Hello, Miss Kim…
Vertigo is, of course, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic films. It’s got James Stewart. It’s got a blonde. Two, actually, because it also features the wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes as the loyal but passed-over Midge. It’s got twists. It’s got turns. It’s got a gorgeous score by Bernard Herrmann. It’s based on a French novel, She Who Is No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s pretty gripping.
I first saw bits of this 1958 movie on TV in high school, but it didn’t mean anything because I came in on a crucial scene with no context and thought, “Meh.” Plus, considering the limits of pre-DVR broadcast TV, I had no way of finding out what I was looking at. That’s all changed, obviously, because I got the Blu-ray for Christmas, so anywhoo…
Here’s a very basic rundown: John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is a private detective in San Francisco, and he falls from a roof one night while chasing a criminal. He recovers from his injuries, but now he has acrophobia and vertigo. Since he can’t climb steep stairs or go anywhere too high, he retires from the police force.
Then Scottie gets a call from an old college friend, Gavin (Tom Elmore), who thinks something strange is possessing his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). He wants Scottie to keep an eye on her, because among other oddities, she keeps acting as if she’s far away.
Scottie tails Madeleine around San Francisco, staying in the shadows as she visits the grave of Carlotta Valdez at Mission Delores and sits staring at her painting at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, but it’s not until Madeleine jumps into the Bay at Fort Point that things get personal. Really, really personal.
I’m going to leave things there because as usual this is a Few Spoilers Zone, especially when it comes to Hitchcock. Tell certain details, and other details inevitably latch on.
So why do I think Vertigo is worth seeing or re-seeing? Well, here are a few of its many selling points:
Scottie is a very carefully written character who’s in pretty much every scene and it’s yet another example of why James Stewart is the man. There’s a lot of Stewart’s usual folksy, steady self in Scottie, but there’s also a slight dash of cynicism, as if this character’s just shy of snapping. One of the reasons it works is that we’re thown off by what we expect from Stewart, making Scottie’s turbulent journey that much more left-field and creepy.
Novak is fantastic in this movie. Every time she’s onscreen she disappears to the point that it can be like looking at a different person. Or more than one character. Is that too close to a spoiler? I don’t know, but anyway, she does things in this movie that had me looking up the cast list to see if I’d missed anyone.
Shooting didn’t always go smoothly, though. According to TCM, Novak, who was on loanout from Columbia, was making $1,250 a week while the studio was set to collect a quarter of a million dollars for Vertigo. Novak refused to show up to the Vertigo set, and Columbia finally caved.
The deceptively simple story.
Again, not gonna give spoilers, except for this: It’s never over until its over. Not only that, but the film makes use of one of Hitchcock’s favorite motifs: doubles. Double crosses, twins, repeated events. It’s definitely a quieter movie than some of Hitch’s others, but it feels like a bit of a troll in more ways than one.
Hitchcock’s use of effects.
Hitchcock’s effects were deceptively simple while impressive. It’s hard not get eye cage-y along with Scottie when he gets one of his attacks, especially in a certain famous bell tower. According to Roger Ebert, Scottie’s disorientation in the tower was achieved by zooming in the camera and pulling it back at the same time, a trick that cost $19,000. Plus Scottie’s dreams look like a precursor to the psychedelics of Roger Corman and Stanley Kubrick, with him falling into blankness and his floating, disembodied head floating through endless confusion.
This is a Bay Area and Central Coast movie, and as a former East Bay-er I couldn’t look hard enough. Everything was familiar, from San Juan Bautista to Lombard Street to Union Square to Golden Gate Park to Muir Woods to Mission Delores to the Palace of Fine Arts, and not all of it hasn’t changed that much since Vertigo was made (read an article about them here). Hitchcock used what was there as it stood and it hits all the feels.
It might sound improbable to us now, but like a lot of classics Vertigo didn’t do all that well when it was first released, ranking thirteenth at the box office for 1958. The critics reacted in much the same way they would react to Psycho two years later: They were “Meh” at first (Variety called it “uneven” and Bosley Crowther called it “devilishly far-fetched“), but now the film is considered a classic, although largely not on the level of other Hitchcock films.
Much as I like Vertigo, the only thing I would say about it is that there are aspects of the story that aren’t overt enough or allowed to build enough to really resonate. Hitchcock was usually so good at letting out cinematic ledes little by little until an audience has to find out what’s going on or know the reason why. In Vertigo, the lede is buried so deep it’s almost unnoticeable. It’s probably easier to spot with repeated viewings, though, and I don’t think I’ll have a problem going back to Vertigo.
For more of the wonderful Kim Novak, please see Ari at The Classic Movie Muse. Thanks for hosting, Ari–this was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you tomorrow for the Fourth So Bad It’s Good Blogathon…
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