Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor
(Based on the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac)
Cast: James Stewart; Kim Novak; Barbara Bel Geddes; Tom Helmore; Henry Jones
Length: 129 minutes
Synopsis: When he develops acrophobia and vertigo, San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is forced to retire from his career, but is asked by an old friend to follow his wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) under the belief she has been possessed by one of her late ancestors. The results of taking this job leads to Scotty becoming detached from reality chasing after a woman he falls in love with who might not be all she seems.
Vertigo was once a critically maligned film from Alfred Hitchcock only to grow into one of his most critically lauded, so much so it knocked off Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) off the top spot of the Sight & Sound magazine poll for greatest film ever made, not exactly an easy achievement to have completed when Citizen Kane was number one before it for five decades. The fact Vertigo has gained this stature is actually strange when viewing the film because it is such the opposite of the kind of films you'd imagine a stereotypical film critic, not necessarily a real one, would love, a ripe melodrama with vaguely Gothic tinges and where suspension of disbelief is very much required. You have to accept a lot of poetic licence. That Scotty's vertigo is a MacGuffin. That a major plot twist is shown earlier than it would in any other film, turning the rest of the movie into a type of psycho-dramatic character piece that roots itself into a direction detached from the rational. That it is a hammy film in tone but isn't undermined by this because if you "get" Vertigo's tone and appreciate its crafted elegance. Its place on that magazine poll would not help it as it would also lead people to seek it out, many of the films on the last poll in fact quite subversive but the potential mausoleum effect of the poll's nature in danger of undermining their power. Vertigo is at odds with the kind of film you'd picture on a great film poll, which are honestly for the most part very neutral and for the widest audiences for many such lists, because its full of troubling subtext easy to read into and has a very exaggerated tone that stands out.
Its elegance doesn't mean cover its intentional un-subtleness, close to being ridiculous. It dares to be a blatant supernatural film that does not follow rational conventions, and even when it becomes the Hichcockian tale of betrayal and deceit, this stays as the tone to the ending nonetheless. It's a slower paced film for Hitchcock, one where its plot cruxes are more to do with the emotions of two characters, Scottie and Madeleine, who become more emotionally disconnected from reality and pull the rest of the film with them into their heightened worlds. For the moments of lightness that take place, screwball comedy with Scottie's friend and ex-fiancée Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), who still loves him, most of the film is connected to Scottie almost entirely, onscreen for most of the film in the centre during his descent into dark obsession. When the film shifts to its second half, the already mentioned plot twist which would usually happen at the end of another thriller is suddenly revealed halfway through with half the film left, leaving Vertigo in uncharted waters where one is disturbed by Scottie's increasingly erratic behaviour after he is briefly hospitalised but is still pulled into the break from reality that takes place too with him, where a character can enter a stranger's hotel room without warning and manage one hour later to go out with them for dinner as a sudden romantic couple, hidden emotions or not, pushing the movie into the illogical.
Vertigo hinges itself onto an area of disbelief that is drastically different from any other Hitchcock film I've seen except The Birds (1963). Even the dream sequence in Spellbound (1945) is safeguarded by the fact, despite being designed by Salvador Dali, that it's a dream whilst Vertigo, despite also having a dream sequence, is entirely in the vague and mysterious. In Vertigo the characters are drawn along narratively by emotions and unseen forces, not elaborate plots of other Hitchcock films, locations such as flower shops, woodlands and a mission called Mission San Juan Bautista, that plays a key narrative role, all becoming imbued with ghosts of many forms, literally in an image at the ending in the bell tower of the mission. The use of striking colour especially, usually in interiors, emphasises the ghostly air, from the red walls of a restaurant that is repeatedly entered by the characters and the reoccurrence of the colour green for a supernatural metaphor. The emotional centre of the film dictated by Stewart and Novak manages to keep the film's melodrama in the right groove, despite the apparently and significant age difference, Stewart able to switch himself from the stereotypically jovial and charming man he is seen as in cinema to someone almost shell shocked or a walking comatose, while Novak also has to juggle a complicated role when the film pans out in the end. One has to be patient with this film, jarring against one of the more quicker paced or elaborate Hitchcock films, and if it succeeds for the viewer the result sucks them into a peculiar headspace of deathly romance that's perverse.
Shot in lush Technicolor by director of photography Robert Burks, Vertigo is as much able to work because the aesthetic of classic Hollywood that the story is depicted through, the studio system style of Hollywood always evoking for me the sense of the elaborate and stylish, literally the "Dream Factory" creating dreamy films, even when shot on location, because the passing time distance from this era to today means a drastic change in look, aesthetic and mood. The rear-screen projection for actors driving cars to the colour palettes now become unintentional tools for creating heightened dreams. The San Francisco locations, especially the gorgeous panoramas of the sprawling metropolis, add a sense of scale, keeping a Gothic tone for the plot but setting it in a modernist urban environment thus proving it could still work in such an environment as it would an ancient castle.
