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With: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick
Written by: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor based on a novel by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 129
Date: 08/05/1958

Vertigo (1958)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Playing Doubles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This is no mere re-release of an American classic. The folks (Robert A. Harris and James A. Katz, who also did Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus) who restored this movie literally saved it from total destruction. Apparently, if this work hadn't been done in the next five years, the negative for Vertigo would have completely eroded.

Vertigo was made in Technicolor and VistaVision, two totally outdated modes that are difficult to restore. These guys not only succeeded, but they redid the sound and the music as well, and in Digital Stereo. By some miracle, they found a stereo recording of Bernard Herrmann's score, and incorporated it into the film. They also followed Alfred Hitchcock's notes as closely as possible to get the new sounds effects right. And there were no short cuts or cheating to save money. (In 1989, Gone With the Wind was re-released for its 50th anniversary. The distributors literally chopped strips off the top and bottom of the frame to make it look more "widescreen.") In Vertigo, the color is crisp and bright and the sound is sharp. Vertigo probably sounds better now than when it was first released.

Vertigo stars Jimmy Stewart as a retired police detective, Scottie Ferguson. He's retired because while chasing a crook across some San Francisco rooftops, he fell, and discovered for the first time he had vertigo, a crippling fear of heights. We see this sequence in flashback at the film's beginning. Stewart hangs from the edge of the building, and the background seems to recede away from him as the horror on his face increases. The cop who tries to help him falls to his death.

Now, Scottie has been hired by a rich college chum to follow his wife Madeline, played by Kim Novak. Madeline is supposedly possessed by the spirit of Carlotta, a madwoman of San Francisco from the turn of the century, and Madeline's grandmother. Scottie follows her and watches her do some strange things. She picks up a corsage, then goes to a museum, where she sits and looks at a painting of Carlotta, who wears the same corsage. Then she visits Carlotta's grave (at the Mission Dolores Church Graveyard at 16th and Mission). Finally, she drives to the bay and jumps in. Scottie switches from observer to catalyst.

He brings her home and revives her. She doesn't remember any of the Carlotta stuff. She begins telling Scottie about her dreams, and Scottie realized she is talking about a church in San Juan Batista. They go there, and Madeline climbs the bell tower and falls to her death. Scottie is unable to follow because of his vertigo.

Scottie endures the nightmare trial to end all nightmare trials. The sole purpose seems to be to infuse Scottie with enough guilt to last for life. He withdraws, and not even his motherly friend, (played by Barbara Bel Geddes) can get to him. One day, he spots a girl who is a dead ringer for Madeline. Her name is Judy (also Kim Novak). Scottie feverishly works his way into her life, obsessively dating her, and eventually making her change her clothes, hair and makeup to resemble Madeline.

Strangely, Hitchcock gives away the game early by having Judy/Madeline sit down and write Scottie a letter explaining the whole thing. She was an actress hired to play the wife and to lure Scottie to the bell tower, so she could "die," and insurance money could be collected. With the "plot" out of the way, Hitchcock gives full attention to Scottie's psychological torment, as they go back to the bell tower. Scottie fights off his vertigo, and they climb to the top. A nun mysteriously appears, and a frightened Judy falls off the tower, this time for real.

Critics and audiences were originally confused by Hitchcock giving away the plot so early. They were also resistant to just how deeply felt and intense Vertigo was. In retrospect, it is easily the director's most psychological and personal works. It goes to frightening depths and emotions that few directors can ever approach. Hitchcock knew how to deliver the thrills that an audience expected, but this material allowed him to truly challenge himself.

I think Hitchcock was fascinated by, and frightened by women. Madeline/Judy is nothing but a reflection of Scottie's bruised psyche, but the strength of the movie is that there is still a "character" there for Kim Novak to play. (She plays both parts very well--it's her best performance.) Barbara Bel Geddes is the mother character, romantically interested in Scottie, but never to have him. These characters represent simple ideas, but come across as complex on the screen. It's slightly more complicated than the mother/whore complex. As Scottie makes Judy to dress up like Madeline, she becomes more and more reserved, the stiff gray suit, the hair bunched up tightly. Her sex appeal slowly goes away, rather than the reverse.

Vertigo is so much more than a standard thriller. Comparing it to its follow up North By Northwest shows how true that is. North By Northwest is a brilliantly done, but pretty simple and straightforward thriller, nowhere near the complexities and darkness of Vertigo. No other actor besides Jimmy Stewart could have handled the role of Scottie. Stewart is known for his likable characters in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Harvey, and even It's a Wonderful Life. But another look at the latter will show just how dark Stewart was willing and able to go. He truly suffers in that movie. In 1950, director Anthony Mann cast him as a violent cowboy in Winchester '73, and they followed it up with a series of increasingly psychological movies. By 1958, Stewart was ready for Vertigo, and he gives an amazing performance.

Everything is perfect in Vertigo. The spinning "eye" titles of Saul Bass, and the swirling, paranoid score by the great Bernard Herrmann are just frosting on this fascinating movie.

DVD Details: In 2008, Universal outdid themselves with a spectacular, remastered and anamorphic 2-disc DVD set. Picture and sound are unbelievably spectacular. The new set includes many of the extras from the previous DVD releases: making-of documentary, censored ending, trailers, photos, etc., as well as an all-star audio commentary track (restorers Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz and various cast members). The new disc comes with a second audio commentary track by the indispensable film director William Friedkin, who once worked on Hitchcock's TV show. (Friedkin is a great speaker and a great storyteller, although here he sometimes gets bogged down in describing the action onscreen.) Other extras include a featurette about Hitchcock's collaborators, an excerpt from the Francois Truffaut interviews, and an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (The Case of Mr. Pelham).

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