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Vertigo

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

All-Reviews.com 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



Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
3.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie review
4.  Mark OHara read the review ---

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

Sometimes films can be like wine - getting better as they age. Such examples are, however, very rare and author of this review can name only few examples of films he considered better with each subsequent viewing. One of such films was VERTIGO, 1958 thriller, often mentioned as the best among many films directed by great Alfred Hitchcock and one of the greatest films ever made. When I saw this film for the first time I was not that impressed. Actually, I was quite disappointed - although VERTIGO looked like a truly great film, something was missing and I began thinking about it as one of those overhyped films which filmophiles are supposed to worship even if they don't particularly like them. On the second viewing, I began changing my mind about VERTIGO after discovering some new elements in the films and looking it from different perspective. My view on VERTIGO improved and continued to improve after each viewing. Every time I discovered something new and gradually became convinced that VERTIGO meets all requirements for cinematic masterpiece.

VERTIGO was made during the zenith of Hitchcock's career, with his reputation of great filmmaker already established. Two French authors, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, have written the novel D'ENTRE LES MORTS especially for Hitchcock. Hitchcock used the plot of the novel after adaptations by Samuel A. Taylor and Alec Coppel. Protagonist of VERTIGO is John "Scottie" Ferguson (played by James Stewart), San Francisco police detective who discovers that he suffers from acrophobia while chasing the crime suspect on rooftops. The chase would end with one of the uniformed policemen dead and Scottie, traumatised for life, decides to leave the force. Few months later, he is called by an old college friend and shipping tycoon Gavin Elster (played by Tom Helmore) who wants to hire him as a private detective. Scottie's job is to look after Elster's wife Madeleine (played by Kim Novak), who is acting strangely, struck with unhealthy obsession with Carlotta Valdez, woman who took her own life in San Francisco a century ago. Scottie begins following Madeleine and gradually falls in love with her. But his love is weaker than his acrophobia, and he can't save Madeleine's life when she jumps from the high bell tower. Stricken with grief, remorse and guilty conscience Scottie wanders through streets of San Francisco until he finds Judy Barton (again played by Kim Novak), ordinary girl who is looking somewhat similar to Madeleine. His interest in Judy is motivated only by memory of lost love, but young girl has her own skeletons in the closet.

VERTIGO represents Hitchcock at his best - a great artist who is willing to experiment while being faithful to his trademark style in the same time. Result of his efforts is the film with multiple layers that could satisfy both those who worship Hitchcock as the king of suspense thrillers and those who aren't particularly attracted to the genre. Again, as in many films from this period of Hitchcock's career, VERTIGO is suspense thriller on surface only. Hitchcock uses thriller plot only as an opportunity to explore various forms of human conditions, especially those, which are considered bizarre, aberrant or downright perverse. Therefore, VERTIGO should be viewed less as a thriller and more like a combination of powerful love story and intense psychological drama. Hitchcock's ability to put all those contents within the framework of thriller is another reason why VERTIGO happens to be one of the most celebrated (and quoted) films in the history of cinema.

VERTIGO is film worshipped by critics and film scholars, but I doubt that the general audience could share their enthusiasm. This is probably due to the fact that VERTIGO happens to be very dark, by many standards the darkest and most depressing film Hitchcock has ever made. Sinister dimension of the film could be already found in the character of protagonist. For many people, James Stewart's role in this film is one of the most successful transformations of the actor's image - once good all-American boy was already playing people with extremely unpleasant character traits, but John "Scottie" Ferguson represents the bottom of the barrel. In REAR WINDOW, another Hitchcock's classic, Stewart played voyeuristic photographer, but this aberration from societal norms was something almost acceptable and within the framework of Hitchcockian formula of "ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances". But this time Stewart plays character that is anything but ordinary - Scottie Ferguson is actually textbook example of various psychopathological conditions. Pathological fear of heights is the least of his problems, as well as his inability to deal with women. As the plot progresses, we see protagonist revealing his darker side. First we are introduced to his maniacal obsession on the verge of stalking. Than Hitchcock hints about necrophilia - Ferguson is attracted to Madeleine less because of her beauty and more because she is cold and distant, and in one scene it is implied that he might have had his way with her while she was unconscious. Finally, in the second part of film, after being diagnosed as chronic depressive, he shows his worst side as someone who wants total control over his sex object. Stewart shows these character traits uncompromisingly, but the audience is still having some sympathy for Scottie - this is the reason why the role in VERTIGO represents the greatest achievement in Stewart's acting career. Ironically, this role was, according to many film scholars, inspired by Hitchcock himself - Scottie's makeover of Judy was in many ways similar to the ordeals suffered by lead actresses during production of Hitchcock's films.

The actress who was subjected to such makeover for the purposes of this film was Kim Novak, one of numerous blonde sex symbols of 1950s Hollywood whose reputation led many critics to disregard her genuine acting talent and give all credit for the success of her role to Hitchcock himself. Kim Novak played the difficult dual role of Madeleine/Judy with great success, and it is understandably the best acting performance of her career, achievement that couldn't be possible without some true talent. In most likelihood, critics and film scholars were discouraged from praising her achievement for the same reason why general audience wouldn't like this film - her characters are equally dark and dysfunctional as male protagonist. At first we are introduced to the woman who is slowly but inevitably succumbing to self- destructive madness only to see her reincarnation in seemingly ordinary woman who repeats the same process. But the most sinister revelation of her character happens in the end of the film, when Judy not only voluntarily puts herself through utmost humiliation of abusive relationship, but also hints that she went through this before. This depiction of female protagonist as passive and powerless toy in the hands of morally or sexually aberrant men is probably the reason why modern-day feminists shouldn't be too enthusiastic about Novak or Hitchcock.

Some critics tend to claim that VERTIGO can't be masterpiece because of various plot holes and implausibilties. Those nit-picks, however, usually point to main characters doing things or acting in a way normal and ordinary people would not. But the main characters are already marked as dysfunctional and nearly psychotic. Because of that they are more interesting than the supporting, more "normal" characters, and, consequently, supporting actors are shadowed by great performances by Stewart and Novak. One of the exceptions are Barbara Bell Geddes as Marjorie "Midge" Wood, charming but nerdish friend and ex-fianc‚e of Scottie, who would provide the only traces of comic relief in this grim tale. Another is Henry Jones as coroner whose harsh but nevertheless correct depiction of Scottie's mental state make him some kind of Greek chorus. While drafting a villain, Hitchcock again threw away his formula about bad guys being more interested than protagonists. Gavin Elster might be manipulative and ruthless bastard, but his psychology is too normal for Hitchcock; as a result, Tom Helmore doesn't have to work hard playing him and, furthermore, Hitchcock simply dumps that character half way during the him and, in doing so, breaks Hollywood rules about villains getting away with their crimes.

The acting alone, however, isn't the only reason why VERTIGO should be considered a masterpiece. Again, like in many other occasions, Hitchcock showed his great talent of superb filmmaker, always ready to employ new filming techniques and create memorable scenes and images. In case of VERTIGO Hitchcock uses splendid photography by Robert Burke and the camera rarely leaves the protagonist, which gives a plenty opportunity for Hitchcock to employ various techniques with lenses, different lighting (and even some animation during dream sequences) in order to present the protagonist's twisted state of mind. San Francisco locations and memorable music by Bernard Herrmann creates specific, almost surreal atmosphere of the film - another reason why VERTIGO is considered one of the everlasting Hitchcockian masterpieces.

Copyright © 2000 Dragan Antulov

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