The biggest contribution to the film is Bernard Hermann's orchestral score, the drama contained in it solidifying the characters' emotions and the lions share, not to dismiss the hard work of everyone else who made the film, to why it's able to actual work as a movie, a lush but far-from-generic score that adds further to the mysterious air surrounding all Scottie encounters and does. That it can switch from the legitimately romantic to the unsettling, and you can pick up the difference in the orchestral instruments and the notes they play, is evidence of its success as a score.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist; Mind Bender; Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
The most openly unconventional aspects of Vertigo are specially created animated sequences. The first is the opening credits by Saul Bass, the title emerging from a woman's eye in extreme close-up, the very modern design of Bass' work for Hitchcock still to this day incredible for their craft but also unique compared to modern title designs still, the use of colour and shape almost avant-garde especially as the credits don't portray anything that takes place in the movie but sets up an unnerving mood it has. The other is the mid-film dream sequence designed by abstract artist John Ferren that takes the same route, flower petals spiralling outward and a figure falling into the void, one of the most iconic images of Hitchcock's career being James Steward's disembodied head staring straight at the viewer as he is sucked into a mental abyss of his own psyche that he is chained to for the rest of the narrative.
Baring this, Vertigo structurally is a very narrative driven melodrama. Barring its style, including the innovative depiction of Scottie's vertigo, a distortion of our perception as well as his as its always in first person, cinematic space growing in size without any seemingly actual movement, the rest of the film's unconventional tone is internal. Alfred Hitchcock was a Hollywood director who made commercial films but Vertigo does reach its tendrils into the expressionistic, with its languid pace, in that it's all induced and effected by its characters' minds not the other way around. When it gets to the second half as Scottie meets another woman similar to Madeleine, the ghosts of the first half change from historical ones to psychological baggage of sexual and gender issues. It would be crass and miss the point to say that it's a metaphor for cinema's dreams when it's about a man's memory and view of others becoming distorted and affected as he tries to control and groom this second woman to be Madeleine. Hitchcock was completely blunt about the sexual meaning of this in his interviews with Francois Truffaut but as well the notion of idealism and how it can become poisoned is noticeable.
[Spoiler warning. Skip italicized text if you do not want the film to be spoilt for you]
Adding to this is knowing the woman Scottie is obsessed with is a mere image, a fake stand-in for his friend's real wife in a twist Italian giallo filmmakers would've ran with. The woman he loves manages to die twice in fact, his love only existing for the form of Madeleine, wearing a certain flower, a certain way to their blonde hair style tied up in the back, a certain grey suit dress designed for the film by Edith Head, and an image created based on the real wife, the individual Kim Novak's character actually is and Carlotta Valdes, the ancestor Madeleine is said to be possessed by, amalgamated together. The image of femininity he adored is a mere picture, while the stand-in who promises to love him is rejected for admitting how she is not the Madeleine he wanted and that she was used to trick him into a murder scheme. The "abstract" for this site, how I use the word, is as much about the questioning of subjective reality, and the theme of Vertigo of an idealised image, a beautiful woman, being both impossible to be reach and not even existing is a good example of this type of questioning, when the symbols of femininity for Scottie not the woman herself is what he desires. As an entertainment film, this makes the film a cautious tale of this obsession, and read further, this is a theme of mistaken perception that Hitchcock ran with continually and here concentrated on fully.
Whilst the film for me is not any more abstract than 'Low', The Birds more stranger and chilling in the baggage it evokes, Vertigo is haunting as an entertainment feature and art because its conceit is about the image one has overtaking reality as Scotty is chasing after a phantom in many a sense.
I am gradually warming to Vertigo. It does meander significantly halfway through, noticeably slower in pace to other Hitchcock films and once very sluggish and dreary for me. If one is not engaged with the film it's not going to work at all. I am not surprised Vertigo was originally a very unpopular film, as it isn't easy to digest needing time to soak in. Why it's become beloved by filmmakers like Brian De Palma, who openly took the plot but also riffed on the same theme of perception in Obsession (1976), the title spelling out the themes openly, and film critics is likely because one can dig deeply into its subtext but still have a very unconventional and rich melodrama, not just a study piece around it, to watch. The themes couldn't have been as enticing if you didn't have great central performances, the skill of Hitchcock and the technicians behind him, and the Hermann score, and it wouldn't have worked if the plot, hammy as it is at points, wasn't as enticing as it was. I still prefer other Hitchcock films but I wouldn't be surprised if I find more and more virtues as I think about Vertigo and revisit it.