(1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
“Anyone could become obsessed with the past with a background like that”
So, remember I said how much I like James Stewart back when I reviewed Philadelphia Story? Well, here he is again, and this time he’s directed by Hitchcock, so surely this can only be a recipe for success in my eyes?
Vertigo is about former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart), forced into early retirement due to a traumatic incident where he witnessed a fellow officer fall to his death, resulting in severe acrophobia. His ex-fiancée and friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) suggests that the only cure is some kind of severe shock to the system. Meanwhile, an acquaintance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires Scottie to investigate his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who’s been acting strangely and whom he believes to be possessed. And so starts a bizarre adventure involving a seemingly suicidal wife, a strange love affair and, of course, numerous dolly zooms representing the condition of vertigo.
Well, I can safely say that Stewart remains awesome here. Noticeably older than I’m used to seeing him, he nevertheless sounds exactly the same, but his performance is very different to his “classic” movies. He’s a lot less goofy and more dignified here, representing a serious, focused detective with a sensitive side.
But he’s not alone. Novak, who shares much of the screen time with Stewart, is excellent as the mysterious Madeleine. Her performance is subtle and it’s hard to figure out her intentions, but she also feels like a real character rather than some kind of ghost or a piece of scenery, which is something she could have so easily become with this script. But overall, I really enjoyed Geddes as Midge. She had a small role, but it was memorable since she played her with warmth and charm. My favourite character besides Scottie, in fact.
The plot was also excellent, presenting a strong mystery with a twist that genuinely surprised me. I do love a good mystery, so I enjoyed every moment of this, especially with vague supernatural elements hinted at early on with the suggestion that Madeleine is being possessed by a deceased member of her family. The plot also manages to hold together when it shifts gears two-thirds of the way through, when the twist could have easily created plot holes.
Vertigo does have its issues though. The romantic side of the movie is incredibly ham-fisted, and didn’t feel believable for a second. I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to mention that Scottie’s fascination with Madeleine leads to him falling in love with her, and seemingly she falls in love with him too. But there’s no logical progression to this. He goes from being mildly fascinated with the weirdness of the case to sudden declarations of love and a total breakdown following the major twist. It just simply didn’t sit well with me.
The problem is, this fascination, no, obsession, fuels much of the final third of the movie. And it’s here that Scottie becomes a much less likeable character, forcing the object of his affection to wear specific clothing and get her hair done in a certain way to meet his specifications. There are reasons for this, but it became difficult to identify with him as a character at this point, since he just turned incredibly weird.
The movie also feels very slow. Sometimes this works in its favour, enhancing the mystery, while other times it feels like things could have been condensed a little. The later parts of the movie especially start to drag, feeling less suspenseful and more like you wish Hitchcock would hurry up and reveal what was really going on.
Overall, though, Vertigo was a very good movie. It’s not as good as Psycho, but it’s still a good example of why Hitchcock is held in such high praise. And James Stewart for that matter.
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak & Barbara Bel Geddes
Written by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (novel) and Alec Coppel & Samuel A. Taylor
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Music by Bernard Hermann
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Favourite Scene: The reveal of what was going on really did make me gawp in shock at the screen. Well played, Alfred.
Scene That Bugged Me: The first time Scottie announces his love for Madeleine. Kind of comes out of nowhere and feels a little awkward.
Watch it if: You want to see James Stewart as a detective
Avoid it if: Dolly zooms make you ill