Released in 1958, Vertigo received a lukewarm reception from the critics. The fact that it is now regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpieces reflects the content of the film: the focus on obsessive voyeurism and psychological illness seems more relevant than ever before.
Opening with a rooftop chase, policeman Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) sees a colleague fall to his death. Racked with guilt and unable to control his vertigo, Scottie takes early retirement from the force. But when a wealthy friend asks him to keep an eye on his wife’s suspicious behaviour, Scottie decides to take the job.
She is Madelaine (Kim Novak), a beautiful blonde obsessed with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes – a woman who killed herself exactly a century ago. Madelaine’s obsession seems to see her adopting parts of Carlotta’s personality and appearnce – as well repeatedly visiting her grave and suicide spot.
As Scottie trails Madeliane around San Francisco he becomes increasingly fascinated by her – eventually saving her life after she takes a plunge into the bay. Sadly, Scottie’s affection for Madeliane cannot last. But when he comes across a similar looking shop girl, his own obsession grips him and Scottie attempts to reinvent her in the image of his lost love.
It’s a brilliant performance from Stewart, who in the middle years of his career casts aside the genial charm which made characters like George Bailey so warm and sympathetic. Here, he’s slightly creepy and, at times, downright cruel. For a man who worried constantly about his relevance and employability as an actor, it’s a brave turn which risked alienating his fans. Of course, it did no such thing and he remains one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars – and he’ll crop up repeatedly in the IMDB Top 50 Challenge.
The real star of the show, however, is Hitchcock’s direction. Although elements of the film look slightly dated now, back then they were innovative and original – it’s impossible not to admire them. Special effects such as the vertigo-inducing zoom shot which opens the film have become commonplace and the surreal animation was years before its time.
Bang in the middle of his most impressive period, Vertigo demonstrates Hitchcock’s absolute confidence in his own abilty. Despite being deliberately slow and occasionally repetitive, the film is never dull. Instead, the pace and content reflect the growing obsessions of the main protagonists, drawing the audience deeper into the action and creating a cloying sense of claustrophobia.
Having first seen Vertigo as a film student over ten years ago, i was surprised that the film seems to have improved in the interim. The passage of time, an increase in my maturity levels and an appreciation of the subtleties of Hitchcock’s craft has ensured that my second viewing was an infinitely more rewarding experience than the first. Recommended.