Vertigo (United States, 1958)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Seeing the newly-restored, 70 mm print of Vertigo in a theater is an experience that no fan of Hitchcock, or of cinema in general, should miss. Especially for those (like me) whose sole exposure to the film has been through faded, deteriorating video copies, the opportunity to watch the movie in a manner akin to the one intended by director Alfred Hitchcock comes as a great boon. In fact, aside from the plot itself, there are few similarities between the shrunken, battered TV version of the film and this painstakingly meticulous restoration.

Hitchcock films in general, and Vertigo in particular (which many critics view as the Master of Suspense's greatest achievement), have influenced an entire generation of film makers, from Martin Scorsese to Brian DePalma and David Lynch. Hitchcock's innovative use of back- screen projection and camera tricks (such as simultaneously zooming in and tracking out) to enhance suspense and draw the audience deeper into the narrative have frequently been emulated, but rarely equaled. From a craft standpoint, Vertigo represents the director in peak form.

When observed from a contemporary, 1990s viewpoint, certain plot elements of Vertigo seem dated and naive (in particular, how women and the justice system are viewed). However, for the most part, the film holds together surprisingly well even 40 years later. There are times when we're aware that Vertigo was written for a different audience during an earlier era, but this doesn't necessarily detract from the film going experience; rather, it helps place the movie in its proper historical context.

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.

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. There are numerous, lengthy passages that pass without dialogue (most of these occur while John is trailing Madeleine), and Herrmann's music sustains Hitchcock's carefully-crafted tone.

James Stewart is perfect for the lead in Vertigo, playing the sort of role he does best -- a tremendously-likable, but otherwise ordinary man who finds himself caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Vertigo ranks alongside It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as examples of Stewart in top form. As an interesting side note, Hitchcock scholars are in general agreement that John is a subconscious representation of the director -- a man constantly striving for his own image of perfect female beauty. Kim Novak brings the right touch of mystery to Madeleine/Judy. Unattainable and icy in the first role, then earthy and troubled in the second, Novak allows us to accept what could easily seem to be a cheap plot contrivance. Barbara Bel Geddes, as John's good friend, Midge, and Tom Helmore, as Madeleine's husband, fill supporting roles.

This restoration of Vertigo serves two crucial purposes. First, it allows all those who have loved the film over the years to once again (or perhaps for the first time) view the motion picture in its full glory. Secondly, and more importantly, it preserves a great classic for future generations so that movie-goers for decades to come will be able to see and appreciate Vertigo as far more than a fading, deteriorating piece of '50s cinema.

Vertigo (United States, 1958)

Ranked #105 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1