Vertigo (1958 USA)

VHitchcock uses a complicated story, interesting characters, lavish visual detail, and deliberate pacing, plus a fine musical score by Bernard Hermann, to produce a mysterious, almost unearthly, atmosphere. The tension rarely lets up, and the viewer is caught up completely in it, at times almost to the point of discomfort. It’s the kind of film that repays careful attention, as almost every moment is filled with significant detail.

When Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” opened in 1958, it had a cold reception by both critics and audience, and many even consider it a failure in his remarkable career. Even Hitchcock wondered about what went wrong and he blamed lead star James Stewart for the failure. What probably happened, was that this time, Hitchcock’s usual walk on the dark side went a bit too far for the times. “Vertigo”, based on Pierre Boileau’s novel “d’Entre Les Morts”, is a dark tale of romance, obsessions and lies, all spiced up with the lead character’s acrophobia. James Stewart is our protagonist, as Scottie, he plays a detective whose sudden retire from the police was caused by an accident involving his acrophobia – his fear of heights.

Hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a mysterious old friend from school; he accepts the mission of following Elster’s wife, Madeline (Kin Novak), who supposedly is possessed by the ancient spirit of one of her ancestors, and that eventually will take her life. As Scottie tries to protect Madeline, he falls in love with her, starting a forbidden romance that is doomed from the start. After Scottie fails to save Madeline’s life due to the vertigo caused by his acrophobia, his obsession with her take him to commit unexpected actions.

VertigoBoileau’s complex story of obsession may had been too much for the critics and the audience of its time; and watching James Stewart going from a regular guy to a man bordering insanity certainly didn’t help the film. Nevertheless, time has proved that “Vertigo” was indeed a powerful film undeserving of the cold reception it had. James Stewart gives probably his best performance ever; the sudden fall from grace that eventually take its toll on Scottie is perfectly portrayed by Stewart. Hitchcock was really wrong at blaming James for the failing, as it was the audience who was not ready to see their hero turned into a grotesque monster.

Kim Novak plays his role with grace, although certainly her character is not as demanding as Stewart’s. The story is all about Scottie and his failed romance leading to the destruction of his life. This complex persona makes him one of the best fictional characters ever written, let alone portrayed on film. The technical aspects of Vertigo are superb too, Hitchcock creates a brilliant composition of colours and the visuals are beautiful. Bernard Herrman’s score is subtle but fitting, although not as powerful as his famous work on “Psycho”.

If a flaw is to be found, I would say that the script was probably not the most friendly for the audience. This film is certainly not for everyone, as it’s slow pace and heavy darkness in the subject may turn off people familiar with Hitchcock’s lighter films, as his usual dark humour is not present here. The first time I watched it, I was not sure about what had just happened in front of my eyes, not sure if it was good or bad. After a second watch I found this to be one of those kind of films that grow on you. Some consider it a failure and others consider it a masterpiece; my opinion stands closer to the latter. I call it a great piece of cinema.

vertigo 1958

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Comments

  1. One of my all time favourite films and reading this reminded me I have not seen it for a few years. I must get round to pulling it off the shelf again! Good review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! Yes, this is one of those that seems to get better with time and repeat viewings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I need to rewatch this some time.

    Great review, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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