Saturday, 27 August 2016

Vertigo (1958)

En kvinde skygges
I watched Vertigo for the first time about 20 years ago or so. Newly restored the movie was rereleased in cinemas and we went some friends from campus to see it on the big screen. In hindsight I was too young to appreciate it at the time. I had no real relationship to Hitchcock and his movies and I think we just wanted to do something different. In any case the movie did not make that much of an impression on me and frankly I had forgotten many of the plot points including the resolution.

Today I am in a different place and although this time round was not a big screen experience, rather the opposite in fact, I was overwhelmed on this second viewing. Part of that was my lowered expectation. This is so much a better movie than I remember, and part of it is the sheer, stand out quality when compared to contemporary movies. Of course the restoration has a lot to do with that, but, come on, will you look at those pictures?!

There is a reason why this period is considered Hitchcock’s golden age. Since “Rope” his movies were just getting better and better and although he circled around the same themes he was still able to cook an entirely different story out of those themes. In “Vertigo” he is again messing with the mind of the protagonist and the psychology involved is far more important than the actual murder mystery. In this sense he is reverting to movies like “Spellbound” and “The Wrong Man”, but “Vertigo” is darker than both of these and certainly a technically far more eloquent movie than “Spellbound”.

“Vertigo” is a descent into madness. The normal, upright guy, with Jimmy Stewart as a perfect cast, is caught in a whirlpool and sucked into it. First he has a traumatic experience that gives him a fear of heights, incapacitating him enough to lose his police job and then as a private investigator he gets sucked into a case that just does not make sense. Our guy, John Ferguson, is asked by an old college friend to keep an eye on his wife. He is worried for her because he is convinced a long time dead ancestor is possessing her and forcing her to commit suicide. That sounds totally bananas and John is of the same opinion, except that really weird things are happening to her. Unable to accept the ghost story John is convinced Madeleine (Kim Novak) is suffering a mental problem and his role changes from a shadow to loving her and actively helping her deal with this illness and more than anything prevent her from killing herself.

Because of John’s fear of heights he fails dismally and the guilt renders him effectively catatonic. Thus ends the first act.

Beware of spoilers below!!! If you have not seen this movie stop reading right now.

As John slowly recovers he is a changed man. All his thoughts revolve around Madeleine, his love for her and his failure to save her. He is now the one who is starting to see ghosts. When he encounters Judy, an ordinary store girl from Kansas he projects Madeleine on to her. He wants her, but as Madeleine, not as Judy. Understandably this freaks out Judy as it would any sane person.

Unfortunately this is where Hitchcock makes his mistake, at least in my poor opinion. In a scene after this freaky encounter he reveals to us that Judy is Madeleine (indeed Kim Novak is playing both roles) and that she was playing a role in order to make the murder of the real Madeleine look like suicide. Knowing this we understand that John is on the right track, but for the wrong reason. Really what he is doing is insane: he wants Madeleine back to undo what has happened rather than simply getting over it and in the process he is getting creepier by the minute. It kind of ruins it for me to know that she is that woman. I would have loved to get that twist in the end. Instead I feel that maybe John is not as crazy as he really is.

When it clicks for John that, dammit, Judy is Madeleine he starts crawling out of the hole he has fallen into. The price however is that the crime that until now was imagined becomes real. Ironic.

There is no happy end here, only a dizzying spiral and I commend Hitchcock on avoided a silly Hollywood ending. It takes a confident director to do that and it is probably part of the reason “Vertigo” was not the box office hit it was hoped to be. “Vertigo” is not a popcorn flick, but a movie to be experienced and that probably has less mass appeal, but it is also what lifts it way above the pack.

“In Vertigo” there is not much of explanation, the doctors are as confused as we are and we only really know that that John is obsessing. Oh, if only Hitch did not have to reveal the hoax we could have been as confused as John. Now we are merely disturbed.

Still I can only recommend “Vertigo”, although if you read this far I hope you already saw it.

It is an awesome movie.


  1. According to the commentary, Hitchcock took out the scene where Judy writes Scotty the letter but that version of the film failed in the previews and the studio made him put it back in. I think Hitchcock was right the first time. As it is, Scotty looks more mean than insane to me.

    Still it is an awesome movie. It takes my breath away when Scotty follows Madeline into the ally and we go from that dreary street into the riot of color in the flower shop. And that's only one scene!

    1. That makes sense. It is not like Hitchcock to give away the plot. Too bad really.
      Yes, john becomes very mean, but I blame it on insanity as he starts out a very nice and level guy.

  2. Vertigo is thought by some to be the greatest film every made. I disagree--I don't think it's even Hitchcock's greatest film, although it's certaily in his top five. There's a ton here that works because there's so much here that isn't what you expect the first time in.

    When you get a chance, give this a listen:

    1. I will try that out, Steve.
      For me the movie works... almost.
      Calling this or that movie the greatest ever is stupid hyperbole, my contenders for that title would change on a daily basis, and I doubt Vertigo will qualify, but that does not mean I do not like it. I this it is a great movie and definitely a must-see movie and I do love that Hitchcock was not constricted to Hollywood endings.

  3. You probably know that Vertigo knocked out Citizen Kane after about fifty years atop the Sight and Sound poll for greatest movie of all-time. That's a lot for a film to live up to. I agree with Steve that I wouldn't even rate it the number one Hitchcock, but it is certainly a must to see once for any moviegoer. I saw it for the first time on the big screen when five of Hitchcock's films were re-released after many years in 1985.

    1. Those rankings are arbitrary at best. I think it is enough to agree that Vertigo is a hell of a movie and let it stay at that.
      1985 would have been before the restoration. Did you have a chance to compare the restored vs the unrestored version?