Friday, January 26, 2018

Movie Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958) directed by Alfred Hitchcock

San Francisco detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) is forced to retire when his fear of heights leads to the death of a fellow officer during a rooftop chase. Scottie has a comfortable retirement that doesn't last--an old college friend named Gavin Elster gets in touch and asks for help. Gavin is a wealthy shipbuilder who married into the business. Now his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is acting strangely and he is concerned enough to get someone to follow her, hoping to get enough information to guide his choice for medical or psychiatric care. His big problem is that he thinks his wife is under the influence of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, who committed suicide in the mid-1800s. Scottie reluctantly agrees to follow her after he sees how beautiful she is (she is a classic Hitchcock blonde). His voyeuristic snooping lends credence to the ancestral influence. Scottie becomes too close after he saves Madeleine after she jumps into San Francisco Bay. His obsession and her madness build to a horrible twist that's only the mid-point of the film.

Hitchcock had a penchant for using landmarks and famous sites in his movie, sometimes shoehorning them in (e.g. the Mount Rushmore sequence in North by Northwest is great but really the bad guys could have gone just about anywhere). In Vertigo, he uses famous San Francisco places naturally and effectively. In a creepy scene, Madeleine and Scotty visit a redwood forest. One tree has fallen over and has some labels showing how old the tree is--American Independence at this ring, Magna Carta at that ring. Madeleine points to two spots (presumably in the 1800s) and says in her dreamy, possessed-by-Carlotta way, "Here I was born, here I died." Carlotta is buried at Mission Dolores so Madeleine visits the grave. Plenty of other landmarks show up. The "visual tourism" is well-blended into the story.

This film is rightly considered Hitchcock's most artistic film. Madeleine wears grey and black outfits, hinting at the darkness inside her. Scottie's obsession is paralleled in other characters in subtle and varied ways. The score by Bernard Herrmann is lyrical and haunting, enhancing the romantic and hypnotic mood of the film. A nightmare sequence underlines the destructive nature of obsession. The performances by Stewart and especially Novak perfectly embody their characters, often showing their inner feelings through scenes without any dialogue. The storytelling is visual and deep.

Vertigo is well worth watching and does reward rewatching (knowing the plot twists ahead makes the story, the performances, and the details even better). Highly recommended.

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