several San Francisco landmarks in the film and he uses the camera to accentuate the city’s beauty. Other small but effective devices include the use of reflections and clever elevated camera angles. It’s just an incredibly attractive film.
Some have described “Vertigo” as a meditation. Others have called it an observance. One reason these descriptions fit is because of the movie’s deliberate pacing particularly in the first half of the film. I felt it took a while getting it’s footing and the lackadaisical first 30 minutes could have been tightened up a bit. I was also a little surprised to see the timing of the big reveal. I certainly don’t want to give anything away but what I thought was the biggest red herring turned out to be no red herring at all.
For me “Vertigo” isn’t the perfect movie that many believe it is. That being said, it’s still a remarkable film that delivers despite it’s few flaws. It has the appearance of cinematic art with Hitchcock showing what skillful uses of a camera can bring to a movie. Stewart is brilliant and his performance immediately draws you into the picture. He’s the linchpin that keeps this dark but riveting film together. “Vertigo” has earned it’s “classic” label and it’s mandatory viewing for any fan of mysteries or thrillers. And while it’s not my favorite Hitchcock picture, it’s still a rock solid movie that satisfies with each viewing.