‘Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice...’
Long considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece, there is no denying that Vertigo has been hugely influential. Having to teach it every year in my role as film studies teacher has actually forced me to appreciate Vertigo more over the years as I didn’t really enjoy it on first viewing (sacrilegious as that statement is). I much prefer Hitch’s darker work (Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca etc) as a rule but there is no denying that Vertigo represents a special brand of alchemy and magic…
We open with John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) trying and failing to apprehend a criminal during a dramatic rooftop chase sequence. This moment haunts Scottie and leads to him developing… you guessed it… Vertigo. Later, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) an old college friend of Scottie’s, hires the former detective to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco as Elster believes that she is going mad. From there, the plot becomes a mystery crime thriller involving duality, obsession and a woman called Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes).
Everything about Vertigo feels uncomfortable. A little off. Stewart plays against his every man, good-guy persona to portray a nuanced and complex character with little warmth or empathy. Scottie is ostensibly our hero but his increasingly deranged actions force the viewer to question what it means to be a protagonist. Do we even want Scottie to succeed by the end? It’s a complicated question.
Hitchcock uses vivid greens and reds to create a visual canvas that has been oft imitated (most recently in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho) but never bettered. This is a genius director firing on all cylinders. On a personal level, I find the pacing a little too slow, the narrative a little too cyclical and repetitive, but I understand why Vertigo has endured more than any other Hitchcock film other from Psycho.
Vertigo is a tough sell to casual cinema fans, but if you can allow Hitch’s vision to wash over you and peel back the various layers of intrigue and mystery to reach the heart of the story, there is a truly special film waiting to be discovered. As with Citizen Kane, Vertigo is difficult to love but easy to appreciate.