(Minor spoilers–if you’ve never seen the film before [and shame on you if you haven’t] tread lightly).
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had its fiftieth anniversary this year, and perhaps is the best example of a film that has increased in estimation with age. When it was released, it was met with mostly indifference. It only received two Oscar nominations, for minor categories. But in 2002 it was rated as the second-greatest film of all time by the every-ten-years Sight and Sound poll, and in the most recent AFI survey of greatest Americans films, ranked number nine. This may be due to a phenomenon I’ve experienced myself: Vertigo gets better every time I’ve watched it.
It was Hitchcock’s most personal film, concerned with a man’s obsession in recreating a woman in the image of a dead woman. The image, of course, is an icy Nordic blonde, the kind of woman that would appear in numerous Hitchcock films. But what’s most remarkable about it is that it delves, in 1958, in some rather kinky psychosexual behavior. As Hitchcock admitted, there was even the whiff of necrophilia outlined in the obsession.
The story concerns a San Francisco police detective, played by James Stewart, who has a fear of heights. He retires after a policeman falls to his death trying to save Stewart. An old college buddy asks for his help with his wife (Kim Novak), who is under the delusion that she is the reincarnation of a long-dead woman from the Spanish days of California. However, as we will eventually learn, the story is beside the point. In defiance of most of the rules of moviemaking, the plot plays a minor role. What Hitchcock is concerned with is mood and emotion, and creating a dream-like state where logic goes out the window.
The film has a second part. After the events of the first half are wrapped up, and Stewart thinks that the woman he was following (and fell in love with) is dead, he discovers her doppelganger. He woos her and makes her over to perfectly resemble his lost love, even to the point of dying her hair. It is at the start of the second half that Hitchcock made his most brilliant structural move, which was different from the source novel. We the audience are told right away just who the new woman, Judy Barton, is, however Stewart does not know (until he figures it out at the end). Hitchcock thus makes it so the audience knows more than the characters, which was his definition of suspense.
There are some troubling aspects of the film–even Hitchcock knew there were hiccoughs. But minor little mysteries that remain, such as how Novak manages to get in and out the hotel without the clerk seeing her, perpetuate the dream-like aspects of the film. Also, Novak was not the most gifted of actresses, and Hitchcock’s fingerprints are all over her (figuratively speaking of course), which matches the attempts in the film of Stewart trying to remake her.
But these inconsistencies are overwhelmed by majesty. Robert Burks’ photography is absolutely magnificent, and makes brilliant use of color (of course Hitchcock dictated this, even choosing the color of Novak’s outfits). The music by Bernard Hermann, which uses Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is one of the great scores in film history.
For a major release in the era of the studio system, Vertigo is one of the strangest and European-seeming film in Hollywood’s history (it’s no accident its reputation was revived by the French). Consider the trippy animated dream sequence in the center of the film, or the creepy scene when Novak awakes after being rescued from San Francisco Bay by Stewart. She’s in bed, nude, and we all realize that Stewart has undressed her and put her into bed. Hitchcock was certainly a very complicated man, and Vertigo is perhaps the best window into his psyche that he ever made.