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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 Brian Koller
2 stars out of 4

Alfred Hitchcock directed some great films, but not every film was great. For example, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" from 1956, co-starred Doris Day and seemed to be a vehicle for her to sing "Que Sera Sera". "Vertigo", his next film that starred Jimmy Stewart, is considered by many not only to be Hitchcock's best movie, but by some to be the best movie ever.

With this in mind, I was frustrated by the first half of the movie. In the opening scene, Stewart and a fellow cop are chasing a villian across rooftops. Stewart slips, and hangs onto a gutter for dear life. The other cop tries to help him, but falls to his death. The next scene, Stewart is safe on the ground again. We never learn how Stewart, in that precarious position with his terrifying fear of heights, got down from that rooftop safely.

The plot then moves quite slowly. Stewart retires from the force, flirts with his would-be girlfriend Midge (who needs better fashion sense), and is hired by old pal Gavin to follow his mournful, suicidal wife (Kim Novak) around. Things certainly take their time as Stewart learns she has a fixation with a long-dead woman who had committed suicide. Stewart befriends her, and falls in love with her. Stewart's galpal is jealous, but no matter, since she has only a few scenes in the movie anyway.

Novak and Stewart visit a Sequoia tree forest. They are apparently the only people there. Later, at a mission preserved as a tourist trap, again, they are the only ones there. Not even employees are to be seen. When a couple goes to a restaurant in the movies, the restaurant is usually full of people. When they visit a scenic site, however, the couple is often the only ones there. Well, maybe I'm just being cranky.

Novak describes a dream she had. Stewart is able to recognize it as an old restored mission a hundred miles away. They go there, and after a tender love scene, Novak runs up the mission's tower and apparently jumps to her death, however...

It later turns out that: 1). Novak is an actress playing Gavin's wife. 2). Novak is having an affair with Gavin. 3). Novak did not jump off the tower. Instead, Gavin was waiting there, with his already-murdered wife, and pushes her off instead.

The audience is supposed to buy this incredible set-up because it is delivered as a surprise. But a movie is not great simply because it has a few surprises. Especially if those surprises are preposterous. Gavin apparently takes his wife to the mission, takes her to the mission tower, kills her there, waits for Stewart to show up with Novak, waits for Novak to run up the stairs, knowing that Stewart won't run up because he is afraid of heights, waits until the post-jump commotion is over, then leaves the mission with Novak dressed up as the wife. With no one seeing him at the mission with his wife or Novak, and without the coroner discovering the murder. How Novak was able to contact Gavin to tell him when Stewart would arrive isn't revealed. After the murder, what if Stewart saw a photo of the wife in the paper or TV? He would have known it was a set-up.

It is a different movie after Novak's jump. The pace finally picks up, and there is more tension. Problems remain, however, with character development and motivation.

Stewart is devastated by Novak's apparent death. He has a bizarre nightmare that has scenes of Stewart falling, flashing red lights, and Stewart's disembodied head superimposed on weird animation. Upon waking, Stewart goes into a catatonic state, and ends up in some sort of institution. He's only there for one scene, however. A doctor tells Midge that he might not recover for two years. Next scene, however, Stewart is prowling the street. Unless I blinked, it isn't explained how Stewart got his act together again.

Wouldn't you know it, Stewart spots a girl who looks alot like Novak. She has a different hairstyle, hair color, and fashion sense. You'd think that he would shake it off as a coincidence, especially given his fixation with her. But no, he knocks on her apartment door, checks on her ID (she's Judy Barton), asks her to go out with him, then asks her to quit her job, then dresses her up as Novak, even dying her hair the same color. It turns out that this woman is Novak. She must be a very pliable woman, as she gives in to all the endless demands both Gavin and Stewart make of her. Instead of saying no, she just gets breathless with excitement. She also must like older men, since Gavin and Stewart are both a quarter century older than her.

Stewart recognizes a necklace that Judy is wearing as one that Novak wore. Instead of accepting this as a coincidence, Stewart makes the incredible deduction that Novak impersonated Gavin's wife, that Gavin killed his wife, and Novak and Gavin had an affair. Instead of going to the police, Stewart takes Novak to the scene of the crime, fighting his vertigo and dragging the reluctant Novak up the stairs as he cross-examines her. When finally suprised by a nun, Novak jumps off the tower (would you have? Didn't think so) leaving Stewart gaping as the credits roll.

Now, it could be that I am a fault-finding grouch who missed the point. Or, it could be that others are overly impressed by the Hitchcock and Stewart names, silly dream sequences and dubious surprises.

Copyright 1999 Brian Koller

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