Originally published on August 13, 2015.
Overview: A former detective struggling with vertigo and acrophobia is hired to shadow the wife of an acquaintance. Paramount Pictures/Universal; 1958; Rated PG; 129 Minutes.
A Balanced Perspective: Every ten years, British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound magazine polls hundreds of critics to rank the Greatest Films of All Time. In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo earned the top honor, dethroning Citizen Kane from the spot for the first time in fifty years. The response from the film community was mixed, a predictable reaction given that that Vertigo was a film that was released in 1958 to mostly positive but generally mixed reviews. Consensus is a near impossible accomplishment in the critical film community, but there has always been something exceptionally notable and somewhat fascinating about the unstable measurement of greatness regarding Vertigo.
What the Camera Provides: What has never been called into question is Hitchcock’s always-evident mastery in style. Vertigo is now renowned in Film Studies 101 Courses for its repetitive-to-the-point-of-fetishist spiral motif and its pioneering of the disorienting “Dolly zoom,” a technique in which the physical camera moves away from its subject while the lens simultaneously zooms toward it. But the innovation in Vertigo extends far beyond these two popular syllabus bullet points. Consider the craft required by a movie that aims to continually render a notably tall actor powerless because of a fear of heights– the sharp downward framing from on high, the clever application of ceilings and walls and stairs. Or, even more daring, note the camera’s focus during the moments in which Scottie (James Stewart) overcomes his debilitating conditions; the camera avoids capturing his triumphant occupation of an elevated position and strays from the same downward perspective used to illustrate his earlier discombobulation. When Scottie triumphs over vertigo and acrophobia, the camera frames his bust and his face’s downward gaze, allowing the actor’s expression and the audience’s imagination to compromise conception of the victory. Or finally, consider my personal favorite editing decision in a film chalk full of editorial brilliance: As Madeleine (Kim Novak) begins dropping flower petals into the water below the Golden Gate Bridge, the music drops to an almost inaudible level. When she leaps into the San Francisco Bay, her body is almost completely out of shot before the jarring instrumental picks back up. Most directors might have synced the music with the fall, but Hitchcock holds it for just a fraction of a second, letting the audience’s witness conjure the initial panic.
What the Star Provides: When approaching the mild critical hesitation toward Vertigo, it is necessary to state clearly the difference in tone between this movie and the prior work of its two iconic artists. There is no question that Vertigo is less thematically polished, much more existentially foggy than all of Hitchcock’s slightly romanticized mystery exercises. And the director mines out of his star honest dread and psychological despair that was never attained (or even really, attempted) by the actor’s classic collaborations with Frank Capra or even his work in earlier Hitchcock films. There is more naked, stirring emotion in Stewart’s wordless occupation of the verdict rendering than in any of his bumbling, extended speeches from peripheral performances. Vertigo is Jimmy Stewart’s finest acting achievement, which is no small feat by any measure. Together, an aged Stewart and a late-career Hitchcock are able to establish Scottie as a character afraid of falling, in more ways than one. While Stewart provides the personality and emotion, Hitchcock decorates his world with the right symbols. Scottie, beyond his literal dizziness and phobias, is a man discomforted by his own medical corset and the sight of a brassiere being designed by his friend and former love Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes)– two articles of clothing that symbolize the body’s hopeless fight against age and gravity. More than once, Scottie almost remorsefully admits his age and unmarried status in quick succession. When Scottie and Madeleine wander into the forest together, they measure the triviality of their biological place in history within the rungs of a chopped-down 2,000 year old tree. This all works to illustrate that Scottie’s fear of physical elevation is just one manifestation of his fear of falling. The other manifestation comes in the form of his fear of falling hopelessly through time, a fear most cleverly articulated by the age difference between Scottie and his love interest. Kim Novak was only 25, exactly half Jimmy Stewart’s age, at the time of the film’s release.
What the Starlet Provides: Hitchcock’s sordid and questionable relationship with and treatment of his blonde starlets is as tightly sewn into his legacy as all of his innovations in technique and storytelling. That specific element of the Hitchcock lore is likely never as uncomfortably present onscreen than it is in Vertigo. Kim Novak occupies a character of different names, personalities, and roles. Judy/Madeleine is a woman who never has full possession or control of her own identity; any moment that she appears on screen, Novak’s character is wholly defined by the influence of one male character or another. In later scenes, her physical appearance is as dictated by male influence as her identity. The devastation is apparent. Novak’s performance is equally sympathetic (if not more so) than Stewart’s. Given the structure of the story, this position of Judy/Madeleine to be at the mercy of male demands is a necessary plot device and only feels malicious when measured with a biographical authorial reading. If we hold the investigation of her position within the boundaries of the movie, what Judy/Madeleine offers is an open conversation about how every day romantic and lustful exchanges require everyone (particularly women) to shroud and disguise our images to smaller but similar degrees.
Overall: The ongoing conversation surrounding Vertigo makes it difficult to assign descriptors like “irrefutable” or “indisputable,” but at the least, the film is the most psychologically layered and resonant of all of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces. Combine that with the auteur’s brilliant craftsmanship, and Vertigo earns its place in any conversation about the greatest films of all time.