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Vertigo (1958)

October 16th, 2007 · 9 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Pursuing a man across a roof in San Francisco, Detective Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and dangles off the edge of the building. A patrolman attempts to pull him up, but plunges off the roof. Weeks later, “Scottie” has almost completed his physical therapy. He tells his college sweetheart and best friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that he’s quitting the police force due to his acrophobia.

Scottie pays a call to a college friend named Gavin Elster, who married into a shipbuilding empire. Elster is a buff of turn of the century San Francisco. He tells Scottie that he needs him to follow his wife, Madeleine. Elster reveals that Madeleine is afflicted by spells in which she behaves as if she’s another person, wandering the city alone. He wants to know more about his wife’s peculiarities before committing her to psychiatric treatment.

Once he gets a peek at Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), Scottie is put under a spell. He follows her to Mission Dolores, where Madeleine visits a grave marked “Carlotta Valdes”, then to the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where she sits in front of a painting of Carlotta Valdes. Then she vanishes into thin air. Midge helps Scottie by taking him to an antique bookstore, whose owner informs them that Valdes was a jilted wife who killed herself 100 years ago.

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Scottie believes Madeleine has become obsessed with the past for one reason or another. He follows her to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and when Madeleine dives into the bay, rescues her. The pair becomes obsessed with each other. But when Scottie takes Madeleine to Mission San Juan Bautista in an attempt to break her from her spell, she throws herself from the bell tower.

Distraught by Madeleine’s suicide, Scottie checks into a mental institution. Once released, he comes across a woman he believes is a splitting image of Madeleine, Judy Barton (also Kim Novak). All Judy wants is someone to love her, so she agrees to change her hair and wardrobe to satisfy Scottie’s obsession. When the charade goes too far, Judy threatens to end up just like Madeleine did.

Production history
D’Entre les Morts was a 1954 French suspense novel by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac. Set in Paris and Marseilles during World War II, it concerned an acrophobic detective hired to investigate a friend’s wife. He becomes obsessed with her. The woman apparently throws herself from a tower, but when the detective later meets a woman who’s a dead ringer for his former love, his obsession starts all over again. Paramount optioned the book for director Alfred Hitchcock.

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The director tasked screenwriter Maxwell Anderson with updating the story to present day San Francisco. Anderson turned in a treatment, which Hitchcock worked on with his friend and collaborator Angus MacPhail. Alec Coppel – who had contributed to Alfred Hitchcock Presents – was hired to adapt a script. Coppel met with Hitchcock throughout the fall of 1956 to flesh out twenty-three sequences the director intended for the film.

When James Stewart’s wife insisted he take a break before resuming work, Vertigo was delayed. Coppel went off to write a play, and another playwright – Sam Taylor – was hired to complete the shooting script. Taylor polished scenes and dialogue for what Hitchcock was calling “a strange mood love story.” The director wanted Vera Miles to star opposite Stewart, but her pregnancy forced her to pass. Hitchcock’s agent Lew Wasserman suggested 24-year-old Kim Novak for the part.

Following two years of writing and pre-production, shooting commenced in San Francisco in September 1957. Mood on the set was said to have been intense, with Hitchcock treating the material far more seriously than usual. Released in May 1958, Vertigo was a hit, but received negative reviews from the prominent critics of the time. Today, the AFI ranks it #9 on their list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time. Many critics now regard this as the best picture of Alfred Hitchcock’s career.

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The artistry of so many of Hitchcock’s films is hidden beneath lurid pulp fiction and B-movie casts, but from the opening shot of Vertigo, Hitchcock leaves no doubt that you’re watching an artist unveil a masterpiece. So much hyperbole has been lavished on this film – as with Citizen Kane or Casablanca – but watching it, it was easy to understand why.

The genius of the script is that instead of dialing up detective cliches, it vividly explores the obsessions of its lovers and their doomed romance. Anyone who’s dated someone hung up on an ex can identify with this movie. Stewart and Novak both play nutters, but they’re beautifully cast. Barbara Bel Geddes as the gal pal has wonderful texture to her role as well. The dynamics of the story and characters were easy for me to understand.

Vertigo leaves an impression like no other movie I can think of. The creative expressionism Hitchcock infused the film with is just mesmerizing. It brought out the greatest work that director of photography Robert Burks or composer Bernard Herrmann would probably ever do. A restoration in 1996 used Hitchcock and Burks’ original designs to recreate the three-strip Technicolor and sound effects, minting a brilliant new negative.

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Ben Delbanco at Jiminy Critic writes, “Vertigo is not only an incredibly suspenseful film, but also examines human emotion in a way that makes it stand apart from not only most other films, but even Hitchcock’s other work.”

