Classic Flix Review: Vertigo by Rockerdad

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VertigoPosterWell, FlixChatter readers, Ruth has kindly asked for another classic movie review – and with her encouragement, I picked a film I hope will end up in your DVD queues at home or the video store as one to watch over the weekend.

Thanks to prairiegirl, I recently got a chance to see the old, rarely-seen or shown Hitchcock thriller Young and Innocent (1937). As is the case with most of his pre-Hollywood films, it was full of dry, detached British humor, complete with a Hitchcock cameo and topped off with a touch of understated light romance. While excited at finally seeing this rare and wonderful early work (which climaxed with a black-faced jazz drummer having a heart attack), the experience paled in comparison to one I had seen the night before as the subject of this review – I’m referring to the fatalistic, romantic, suspense thriller Vertigo (1958).

It’s difficult to write about what may be my favorite Hitchcock movie, even out-pulsing the terrific North by Northwest. But Vertigo works on so many levels – cinematically, psychologically, psycho-sexually, that it is hands-down Hitchcock’s most complex work and arguably his masterpiece.

The film revolves around Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective, suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights) after witnessing a fellow police officer fall to his death during a rooftop chase. Scottie, psychologically scarred from the traumatic experience, is forced to retire from the force but is somehow coaxed by old college buddy and shipping magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to do some private eye work for him – specifically, to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak in a dual role). She is sporting some incredibly strange behavior, mysteriously (and glamourously) wandering aimlessly around San Francisco in a trance-like state. This leads Elster to fear she might be a danger to herself. As Scottie trails the beautiful Mrs. Elster, he develops an obsession towards her, much to the chagrin of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s ex-fiancee and confidant.

Vertigo iconic still photo
Vertigo iconic still photo

Scottie starts to believe that Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of a long dead woman, Carlotta Valdez, the subject of a historical painting she religiously visits at the local museum. After Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay in a seeming attempt to end her life, Scottie saves her and is tragically hooked. He is in love with her. Scottie tries to help her stave off her demons by revisiting Carlotta’s old haunts. In the conclusion of the film’s first act, Scottie and Madeleine drive to San Juan Batista, an old Spanish mission, from Carlotta’s past, in an attempt to cure her of her nightmares. Instead, Madeleine succeeds in taking her life, as Scottie fails to reach her, his vertigo or acrophobia preventing him from climbing the bell tower she leaps from.

Now we see Scottie’s mental state deteriorate into catatonia – his guilt, lost love, and trauma (now two-fold) too much to bear. His disintegration leads him to frequent Madeleine’s old haunts and is relegated into wandering the streets of San Francisco just as Madeleine had. One day, he stalks a simple shop girl, Judy (also played by Kim Novak) who has a slight resemblance to Madeleine if unrefined. As he courts her, his obsession overwhelms him. He starts to dress her up in Madeleine’s clothes, hair, and personal effects. Judy is reluctant with his desires to transform her, Scottie is immovable and takes an analytical precision in transforming her into the woman he desires…

The film was adapted by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor from Sueurs froides: d’entre les morts (“Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead”) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is rumored that the novel was specifically written for Hitchcock after he failed to secure the rights to their previous novel, Celle qui n’était plus, which became Les Diabolique (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, a great film in it’s own right.

The film is shot beautifully in color, on location in San Francisco (with some shots on a soundstage), by longtime collaborator Robert Burks. In classic Hitchcock style, famous landmarks are part of the cast: Golden Gate Bridge, San Juan Batista, Mission district and Redwood National Park. The memorable title sequence was designed by notable Graphic Artist Saul Bass. But perhaps the most important element to the films cinematic experience is Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score. Without it, the film would lose its romanticism, mystique and tragedy. It is my favorite of all Herrmann’s work. The music itself stands alone as a complete work of art.

James Stewart & Kim Novak
James Stewart & Kim Novak

Also part of Vertigo’s genius is Stewart’s performance as Scottie. We see him go through the darkest of transformations – this isn’t George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Here, Stewart plays a tortured, damaged soul. Kim Novak is excellent as the tragic femme fatale, playing both sides of a coin – refined and unrefined – but captivating in both. Hitchcock originally cast Vera Miles in Madeleine’s role, but a pregnancy and other commitments gave Novak a chance to shine.

The film has been restored in glorifying color and the soundtrack re-recorded (including some foley effects) according to Hitchcock’s original notes. Some purists prefer the scratchy mono version but this is a real treat to hear in stereo and surround.

Vertigo stands, in my book, as Hitchcock’s greatest film. It was misunderstood at its first release, with critics giving it mixed reviews. Its complexity, tone and unusual story arc confused some expecting predictable noir fare. But time has proven this to be a true classic, one that perhaps exemplifies the apex of the Technicolor noir film of the 1950s.

Check out the awesome trailer below:

– Thanks again to my pal Vince Caro for the review!


So what do you all think of Vertigo? Let us know what you think!

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One thought on “Classic Flix Review: Vertigo by Rockerdad

  1. PrairieGirl

    Haven’t seen this Hitchcock classic, but will certainly add it to my NetFlix queue. The story line is certainly out of the ordinary, and haven’t watched an actor play two roles in a movie since Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. Love it when the real location plays a significant part in the movie, ala Roman Holiday. Glad you’re enjoying the long lost Hitch flicks, Rockerdad. I was never really certain why I decided to pick up that particular DVD from the WalMart $5 bin (alas, it is no more), but now I know why!

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