Stars: *** out of Four
Summary: A spellbinding, terrifying predecessor to the modern psychological thriller, as only Hitch could film it.
Best not to look at that too long.
Review: Hitchcock is known more for his thrillers than for anything else in his body of work. This film shows us why. ‘Vertigo’ is a twisted tale of obsession, deception, and distortion. More than anything else, it is a cautionary tale, showing the disastrous effects of the aforementioned elements in the lives of both its protagonist- if you can call him that- and his ‘love interest’.
It is darn creepy.
It opens with a strangely psychedelic journey through a kaleidoscope of multicolored spirals. Kinetic (moving) text introduces the filmmakers, while we are treated to Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score. By this time, we already know we are in for something bizarre.
After this journey into the weird, we are thrust into a dramatic, though brief, rooftop chase. Two police officers are in pursuit of a criminal, and when he jumps across a gap to another roof, they try to go after him. The first one makes it fine, but the second, police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), slides down the sloped tiles and hangs onto a drainpipe over certain death. The first police officer goes back for him, but in the process of trying to save John’s life, he plummets (in a well composited shot) to the ground. The emotional shock ingrains a fear of heights in John, which causes vertigo, a disorienting and often debilitating condition.
After retiring from the force due to the incident, he spends his days with his best friend, Midge Wood, a kindly young woman he was once engaged too. Throughout the film she represents his good sense, and when that slips away from him, so does she.
He meets a friend from college, Gavin Elster, who asks him to follow his wife, Madeleine. She seems to be suffering from a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or possibly even spiritual possession. Gavin wants to know where she is wandering to every day. Initially reluctant, John takes the job.
As he follows, evidence begins to mount that Gavin’s claim- that she is possessed by the spirit of her great grandmother- is true. Meanwhile, John struggles with his increasing attraction to Madeleine, which Midge disapproves of. She makes attempts to charm him into forgetting about Madeleine, but these backfire, much to her chagrin.
The film crackles with tension. The cinematography and music perfectly compliment each other, unnerving the audience. This is not an outright scary film (except, perhaps, for a couple dream sequences). Hitchcock is too smart to rely on shock. Suspense is a much more powerful tool. One notable aspect of the cinematography, is the first use of the now famous ‘vertigo effect’, where the background rushes forward or backward from the foreground by use of a clever blend of camera movement and zooming. It would be later replicated, among other places, in ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
John’s vertigo could be seen as a metaphor for his increasingly distorted view of Madeleine, and later a woman named Judy. While serving as the protagonist in the first half, the distortion forces him to become an antagonist to Judy, bringing the film to its startling and haunting climax. Now, I am someone who loves happy endings… that is something this film does not have. The story, in my opinion, is not too bad, but it lacks a magnification of some elements which would have made it a clearer experience, at least for me. A greater involvement of Midge would have been excellent. She seems to vanish once John’s obsession transforms him into a manipulator. Since she serves as the moral ground zero, it would be appropriate- in my opinion- to show her reactions to John. This would reinforce the cautionary aspect of the narrative.
‘Vertigo’ is not one of my favorite films. In fact, when it is all said and done, I dislike it, and even hate some elements. Nevertheless, it is well-designed, compelling, and everything else you would want from Hitchcock. It is certainly a masterpiece of design and form. The story’s dark turns make it an unpleasant experience, however, which I suppose is part of the point. We really don’t want to be like John.