Five Reasons To See “Vertigo”

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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.

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Exhale

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.

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We Are Movie Geeks

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.

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Hubpages

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:

James Stewart.

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Screen Musings

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.

Kim Novak.

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Bobby Rivers TV

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.

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Roger Ebert

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.

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Flibie’s Movie Reviews

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.

The locations.

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.

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Moxie Cinema

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…


Vertigo is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. The original Boileau-Narcejac novel is available here.

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15 thoughts on “Five Reasons To See “Vertigo”

  1. I’d add that it just looks gorgeous. I mean, look at those stills! Great post, Rebecca, I can definitely relate to your point about the overtness – the first I watched Vertigo when “things transpired” it seemed to come out of nowhere. You’ve intrigued me to go back again and see if I can’t find some hints.

    It’s never, I don’t think, going to be my favourite Hitchcock – though if you insist I choose a favourite, I’ll insist you leave my house 🤣 – but I do love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great reasons to watch this movie, Rebecca! I do agree with Mark, that the visuals in Vertigo are absolutely stunning. Loved reading about and seeing the pictures of the Bay Area. Hitchcock was so adept at making locations another character in his films, wasn’t he?

    Thank you for contributing this excellent post to my blogathon, Rebecca! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Didn’t they “invent” that zoom-pan-out shot? Or wasn’t this the first time it appeared on screen? Or maybe I’m wrong.

    Vertigo is not a movie everyone would love; it’s bleak and psychologically disturbing (which is why I like it so much, hahahaha), without the happy ending of some of his other films. But I’d argue it got panned not because of Stewart being too old, but the audience not being psychologically ready for it. It’s only now that we know more about psychology that we love it as much as we do — Hitch was, as usual, ahead of his time and “on to something.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant review Rebecca! And props on writing about that masterpiece, it’s a beautiful challenge! The locations are definitely among my favourite elements of the film. I made sure to visit some when I went to San Francisco in 2015. My favourite one was the cemetary where there’s Carlotta Valdes’s grave (well, in the film, not in real life unfortunately lol.)

    Liked by 1 person

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