In 1958, nearing the end of a decade of directing some of his most memorable and deeply profound films, Alfred Hitchcock completed Vertigo. While the picture earned a modest profit at the box office, it was largely considered a disappointment, both commercially and critically. Many reviewers found the story plodding and the ending unsatisfying. Hitchcock attributed the disappointing response to the age difference between the two leads. Jimmy Stewart was 49 and Kim Novak was only 24.
As a boy, I regularly watched films with my brother Stephen on one of our televisions. The larger one had a 19-inch screen I believe. Early televisions had to be paired with manual antennas known affectionately as "rabbit ears". We would often struggle to put the two "ears" in just the right position to pull in a clear signal from the transmission tower (usually the Empire State Building). Sometimes one of us would stand and hold one of the antennae "just so" in order to get the clearest image. There was always a big feature on Saturday Night at the Movies, and when it was a Hitchcock film they were showing, we knew we were in for a fun time. Even though we saw Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much or To Catch A Thief or Dial M for Murder or Vertigo many times, we watched with rapt attention to these classics by the Master of Suspense. Yes, we only saw them in Black & White. Unlike most of our neighbors who purchased their first color TVs in the mid-60s, we didn't get our first color set until the early 1970s, after I had gone off to college.
I was fortunate to see Vertigo so many times during the 60s (even in B&W) because in 1973, Hitchcock pulled five of his classic films from circulation, including Vertigo. Rumor had it that he wanted to preserve something that he could use to benefit his heirs after he died, knowing that these films would garner greater interest because they hadn't been seen for a long time. In March of 1981, I got a mysterious call on a Friday night from a student of mine, Gary Hertz, who had just graduated high school the previous spring. Gary was studying cinema at NYU. This was a decade before I wound up going to Tisch to earn an M.A. in Cinema Studies. Gary didn't introduce himself on the phone. He didn't have to. He simply said, "Doug. Vertigo. 10:00 AM. 721 Broadway. Room 700. Be there." And he hung up. It was illegal to show Vertigo, but my wife and I drove in. Sure enough, one of the professors owned a 16mm print of the film and secretly projected it in a screening room for students in Gary's class--and two guests who trucked in from Jersey! When Hitchcock died a few years later, the five films were rereleased across the globe. One theatre in New York showed the five films to sold out audiences for more than a year!
I could never understand why Vertigo didn't receive the praise it deserved. In fact, why Hitchcock, himself, never received his due. When he died in 1980, his NYT obituary was woefully inadequate, almost to the point of disrespect. Vertigo never made it on the "10 Best" lists that movie critics compile (except in France, where Hitch was viewed as a sort of God). But things slowly started to change. The most prestigious film journal is probably Sight & Sound, a publication from the British Film Institute. It has been around since just after WWII. In 1952, the magazine decided to compile a Best Films list from critics, reviewers, and filmmakers from across the globe. They proceeded to update this list every decade in the year ending in "2". In 1962, the #1 film on the list was Orson Welles's classic Citizen Kane. In 1972, the winner was Citizen Kane. In 1982, the selection was Citizen Kane. But Vertigo had now been reappraised to the point where it made this list, tied for seventh place! By 1992, it had moved up to fourth place, behind Tokyo Story, Rules of the Game, and of course Citizen Kane. By 2002, Vertigo had vaulted into second place, and had only a handful of voters switched, it could have tied or even eclipsed Citizen Kane! So, when 2012 approached, people wondered whether Citizen Kane, which had been deemed the greatest film ever made for so long that it seemed an inevitability, might just fall. And fall it did. In 2012, Vertigo received 191 votes and Citizen Kane 157, followed distantly by Tokyo Story at 107 and Rules of the Game at 100. The picture that disappointed five decades earlier was now considered the greatest film ever made!
