Vertigo: Hitchcock’s enduring masterpiece

VERTIGO (1958)

Starring: James Stewart and Kim Novak

Written by: Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

128 minutes

Throughout his career film director Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the themes of obsession, murder and desire. In Vertigo, (1958) the story of a retired detective with acrophobia who falls in love with the woman he’s been hired to tail; each of these themes were at their most bizarre and overtly sexual. While the film is without a doubt one strange trip, it also happens to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

I don’t say masterpiece easily; Hitchcock has many other films that one could argue deserves the top spot (Psycho, Rear Window). It’s not a concrete method for qualifying what makes a film great perhaps, but (most of the time) when it comes to film I don’t want to be mindlessly entertained. I want to be presented with a story that keeps me engaged, that dares to confront me, and most importantly continues to deliver an emotional impact after repeated viewings. Vertigo stands out because after a viewing it lingers much longer in my mind then any other Hitchcock film.

I’m all for actors expanding their range, though at first it is strange to see James Stewart (aka the Tom Hanks of his day) play Johnny “Scottie” Ferguson. When Johnny is obsessively trying to make over shop girl Judy to resemble Madeleine (both women played by Kim Novak) the woman he was tailing who later died, you can’t help but shiver. When watching Vertigo there’s always that part of me that wants Stewart to turn into George Bailey and run home to his one true love Donna Reid. But in the end Stewart’s good guy persona works in his favour because he pulls off the difficult task of portraying a man who is both severely mentally disturbed yet oddly sympathetic.

While Kim Novak is no Grace Kelly or Tippy Hedren, she does share the essential qualities of all Hitchcock women; ethereally beautiful, blonde, and an icy cold demeanour. I’ve read criticism that claims Novak’s performance is too stiff, which I find ridiculous. Just as Wes Anderson makes sure his actors always deliver lines in a deadpan monotone, Hitchcock characters are always stiff and reserved.

I thoroughly enjoy Novak’s performance, even when her make up remains absolutely perfect after jumping in the San Francisco Bay. You can’t help but feel sympathetic for a woman who is so in  love she subjects herself to Johnny’s unhealthy obsessions just so she can be around him. The big twist in the film, which I’m desperate to spoil here but won’t, makes Judy’s decisions even more heartbreaking.

In the end Vertigo is about love, but not the “happily ever after” kind. Rather it is a fascinating and disturbing portrait of love at its most twisted, unfulfilling and sadomasochistic.   While the fake backdrops, cheesy special effects and swelling music  date the film, the complex themes and performances of Vertigo always makes you want to come back for more.

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