I have to make a confession – I’ve never watched a Hitchcock film. Of course I knew of his reputation and I’ve been meaning to get to one of his films. It just never happened until I bit the bullet and watched Vertigo (1958). I figured it was as good a place to start as any from Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo is absolutely fantastic from start to finish. Bear in mind that this film was made in the fifties, and some of the graphics used in the opening of the film are absolutely mind-blowing. Circular spiral images introduce us to the general ambiance of the film itself.
James Stewart might be better known by most from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but seems to have aged quite a bit between filming that and the filming for Vertigo. He’s got a refined and distinguished older gentleman look going in Vertigo, fitting of the character that he embodies – John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, a retired San Francisco police detective that suffers from vertigo. Scottie is solicited by an old college friend as a private investigator to follow around the friend’s much-younger wife (Kim Novak). Classified as a mystery – it seems a bit simplistic, but Hitchcock’s masterful handling of the plot builds up suspense in just about every scene. Inserting props and commentary skilfully, the whole movie has a sense of dread associated with it starting from the choice of the opening animations, building to a crescendo for the resolution at the end.
A stunning film from start to finish – it is marred at times by its Technicolor palette, which also helps impart character to the movie itself. In some of the outdoor scenes, the colors look washed out – faded, and light from the sun seems unnaturally bright. But I was watching a standard DVD on a standard definition television. It’s possible that it could look better on Blu-ray on a high-definition television. But minor technical issues with technology isn’t enough to provide demerits to a superbly told story, even if it is a bit weak and predictable at times. Both Novak and Stewart embody their characters perfectly and I have a very hard time imagining anybody else from that time period in those roles.
While predictable, the story still has its pleasurable twists and turns. Hitchcock’s mastery at controlling the pace, tension, and setting is on full display in Vertigo. The movie has a tautness about it that wouldn’t have been possible without a deft director at the helm. By molding the story and cinematography itself to tell the tale in his head, Hitchcock created a veritable classic (if a bit overrated and underrated at the same time). But such duality isn’t indicative of the quality of the pleasure you get from the movie.
Some of my favorite scenes were merely the result of the chemistry and interplay between Novak and Stewart. One such scene was Stewart grilling Novak for information but being rebuffed by Novak. The subtle wordplay and back and forth of that single scene has seared itself into my brain and distils the essence of Vertigo down into that single scene. Nothing else needs to be added or mentioned in order for me to remember this movie as a whole. Some scenes were funny in nature, and yet also creepy enough in the spirit of Hitchcock to enhance the storyline. I only wish more directors had the talent of Hitchccok, but then Hitchcock wouldn’t have the reputation he does. Vertigo is well worth watching alone for the extraordinary Technicolor palette used throughout the movie (despite some of the flaws I mentioned above), and to see the technological innovation of moving the camera while zooming in to convey the sense of vertigo itself as Scottie, the character feels it.
Vertigo is also a fine primer to Hitchcock’s habits (endearing to his fans and most cinema lovers) which include inserting himself somewhere in the movie. However, Hitchcock is a master of the murder mystery. He loves showing the audience something ordinary then introduces something unexpected that produces a sense of dread from the ordinary object/action. Several examples can be easily seen in Vertigo and I don’t need to point them out here. You’ll see them easily, as the camera even zooms in on a couple of these examples to further highlight them.
MPAA Rating: PG
English Subtitles: No
SDH Subtitles: Yes
Captions / Subtitles Rating: 3.0
The Alfred Hitchcock Collection ‘Vertigo’ Collector’s Edition also has an ‘Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock’s Masterpiece’ featurette that is *also* captioned via the subtitles. It’s a fantastic documentary featuring an interview with Martin Scorsese, and also covers the restoration of the film itself. Saul Bass is even mentioned in the documentary as well. In short, if you get this DVD – watch the documentary as well. It’s well worth your time and increases your appreciation of Vertigo itself. The documentary also drives home the point how psychologically complex Vertigo remains, even today, indicating Hitchcock as a true master of his craft.