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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 Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

Why does Alfred Hitchcock's picture 'Vertigo' endure as such an important piece, more than forty years after it was made?

Universal recently committed more than $1 million for its restoration, a process that gives modern moviegoers outstanding clarity of image and sound. According to the experts in charge of the restoration, audiences for the next 200 years should be able to enjoy their restored version.

Then there are the ardent fans of Hitchcock's - the ones who claim this is his masterpiece, one of the very best films. How talk was started that 'Vertigo' is a personal film I don't know; but there is an odd, desultory tone to 'Vertigo', a slow sadness that punctuates the passionate emotions and intense action scenes.

Finally, I know first hand that 'Vertigo' is watchable by contemporary youngsters: my 14 year-old son and ten year-old daughter were glued to our television while the tape played.

Like many of the stories selected by the meticulous Hitchcock, the plot of 'Vertigo' is difficult to describe. It's nearly like putting into words the bizarre images from an MTV video or a commercial with fast-paced digitized figures. Here goes: John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) has imposed retirement on himself because he suffers attacks of anxiety and dizziness when he looks down from great heights. Another dimension of his uneasiness is guilt. John had been a detective, and when he'd fallen during a chase and hung from the gutter of a building, he'd watched a police officer trying to help him fall to his death.

Where the story starts to writhe with originality is when a college buddy of the aging Ferguson contacts him with a request. The ship-building executive Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) apparently has a young wife who is preoccupied with living the life - and perhaps the death - of Carlotta Valdez, her great-grandmother. Elster wants Ferguson to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) and note her wanderings - and protect her from herself, if necessary. In the following sequences we watch Scottie Ferguson trail Madeleine to a flower market, a museum, a boarding hotel, and the farthest destination, 100 miles south of San Francisco, a Spanish mission. In these places Madeleine seems to assume a trace-like state in which she patterns her behavior after Carlotta, a woman who took her life after a period of depression and distraction brought on by losing custody of her daughter.

What the husband, Elster, had not counted on was his friend's falling in love with Madeleine. For awhile Ferguson follows her undetected. But when he witnesses her jump into San Francisco Bay, he dives in and brings her back to his own apartment. Though at first it seems Madeleine wants nothing to do with Ferguson, she returns to drop off a thank-you note. Ferguson happens to follow her to his own apartment, where he expresses tentative affections that she returns. Later, in a stunning scene back at the mission, their relationship ends, sending Ferguson into a mute depression, an acute "melancholia" from which he emerges, after a year, as a man obsessed with regaining what he's lost. Novak returns in a brilliant double role as Judy Barton, a woman who looks just like Madeleine Elster. Enough said that the two fall in complicated love, and relive crucial and compelling scenes.

The literary elements in Hitchcock's films are always remarkable. That his plots resemble finely written stories is no mistake. In 'Vertigo' we see the director's fascination with heights, first of all, illustrating the terror felt by Ferguson as he glances from high-rise windows or simply down a flight of steps. The part of the body featured in this film seems to be the eyes. From the swirling vortex in Saul Bass' title design, to extreme close-ups of the eyes of the main players, we catch glimpses of troubled souls. Other leit motifs include jewelry, paintings, water, and lurid lighting. Hitchcock also expertly uses dramatic irony, given to us in a sudden sequence late in the story, just before we need to know it. Finally, the master of suspense is not above using even animation, in a dream scene, to assist in showing the deteriorating psyche of the beleaguered detective Ferguson.

Jimmy Stewart is as impressive as ever in the leading role. Stewart is the ultra-rare combination of modest looks and supreme composure. The best thing is, oddly enough, that when he loses this composure, he is completely convincing, his acting completely transparent. Occasionally in the story Ferguson acts flippant and nonchalant, as in many scenes with his old pal "Midge" Wood, an artist to whom he was engaged briefly several years before. (Midge is played by the wonderful stage and film character actress Barbara Bel Geddes.) Soon Ferguson displays a tortured affliction that surprises the viewer. This actor depicts an astonishing range - always natural and sympathetic. At first feeling sorry for the psychologically troubled Madeleine, Ferguson dabbles in attempted cure; a failed healer, he tries later to cure himself. What a paradoxical role this one, vastly different from the others he played for Hitchcock.

Kim Novak's character was originally given to Vera Miles. But when production was delayed by Hitchcock's gall bladder operation, Miles announced she was pregnant and could not play this challenging role. Hence the glamorous Novak's selection as the troubled blonde Madeleine Elster, and as her doppelganger, the less sophisticated Judy Barton. Novak's acting is never over-stated; it seems natural without the wooden façade many of her contemporaries practiced - like Miles, for instance, practices in 'Psycho.'

Another reason this story endures is its universal contradictions. It is at once a mystery and a romance, with loads of forbidden behaviors that must have struck audiences of the late '50s as terribly risqué. Why does Scottie Ferguson pursue the damaged (and married) femme fatale, instead of the comfortable, mothering Midge? Sinister schemes, trauma, searches for redemption - all of these themes commingle in Hitchcock's agenda.

In service of his "pure cinema" philosophy, Hitchcock crafts long establishing shots (remember the opening of 'Psycho'?), and paces some scenes slowly. For a thriller, 'Vertigo' has relatively few frenetic scenes. Modern audiences will yawn during a few of the characters' conversations, even though their dialogue was approved by the stamp of Hitchcock's wit. If 'Vertigo' were to be remade, as Gus Van Sant remade 'Psycho,' the newer text would be comparably inferior. Certainly, though, a few plot elements could be borrowed, as it's hard to think of a film with such a stunning and thematically unified conclusion.

The rock band Harvey Danger demonstrates the lasting impact of 'Vertigo' in their song 'Carlotta Valdez.' My son spotted the allusion immediately, and played the track from the CD 'Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?'

Jump into the San Francisco Bay
I'll follow you in
I know you can't swim
When you've been dead 100 years, Carlotta
Carlotta Valdez, I will make you her
Everything's subjective, nothing lasts for Johnnie-o
Kiss Kim Novak where the redwoods grow
I'll bleach her hair and pretend she didn't die
Go up the mission stair
I'll follow you anywhere -
That is, until you climb too high
Cause I get vertigo
Carlotta Valdez, I will make you her…

One thing that is reinforced to me weekly, as I view modern movies: the past is in no way inferior to the present. Many of us have constructed borders around ourselves, and are convinced we do not like black and white films, or anything older than we are, or anything with subtitles…. The list goes on. For sure, Alfred Hitchcock is an original voice who takes his place in the canon of great directors, whether or not 'Vertigo' makes everyone's short lists of the best films ever made.

Copyright © 1999 Mark OHara

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