One of the enduring fascinations of film appreciation is in being able to track the changing reputation of a film over time. This is particularly true of the works of Alfred Hitchcock: possibly as he was seen by many as very much a populist purveyor of cheap thrills during his career, with critical re-evaluation seeming to occur closer to the end of his working life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the critical response to 1958’s Vertigo.
An under-performer upon release, with a majority of reviews ranging from mildly to downright hostile, Vertigo appeared tied for 11th in 1972’s BFI Greatest Films of All Time poll. In 2012, the film took the top spot, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.
Vertigo marks the final collaboration of Hitchcock with legendary leading man James Stewart, having previously worked with him on the criminally-underrated-Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). This lack of future joint endeavours possibly gives a clue as to at least one of the reasons behind the changing fortunes of the film over time: the perceptions around casting.
Vertigo was based upon the 1954 French novel D’entre Les Morts (The Living and the Dead), by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud, aka Thomas Narcejac. Both film and novel tell the story of a former detective suffering from vertigo, brought on by acrophobia, the fear of heights. Stewart plays John ‘Scotty’ Ferguson, a man hired by an old acquaintance to investigate the strange behaviour of his young wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has become obsessed with the late Carlotta Valdes (1831–1857), subject of the painting Portrait of Carlotta, held in the Legion of Honor art museum in San Francisco, the setting for the film. As Madeleine’s behaviour becomes more erratic and inexplicable, Scotty learns that she appears to be following the exact patterns of Carlotta, a woman who committed suicide at the age of 26 – the same age as Madeleine.
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What follows is a tale of reluctant obsession, as Scotty first falls in love with Madeleine, then loses her to the inevitable suicide, finally settling on lookalike, Judy (also Novak) who he then forces into recreating the late-Madeleine down to exact look and movement.
Hitchcock was reported to have believed that the relative critical and commercial under-performance of the film was at least in part a result of Stewart’s advancing years, and the excessive age gap between leading man and leading lady. James Stewart turned 50 years old days after the film’s May 1958 release; Kim Novak was 24. Additional complaints focused on the outlandish nature of the plot, with Ferguson buying entirely that Madeleine is possessed by the ghost of a long dead young woman: the New Yorker calling the film “far-fetched nonsense”.
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With the benefit of time, it seems clear that some of the apparent flaws of the film have come to be amongst its biggest positives. A 1996 full restoration and remaster of the film has left Vertigo looking sumptuous. Filmed through the autumn of 1957, San Francisco has never looked better, with a number of the film’s locations having become iconic; most notably Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge – the location for a troubled Madeleine jumping into the sea, and her first meeting with Scotty. The cinematography by Robert Burks is thoughtful and varied. Scenes of a romantic or obsessive nature (and the film blurs the distinction between the two) all have a soft-focus dreamlike quality.
This is not unlike the work of Geoffrey Unsworth, director of photography on such works such as Zardoz and 1978’s Superman (think Lois and Superman’s balcony-set interview in that film for a similar aesthetic). This is also the film that fully popularised the Dolly Zoom – where the camera zooms in as pulling away (think Chief Brody on the beach in Jaws for possibly the most famous example). The film also features possibly one of the greatest scores by long-time Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
It is in the aforementioned blurring of the romantic and the obsessive that we find the film’s single biggest strength: the performance of Jimmy Stewart. In highlighting the age gap between Stewart and Novak, Hitchcock was right to note that this was an uncommonly large disparity. Vertigo – and Stewart – makes a virtue of this though, as the obsession with which Scotty finds himself gripped is equally inappropriate. As he begins to mould and shape Judy against her will, the generational gap between them plays so well, as the deference of the era, and the almost bland ingénue looks of Novak press home the point that she simply lacks the life experience to fight the insistence of an obsessed, middle-aged ex-cop.
Very few actors truly transcend their time, but it is entirely fair to say that James Stewart had a range that would have seen him succeed in any era. The lost-in-love gaze with which he looks at Novak – mixed with a distracted, twitchy physical gait, as his own inability to disengage from this young woman perturbs him, mixed with occasional flashes of anger, as he sees Judy question his desire to recreate the departed Madeleine – all combine to make this a performance of consummate range; the age gap simply adding to the sense of this being wrong, and making the viewer complicit by simple observation.
A very special piece of work, anchored by one the great leading performances, Vertigo sits at the apex of Hitchcock’s, and Stewart’s (not to mention Hermann and Burks) career achievements. Everyone involved takes maximum credit for one of the outstanding films of its day, and a film that retains both the power to connect to an audience and to unsettle.