VERTIGO (1958) C widescreen 128m dir: Alfred Hitchcock
w/James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick, Paul Bryar
This complex Hitchcock mystery is a romantic film in the fullest sense of the word. The film's story line involves a cop whose vertigo seems to have caused not only the death of a fellow policeman but also that of a patrician beauty whom he has been hired to follow. Feeling responsible for her death, the detective withdraws from life until he chances upon a shopgirl whom he cruelly tries to remake in the image of the dead woman he had fallen in love with. As his obsession grows, the film builds to dizzying crescendo of duplicity, derangement, and folie a deux . A spellbinding work, and perhaps Hitchcock's greatest film, it's graced with a mesmerizing score by Bernard Herrmann and Novak's haunting embodiment of the mystery woman (a role Hitchcock originally intended for Vera Miles).
The Variety article below is representative of reviews of VERTIGO that appeared upon the film's release, not knowing quite what to make of this astonishing masterpiece:
From Variety's contemporary review of the film: "Vertigo is prime though uneven Hitchcock. James Stewart, on camera almost constantly, comes through with a startlingly fine performance as the lawyer-cop who suffers from acrophobia. Kim Novak, shopgirl who involves Stewart in what turns out to be a clear case of murder, is interesting under Hitchcock's direction and nearer an actress than in the earlier Pal Joey or Jeanne Eagles.
"Unbilled is the city of San Francisco, photographed extensively and in exquisite color. Through all of this runs Alfred Hitchcock's directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery. Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault --- that the film's first half is too slow and too long. This may be because: (1) Hitchcock became overly enamored of the vertiginous beauty of Frisco; or (2) the screenplay (from the novel D'entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) just takes too long to get off the ground. Film opens with a tracking scene in which Stewart's acrophobia is explained: He hangs from top of a building in midst of chasing a robber over rooftops and watches a police buddy plunge to his death. But for the next hour the action is mainly psychic, with Stewart hired by a rich shipbuilder to watch the shipowner's wife (Novak) as she loses her mental moorings, attempts suicide and immerses herself in the gloomy maunderings of her mad great-grandmother. Stewart goes off his rocker and winds up in a mental institution. When he comes out, still a trifle unbalanced, he keeps hunting for a girl who resembles Novak.
"Supporting players are all excellent, with Barbara Bel Geddes, in limited role of Stewart's down-to-earth girlfriend, standout for providing early dashes of humor.
"Frisco location scenes --- whether of Nob Hill, interior of Ernie's restaurant, Land's End, downtown, Muir Woods, Mission Dolores or San Juan Bautista --- are absolutely authentic and breathtaking."
From The Movie Guide: "The most-discussed work of the master; despairing, sardonic and demanding of multiple viewings. Hitchcock's intensely personal and frighteningly self-revealing picture, VERTIGO is the story of a man (Stewart as Hitch) who is possessed by the image of a former love (Novak, as Vera Miles) and becomes increasingly compulsive in his attempts to make another woman (Novak as Novak) over in that image. We'll explain.
"Stewart is a former San Francisco policeman who suffers from vertigo --- a dizzying sensation brought on by his acrophobia. When he gets a call from a former classmate, shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Helmore), he agrees to play detective and shadow the millionaire's wife Madeleine (Novak) whom Elster fears is going to wind up dead. Elster ominously asks him, 'Do you believe that someone dead, someone out of the past, can take possession of a living being?' After following Madeleine for a short while Stewart becomes obsessed with her --- lost deep in a labyrinthine plot from which he cannot escape.
"Based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (who previously supplied the source material for DIABOLIQUE), VERTIGO appealed to Hitchcock for reasons which become clearer the more one knows about the director's personality. VERTIGO is, in fact, nothing less than Hitchcock revealing himself to his audience --- his obsessions and desire to make over women are embodied in Stewart's character and the perfect Hitchcock woman is embodied in Madeleine. VERTIGO is also a masterpiece of filmmaking which includes one of the most important technical discoveries since the dawn of cinema --- the dolly-out, zoom-in shot, which visually represents the dizzying sensation of vertigo. The result is a shot unique to Hitchcock, unlike any other before in film, one which will always bear his stamp.
"But more than that, the behind-the-scenes preparation of VERTIGO resembles the story itself. Hitchcock had directed Vera Miles in THE WRONG MAN, and stood poised to make her a star in VERTIGO. This would be, of course, according to Hitchcock tradition: the cool blonde, whose whorish carnality is hidden beneath sleekly understated clothes and simple hair. But his plan went awry when Miles married after filming [of THE WRONG MAN] was over and soon became pregnant ('I lost interest. I couldn't get the rhythm going with her again,' said Hitchcock in an interview, but later he threw her a bone in PSYCHO). He convinced Novak to take the role; her somnambulistic quality made her very effective in the role, but he and [costume designer] Edith Head had hell convincing her to tone down.
"Yet perhaps Novak is the unsung quintessential Hitch heroine. Hitchcock himself described Stewart's character's obsession with Novak as a 'form of necrophilia'; it's chilling when you think of the director re-creating his dreamgirl again and again. Novak's heroine is degraded by suffusing her own identity to become what men want her to be. Did she feel degraded when Hitchcock and Head tried to bury the established Novak? Did it make her feel like a cheap pawn, forced to impersonate a lady, that is in itself an impersonation, within the confines of an acting job (an impersonation anyway)? And how much of her real self --- Marilyn Novik --- had fused with the manufactured Kim Novak? The latter was a star persona placed in an impossible-to-please situation in the first place. Groomed as a successor to Hayworth and a threat to Monroe, it's small wonder Novak fled the film industry to hide in Big Sur. To examine her within the context of VERTIGO is another dizzying vortex --- a virtual vertigo in itself."
The final remarks quoted above from the Movie Guide represent a fairly typical reaction to Novak's role in VERTIGO, seeing her as a pawn at the mercy of men and Hitchcock as her ultimate manipulator. But there's ample evidence in VERTIGO to support a broader, more empowering perspective for the woman in the film. Below are summaries of several theoretical articles (prepared for a Hitchcock course taught by FilmFrog in 1999) which examine this perspective in some detail:
VERTIGO: Woman's Place: Examining the Debate:
Laura Mulvey: 1975: "Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema":
Robin Wood: 1965: Hitchcock's Films:
before Mulvey: acknowledged more pivotal role for women in VERTIGO:
Robin Wood: 1983: after Mulvey: "Fear of Spying":
Keane: 1986: "A Closer Look at Scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock and Vertigo":
- Scottie "casts" Judy as Madeleine: just as Hitchcock "cast" Novak
Tania Modleski: 1988: The Women Who Knew Too Much:
VERTIGO was nominated for Oscars for Best Art Direction (Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Sam Comer, Frank McKelvey) and Best Sound (George Dutton).