Vertigo (1958): Perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest work

posted 1/26/09 on 2009: A Film Odyssey


Though the holiday season has ended and the remaining Christmas cookies are stale, many of us who rewatched all the traditional yuletide movies may still have a fresh image in our minds of James Stewart playing George Bailey in the endearing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Now with arctic winds blowing away what’s left of our Christmas cheer, it’s time we watched a more complicated, more mature Stewart flick. My recommendation? Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Filmed in San Francisco in 1958, the film stars Stewart as Scottie Ferguson, a recently retired detective with an intense fear of heights, and the gorgeous (despite having overpainted eyebrows) Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, a potential nutcase. You see, Madeleine’s husband Gavin has become worried about her odd habit of suddenly assuming an alternate personality and disappearing for hours at a time. So Gavin hires Scottie to follow her around town in hopes he will gather clues to solve the mystery of Madeleine’s possession.

A quintessentially mysterious Hitchcock blonde, Madeleine leads Scottie to a grave site and then to a particular art museum painting that work well — perhaps too well — as clues to the possessing spirit’s identity. In this scene, Scottie snoops behind Madeleine, who stares intently at a painting entitled “Portrait of Carlotta.” With the same hair curl, flower bouquet, and bejeweled necklace, the painting somewhat resembles Madeleine (or vice versa).

Scottie, who leaves the museum in a daze, becomes obsessed with cracking the case — and ultimately with Madeleine and her alter ego. Being a wife of an old friend doesn’t stop Scottie from making out with her ferociously once they become acquainted and wander Northern California together.

But, as is the case in Hitchcock films, first impressions can be deceiving. When a rediscovery follows a tragedy (which I won’t spoil even though Vertigo is more than 50 years old), Scottie finds himself tangled up in the lies of others. Heartbroken and unwilling to be a pawn in someone else’s game, he concocts his own scheme to get even.


Despite the lame production notes and written profiles of the cast and filmmakers (who wants to arrow through paragraph after paragraph on a TV?), not all is lost: the restoration special feature is worth watching. The Vertigo restoration team of Robert Harris and James Katz walk us through the difficulty of making the film beautiful again. In the mid-1990s, Universal invested two years and millions of dollars restoring the faded VistaVision print. The 70 mm restoration debuted in October 1996 at San Francisco’s Castro Theater with sharpened color and enhanced sound.

We also hear from Kim Novak, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman, Screenwriter Sam Taylor, and others from the original cast and crew on what it was like to work with “Hitch,” a director notorious for being incredibly skilled and incredibly anal. The man drew his own storyboards, ordered very specific costumes, scripted the cadence of actors’ lines, and even told actresses how and when to move their heads.

The interview with Martin Scorsese (another person with oversized brows) was also a fun surprise. He gushed about how he loved Vertigo for its “unabashedly personal feel” and the “strong heart behind it.” That’s a great compliment coming from a filmmaker who revolutionized the industry with his grit and authenticity.


It’s hard to keep count of all of Vertigo’s brilliant moments, but one of them stands out in my mind. Scottie’s bad dream sequence, which leaves him emotionally scarred and catatonic for months, is pretty wild, especially given the movie’s historical context (the naïve, milk-and-cookies, Leave it to Beaver late 1950s.) It’s like the Easy Rider acid trip scene, 11 years early. Bernard Hermann’s frenzied score ratchets up the freakout factor.

The Saul Bass opening credits — beginning with a 50-second extreme close-up of a woman’s face and fearful eyes, followed by multicolored screensaver spirals — are also unique.


Vertigo begins a little slowly for modern tastes. A majority of the film’s first hour consists of Scottie tailing Madeleine from place to place on foot and in his car. There is very little dialogue in these following scenes. Hitchcock saves most of the dramatic tension for the second half, reserving the first half for a slow, mysterious buildup.


Spin this one when you get a chance. Vertigo is one of those silver screen classics like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Godfather that ends up every critic worth his or her salt’s top movies list—and rightfully so, with the haunting love story and character portrayals.


Ranked 61 in AFI’s 1998 top 100 poll

Ranked 42 in IMDB’s Top 250 as of 1/26/09

Rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes

Running time: 128 minutes

Rated PG