(United States, 1958)
The placement of this film, not its inclusion on the list, is going to raise a few eyebrows. Many film critics would unhesitatingly place Vertigo in their Top 20, if not the Top 10. However, while I admire the movie's craft, style, and plotting (and can watch it over and over again without flagging interest), I do not believe it is Hitchcock's overriding masterpiece. It is inarguably one of his better films, but, for me, it's not his best. Indeed, if you gather ten critics in a room and ask them which is the Master of Suspense's most enduring work, you might get ten different responses. My answer will be revealed in due time, but, suffice it to say, there's more than one Hitchcock film in the Top 100. As for Vertigo - I became a fan of the film "late". (That is to say, I had been reviewing films for about four years.) After watching it once or twice on TV (and not being duly impressed), I finally had a chance to see it theatrically in 1996 after it had been restored. And, while the story and actors were the same, the overall impact was vastly different. With Bernard Hermann's score accompanying a splash of vibrant colors, the restored version resuscitates Vertigo, allowing it to take its rightful place as a classic American thriller. Vertigo is truly one of the great ones (and, as a side note, the current DVD Special Edition does it justice).
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Vertigo opens with a short prologue that details the circumstances under which Detective John Ferguson (James Stewart) develops an acute case of acrophobia that leads to vertigo whenever he climbs a steep flight of stairs or gets more than a few feet above the ground. After leaving the police force because of this condition, John is approached by an old acquaintance, ship yard magnate Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Gavin is concerned about Madeleine's health -- she has frequent black-outs and he believes that the spirit of a dead woman is attempting to possess her. As John follows Madeleine, watching her day after day, he falls for her. Eventually, the two meet and discover that the attraction is mutual. But even love is not enough to overcome John's vertigo, and he is unable to save her from a fall from the top of a church bell tower. Madeleine's death causes John to suffer a breakdown, and, during his recovery, a chance encounter on the street brings him face-to-face with a woman, Judy Barton (Novak), who is the spitting image of his dead love.
In one of his best-known directorial outings, Hitchcock does a masterful job blending all of Vertigo's diverse elements together. It's a love story, a mystery, and a thriller all rolled into one. It deals with issues of obsession, psychological and physical paralysis, and the tenuous nature of romantic love. Vertigo should really be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. Many of the darker, deeper aspects only begin to bubble to the surface on subsequent viewings. Stylistically, perhaps the two most noteworthy elements of Vertigo are its distinctive color scheme, which features reds and greens, and the memorable, haunting score turned in by composer Bernard Herrmann, which sustains Hitchcock's carefully-crafted tone. When observed from a contemporary, 1990s viewpoint, certain plot elements of Vertigo seem dated and naive. However, for the most part, the film holds together surprisingly more than 40 years later.
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