Vertigo is an unsettling thriller that deals with fractured identities, murder, infidelity, and psychological trauma. Alfred Hitchcock creates some memorable images, pioneering some excellent camera work, and employing the picturesque locales of San Francisco.
Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) retires after seeing a police office plummet to his death. Scottie blames himself for his colleague’s demise because it was his acrophobia and vertigo that caused the cop’s death. The trauma of the man’s death haunts him.
Hired by a friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to keep an eye on his depressed wife, Madeline, Scottie quickly becomes obsessed with the enigmatic blond beauty, rescuing her from a suicide attempt at one point. The experience bonds the two, and they start to spend time with each, even professing their love for one another. But Before their relationship can flourish, Madeline plunges to her death, leaving Scottie in despair. He goes on to find another woman, Judy, who’s remarkably like Madeline, and he pursues her. But details emerge that force Scottie to solve a mystery that splinters into a web of convoluted lies.
To say more would give away a major part of the plot – yet interestingly enough, the mystery is “given up” half-way through the film, and yet the story is still compelling. Much of what Hitchcock does is disorient the viewer with some fascinating camera angles – most notably the dolly zoom, a camera trick that at once, zooms in while moving away from a subject – he employs this device when trying to convey the frightening and confusing emotions and vertigo that Scottie feels when he gazes down a long, winding stairway, or when looking through a window at an alley, far below.
Hitchcock also uses San Francisco handsomely. His daughter Patricia Hitchcock reported that her father found San Francisco to be a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated city, as close to Paris as a city in the U.S. can get. The Mission San Juan Bautista is a focal point in the film, where Madeline fell to her death. And through imaginative camerawork, Hitchcock ads to Scottie’s fear and dread by pulling the bell tower, up, making it seem higher and more ominous and perilous.
And Hitchcock also uses his female lead, Kim Novak in an interesting manner. Even though she’s a rather limited thespian, she’s effective, namely because the director uses her wooden acting to great effect. There’s a disconnect between Novak and the character she’s playing – as if Madeline was an ill-fitting suit. Given Hitchock’s complicated history with the women in his film (Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren both survived horror stories when working with the famed director), it’s understandable that he doesn’t view Novak as a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being, but a useful prop for James Stewart. She’s positioned in various poses and framed to reflect certain themes of confusion, deceit as well as allusions to various clues that enable Scottie to work through the mystery. Hitchhock places his actress in front of mirrors throughout the film – in many scenes, she’s seen either through her reflection, or she’s assessing her own reflection.
Unlike Novak, Stewart is given space and direction to give a thoughtful and interesting performance – one that’s riddled with panic, remorse, and regret. While many will associate Stewart with the easier, more mainstream work he did with Frank Capra, Hitchcock expertly draws out a complex and multiply-layered performance from the movie legend. And though Stewart’s lanky with an expressive body, we’re often drawn into the actor’s eyes – which are often haunted.
As Steward’s ex-fiancee and confidant, Barbara Bel Geddes is wonderful, making the most of a supporting role. Unlike Novak, she’s not a key player in the conceit of the tale, so she’s given the freedom of being a human being and not merely a plot device. She represents a feeling of consistency and normalcy that Scottie so desperately needs, but seems incapable of holding on to.
Along with the interesting and manipulated performances, the writing is also fascinating to look at – particularly the lack of writing. For much of the first half of the film, we’re given very little dialogue – it’s not quite a silent film, but there are deafeningly silent moments when Scottie is trailing Madeline through the city. The silence draws some of the scenes out, giving the viewers’ sense of time, displacement. Without the aid of busy dialogue, Hitchcock relies on his skills as a filmmaker to convey his tone – particularly Scottie’s continuously-rolling emotions – from initial skepticism to inconsolable grief. The range Hitchock displays as a storyteller is breathtaking.
For many, Vertigo is Hitchcock at his finest. The winding, convoluted plot is intricately laid out, and throughout, the director maintains the sense of ominous foreboding. Even if one is not a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo is worth a look just to admire the virtuosity he displays in the film.