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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Vertigo

Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rated: PG
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: May 1958
Genres: Drama, Mystery, Suspense, Classic

*Also starring: Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne

Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

There is a movement afoot in the movie business to restore some of the great classic films so that this generation can see them afresh. Perhaps the best known of these efforts was the restoration a few years ago of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Some of the work like that done on THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG allows the movie to be better even than that seen by even the original movie audience.

So it is with the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece VERTIGO. Working with some of the original master tapes, the restorers have given the film a digital stereo sound track. Hearing Bernard Herrmann's music conducted by that great master Muir Mathieson makes the effort worthwhile. His haunting melodies are quite dramatic with the horns using their lowest notes. That the restorers also give us a cleaned up print and vastly improved color rendition is a bonus.

Restoration is a difficult process depending on many factors. Here the result is less than perfect, which is not meant as a criticism. The interior sequences are bursting with rich and highly textured colors, but the exterior ones still seem a bit washed out. There are a couple of scenes where the print gets too dark and where the color matching is off. On the whole, however, the restoration works, and it is a joy to see this classic in its full glory.

The story is nominally about the acrophobia of Detective John 'Scottie' or 'Johnny-O' Ferguson (James Stewart). Even the opening credits have what look to be early computer generated spirals reflecting Ferguson's fear of a body spinning down from a tall building.

This feeling of acrophobia or vertigo is nothing more than a plot device. It provides the glue that holds the mystery of the story together. What makes the film so compelling are the characters swept up in the vertigo of the mystery.

After losing a fellow officer to a fall and being unable to catch him, Ferguson retires from the force. He hangs out in his friend Marjorie 'Midge' Wood's (Barbara Bel Geddes) apartment. Bel Geddes is easily the most likable actor in the story. This perky career woman designs "brassieres" for a living. She notes that they were designed using the principles of "a cantilever bridge."

Midge's costumes by the great Edith Head and the make-up by Wally Westmore give her the image of a good looking nerd. She has attractive but overly conspicuous glasses, and clothes that are all too sensible. You see she loves her Johnny-O and still waxes nostalgic about how they were engaged for three weeks in their college days. Now they are just chums, but although she wishes their relationship were more substantial, she would never confess it to Johnny-O.

John's old college buddy Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks him to trail his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine has taken to disappearing and seems to be doing a mind meld with a dead woman named Carlotta Valdez. John hates the idea until he sees Madeleine and then his hormones kick in.

If you love San Francisco as much as I do, and especially if you live near it as I do, the movie provides more gorgeous San Francisco settings for you to savor than any other movie. Period. My personal favorites are the scenes in and around the California Palace of the Legend of Honor. In 1991 I came upon Brian DePalma making a movie there with Lolita Davidovitch called RAISING CAIN. It was an awful film, but as I sat watching the expensive and slow minutia of a film shoot, I keep reflecting back to Hitchcock's work there over three decades earlier and in the same spot outside.

The camera work by Robert Burks is a masterful blend of wide-angle zooms to create the vertigo effect in the audience and of a traditional and panoramic approach.

The automobile's role in movies has changed dramatically. Cars play a key part in VERTIGO. Sometimes they represent their owners in absentia and thus provide clues to others. Mainly they are vehicles to transport couples on long romantic drives up scenic coasts. Cars in films today are rarely associated with their owners, and when driven, are most likely part of a car chase. The romance is lost forever.

Alfred Hitchcock is the king of the mysteries, which is not to say that his are without logical flaws. My favorite nonsensical happening in VERTIGO is when Madeleine is rescued unconscious from San Francisco Bay by John. He takes her to his apartment rather than the hospital, and when she awakens, she has fresh make-up and her trademark tons of lipstick. They must have had some really long lasting cosmetics back in the 50's.

Now that you ask, yes, Hitchcock does his standard quick walk through one of the scenes. This "Where's Waldo" is a favorite of Hitchcock fans like myself, and I certainly will give you no hints when this occurs.

Novak gives a wooden performance in the first half, but is quite intriguing in the second when she comes back to life as Judy Barton. Stewart has not given a bad performance in his life. His acting as an obsessed man in VERTIGO is good, but not his best.

The script by Samuel Taylor and Alec Coppel (based on a book by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) is well constructed and literate. Just a couple of examples. The coroner (Henry Jones) admonishes John with, "He did nothing. The law has little to say on things left undone." Later, Midge tells John, "I talked to the woman in musical therapy, and she said that Mozart's the boy for you."

Ultimately what makes VERTIGO work so well is the direction by the great master and the stunning music and visuals. My main criticism of the film is that the editing by George Tomasini is too slow. The film would have been more effective if more tightly focused and about fifteen more minutes had been left on the cutting room floor.

The ending of the show is perfect and shocking if you have never seen it before. VERTIGO remains a classic bit of cinema that is worth seeing again. I would love to see some local theater do an Alfred Hitchcock festival. Hint. Hint.

VERTIGO runs 2:08. It is not rated but would be PG today due solely to the falling scenes. There is no sex, nudity, or bad language. The film will probably only interest kids say ten and up, but would be acceptable kids a little younger. I strongly recommend you check out the restoration now on the big screen as it was meant to be seen and heard. I give the film *** 1/2.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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