“The reason this film is considered a masterpiece is that everything fits together perfectly. From the acting to the cinematography to the musical score, Hitch has you right where he wants you from the get go. This is a train you won’t be able to get off,” writes Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “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.”

View the masterful opening credits sequence designed by Saul Bass, with musical score composed by Bernard Herrmann.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Femme fatale · Museums and galleries · Unconventional romance

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff McM // Oct 17, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Let’s hear it for a masterpiece!

  • 2 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:25 pm

    Vertigo is indeed a masterpiece. From its brilliantly haunting Saul Bass/Bernard Hermann opening credit sequence to its haunting final image (which it almost wasn’t), the film is a true work of cinematic high art. Whenever I watch it, I am always in awe of its beauty and its power. Sometimes I find myself in conversations with other Hitchcock fans talking about which of his movies is the greatest movie. Vertigo certainly gets that vote a lot. Rear Window and North By Northwest also get mentioned quite often. I tend to be a Psycho guy myself, but there is no denying I think that whichever title has the honor of being his best, Vertigo is certainly up there.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    Jeff: Thanks for your comment. I always enjoy hearing where you stand on the classic films.

    Damian: I haven’t seen Psycho yet, but if I had to name the greatest Hitchcock movie, I would pick Vertigo over Rear Window or North By Northwest. They’re all among the greatest movies ever made, but this one has a haunting quality that stays with me long after the movie is over. Maybe my opinion will change by Halloween!

  • 4 Damian // Oct 18, 2007 at 12:39 am

    …if I had to name the greatest Hitchcock movie, I would pick “Vertigo” over “Rear Window” or “North By Northwest.”

    Oh, me too. I think it’s way better than North By Northwest (a film that I enjoy but don’t exactly admire) and a little bit better than Rear Window.

    I haven’t seen “Psycho” yet…

    OMG. I am sooooooo envious of you, Joe. I remember my first viewing of Psycho. I absolutely loved it but I didn’t fully appreciate all of its complex layers at the time: its dark humor, its profound sadness, its stark and haunting beauty and, of course, its terrifying horror. The more often I watch it, the more I get out of it and the more convinced I become it is Hitchcock’s masterwork. I really can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

  • 5 Megan // Oct 18, 2007 at 11:10 am

    I agree this movie is a masterpiece! ‘Haunting’ is a very good word for it.

    The scene when they drive down 101 through the trees is one of my family’s favorites, probably because we too drove that road almost every summer on our way to and from Los Angeles. I sometimes wonder if my dad planned it so we would hit that part at night. “We’re coming to the trees!” Spooky, spooky stuff.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Oct 18, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Damian: I already knew how great a fan of Psycho you were. Bear in mind I’ll only have a few hours to ponder how I feel about it before writing about it. Your comments have put me in a appropriate frame of mind, though.

    Megan: Hitchcock lived in the Santa Rosa area, I believe, and one of the many great attributes to Vertigo was how specific it was to the Bay Area. Thanks for your comment!

  • 7 Dave Pattern // Oct 19, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    My favourite Hitchcock film — I could never tire of watching it :-)

    I’ve in the middle of writing a blog post about John Whitney, an avant-garde filmmaker who was responsible for the animated spirals in the open credit sequence.

    By the way, have you read the interpretation of the film that says the second half (i.e. everything after the last shot of Midge) takes place entirely in Scottie’s head?

  • 8 Thomas W. Muther, Jr. // Jun 14, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    [Belated though this is . . .] I enjoyed your summary and critique of Vertigo and agree absolutely, though if anything I would be even more enthusiastic. It’s been my favorite film now for about 20 years and I’ve seen it at least 25 times–FINALLY getting to see it on the big screen when the re-release made it to Kansas City for a week (and though I had to drive 80 miles each time, I saw it thrice). I love the film for so many reasons, probably the main one being the emotional resonance I feel with Scottie’s plight (and with Judy’s!). I’ve never grappled with a romantic obsession as profound or destructive as his, but still, any one who has pined for weeks or months over a lost love can certainly identify. But also, the incredible layers of in the story, the repeating motifs, the repetition of certain elements in the story (most centrally, Elster’s off-screen manipulation of Judy, and Scottie’s duplication of the exact process–painfully apparent in Scottie’s anguished denunciation of Judy in the tower–“Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to say?” etc.). It’s this masterful weaving of intricate structure seamlessly into a story that does not depend on its even being noticed that puts this over the top into number one position on my hit parade.


  • 9 Cine-phile // Aug 25, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Fans of VERTIGO and Hitchcock generally may wish to look at my article on what Hitchcock actually said about the film in his interviews with Truffaut. He is particularly interesting on Novak, Miles and Stewart. The full transcripts of the interviews are provided. The published versions – both English and French – were heavily edited and certainly lose the flavor of Hitchcock’s comment.

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