ALFRED HITCHCOCK ENGULFS YOU IN A WHIRLPOOL OF TERROR AND TENSION!
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s three 1950s Technicolor masterpieces (the others are Rear Window and North by Northwest). Curiously enough, when it premiered audiences didn’t flock to it and critics were disappointed. Hitchcock, in an unnecessary effort to find a scapegoat, reportedly blamed the film’s star, James Stewart, for being too old for his part. Who cares about the color of Stewart’s hair, though? The movie ended up inspiring many other thrillers, almost all of them failing to match its brilliance.
Diagnosed with acrophobia
After a violent chase that leaves him hanging from the edge of a roof, San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is diagnosed with acrophobia, a fear of heights, and retires from the force. A friend of his, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him as a private investigator to follow his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), and find out why she’s behaving so strangely lately. Her mind tends to wander and as Scottie learns she’s making little detours that would confuse anyone watching her, including a visit to a museum where she sits staring at a portrait of a woman called Carlotta Valdes.
It turns out that Madeleine is in fact Carlotta’s great-granddaughter and she seems obsessed with her, so much so that Scottie watches her try to kill herself the same way as Carlotta did. He saves Madeleine from drowning and that is the beginning of a relationship where she finds a friend to confide in and he a woman that mesmerizes him. Unfortunately, a horrific tragedy changes everything… but Scotty finds a new chance to nurture what turns out to be his own obsession.
Psychology is a key aspect
Hitchcock had a way of hypnotizing his audience and Vertigo is one of those fascinating pictures. It starts with a main title sequence designed by Saul Bass (his first for the director) featuring a woman’s eye that turns into a spiral as blood soaks the screen; along with Bernard Herrmann’s vastly dramatic music score it is one of the most startling and memorable film openings ever. The movie continues at a brisk pace, segueing into an action scene and then introducing the mystery that will have Scottie as well as us enthralled.
The story is divided into two chapters; one with Madeleine and one with Judy, two very different characters played to perfection by Novak. Both of them are clouded with mystery and their devastating effect on Scottie is fascinating. Psychology is a key aspect of the script. Scottie tries to act as a therapist to Madeleine; when he meets Judy he uses her as a tool to heal himself after the tragedy that broke his heart. The music is key; Herrmann knows what he’s doing, his eerie score constantly reinforcing the desperate tension between the two leads. A dream sequence reconnects with both Bass’s title scene and Salvador Dalí‘s contribution to Spellbound (1945), a stylish nightmare that puts both Scottie’s obsession and fears on display.
Vertigo wouldn’t be what it is without the San Francisco locations, including the dramatic Fort Point area, the hills and slopes of the city and its environs, the magnificent redwood trees in Muir Woods, and the tranquility of the Mission San Juan Bautista. All the contrasts add flavor to the mystery.
Some critics pointed out that the story actually ends two-thirds into the film. By then we may have learned the entire story behind Madeleine. However, there are more complex issues to work with here and Scottie’s problems need closure as well. Obviously, he should spare himself the pain and just fall in love with his adoring friend, Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes). But neither in real life nor in movies is life that simple.
Vertigo 1958-U.S. 128 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor. Novel: Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac (“D’entre les morts”). Cinematography: Robert Burks. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Cast: James Stewart (John ”Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie ”Midge” Wood), Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Ellen Corby.
Trivia: Vera Miles was reportedly considered for the role of Madeleine. The Mission San Juan Bautista is real but not the famous adjacent bell tower staircase, which was built on a studio lot.
Last word: “[Hitchcock] didn’t necessarily [make me feel valued as a collaborator], but, on the other hand, he didn’t make me feel ’less than.’ He never said, ‘Do it a different way,’ or ‘You’re not doing it right.’ We only did probably two, three takes on every scene we did, at the most. I knew that he was a person who wanted what he wanted. I grew up in a family that never expressed when I did something right, but you knew when you did something wrong. So, I understood. What I would do after a take is to look in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes. He would nod his head, as if to say, ‘That was it.’ I used Jimmy to give me what I needed to keep going and to know that I was on the right path with it. I thought I saw Jimmy’s soul all the time we worked. He never covered his soul and I never covered mine. We saw into each other’s souls, very definitely. So, Hitchcock wouldn’t say anything about my work in the movie but, on the other hand, he wouldn’t complain, either.” (Novak, interview with Stephen Rebello)