Is it? Well, there really is no greatest film ever, but if there were, Vertigo would surely be in the conversation. It is so rich and powerful and personal a work of cinematic art. Let's just take a look at some of its attributes. If you haven't seen Vertigo (and of course what I'm saying is that you should stop reading this and go watch it immediately on the biggest screen you can find with the best sound system, preferably in 4K or at least HD), I'll make sure that any spoilers are identified ahead of time. Vertigo is great from the dizzying opening credits, designed by the legendary Saul Bass and integral to establishing the mood of the film right from the start. As much as Hitchcock was a genius, film is a collaborative art form, and Saul Bass should not go unrecognized. He is arguably the most important influence in the history of creating opening title sequences that enrich the films they accompany. Here they are, or you can check them out at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lvaahmgmz8w
Vertigo is a prime example of personal cinema. No one else could have made this picture, but it speaks to virtually everyone. In the 70s, the very fine director Brian DePalma made his version of Vertigo, a film called Obsession. It was an interesting experiment by a skilled filmmaker, but it only proved how much more gifted Hitchcock was than any of his acolytes. The plot of Vertigo is quite simple. According to iMDB: "A former police detective juggles wrestling with his personal demons and becoming obsessed with a hauntingly beautiful woman." That about captures it, but what if someone else was taking advantage of the protagonist's personal demons? And what if one of those manipulators was being manipulated herself? And what if the emotions and desires of those people were so entwined as to make it nearly impossible to separate truth from artifice, passion from ploy? No matter how many times I've seen Vertigo, it always rewards me with a new slant on one or more characters. I see something I hadn't noticed before. Surely, this is the mark of a work of cinematic art.
Another telling point? When I was a boy, I was always dissatisfied with the film's ending. It wasn't a comforting one and left me a little baffled and disturbed given what had led up to it. Today? I can't imagine any other conclusion. Nothing else would do.
If I think about what I love best in the film, it is a more than twelve-minute sequence in which Scottie, the ex-police detective with a bad case of vertigo, is asked to tail a beautiful woman named Madeleine (Kim Novak at her most sensual and mysterious) at the request of her husband, who is concerned about his wife's emotional state. Scottie, played wonderfully by Jimmy Stewart, follows Madeleine's car throughout the streets of San Francisco, stopping where she stops to observe her increasingly bizarre behaviors. Almost no words are spoken during this sequence; we just hear the haunting orchestration by cinema's greatest composer, Bernard Herrmann. It's a classic example of what film theorists call "Pure Cinema", where the visuals tell virtually everything and few words are necessary. Hitchcock began his career during the silent period, so he was well versed in telling his stories with striking imagery. Let's take a look at a brief video from this scene:
We evince the same curiosity as Scottie does; in effect, he is acting as our surrogate in the sequence. The scene involves point-of-view shots (watching Madeleine's car) followed by reaction shots (we see Scottie's increasing frustration). When you watch the whole film (as you must), you will feel the hypnotic effect created by minute-after-minute of this slow motion chase. Here is legendary director Martin Scorsese's view of that scene:
Critics have analyzed this scene in far greater depth than one might imagine if we are only considering the sequence as a plot element. Below is one example--a video suggesting the subliminal effects the viewer experiences when watching this scene (don't worry--no plot spoilers!)
As you might expect, when you go to San Francisco next, you can join a Vertigo tour to see all the famous locales that appear in the film. Other critiques explicate the structure of each scene in the most minute detail. The brilliant clip that was below did contain spoilers, but it is no longer available; it demonstrated beautifully how careful Hitchcock was in blocking a scene and locating the position of the camera in order to create the desired effect. The scene it examined is attached, and you can focus on how the characters move about the set, how their body language conveys meaning, and how their positions looking up or down at the other character connote power shifts or deception or some other motivating force. It was an insightful study of a single scene.
I mentioned personal cinema before because the film can be examined and explored on so many levels. Feminists, for instance, have long written about Scottie's manipulation of Madeleine to the point of obsession. In the wake of Me/Too, Madeleine certainly appears to be a victim. I had a back-and-forth recently with a woman who was no longer comfortable watching Vertigo because of its treatment of women. It's a legitimate viewpoint, but I think we forget that an even more egregious violation destroys Scottie with a corrosive force rarely seen in the cinema--and Madeleine plays no small role in that ruination.
Below are other "takes" on elements of Vertigo, including scrutiny of a particular scene, an examination of the color palette employed by Hitchcock, and a study of relationship dynamics in the film. You shouldn't watch these until you have seen the film at least once. I could have added many more videos taking a look at such elements as the memorable film score, the use of location shots, and the film's troubling and disturbing conclusion. (All videos below contain spoilers!!!)
There is no more profound examination of identity, of the need for a human being to come to terms with his or her desires, even to the point of self-deception. It examines how we compromise our own values in our search for what we tell ourselves are not "wants" but "needs". It plumbs the depths of our fears, no matter how irrational they might seem. It asks us to reexamine compulsive behaviors in our search for happiness and fulfillment. Needless to say, Vertigo is one of my favorite films, and it is the acme of Hitchcock's long and distinguished career. It rewards multiple screenings and, for me, watching it again is something I make sure to do at least annually. I hope you will feel the same way after you watch it. Below is the NY Times review. Hope it convinces you if I haven't succeeded!