Alfred Hitchcock is probably the best there’s ever been. Considering he rarely made a movie with the same screenwriter, it’s something of an accomplishment that his movies look, sound, and feel very similar. You can put in the movie and be pretty certain that you’re watching Hitchcock. The Master of Suspense knew a thing or two about putting together a movie. Having Bernard Herrmann do your music doesn’t hurt.
John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) was a detective. Chasing down a bad guy, he slipped and almost fell to his death giving him a nasty case of acrophobia. Ferguson has a friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), who’s there to help. An old school chum Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) wants Ferguson to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) around San Francisco because he fears for her sanity. Once he sees that she’s a total hottie, he takes up the case and finds that she’s got some serious mental issues. Then the movie really kicks off.
Of all the Hitchcock movies I’ve seen, and I’m nearing 20, Vertigo (1958) stands apart. Not necessarily in quality. My favorites are Rear Window (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954) with Vertigo fighting for third with North by Northwest (1959). Alright, enough title dropping, why does this movie stand apart? Because unlike most of the films, this movie is very much about the main character and his mental state. I haven’t seen Rebecca (1940), which may well cover this territory, but until then, Vertigo stands alone as actually requiring a personal performance.
This also stands as one of the few–I say “few” because to say “only” would be too definite with a memory like mine–that ventures into animated effects. Generally, Hitchcock is very non-intrusive and lets the camera work and editing build the moment.
Here, however, he starts the film with a very bold–and that’s not a compliment–extreme close-up of an eye (Novaks, I assume) in assorted colors and later puts together a nightmare scene that requires a great deal of patience from a modern audience. But by that time, I’m more than willing to be patient because the movie was already awesome.
What makes this movie great? All kinds of things. The script has the kind of humor you expect from a Hitchcock movie. Example: “I always said you were wasted in the underwear department.” Yeah, you probably had to be there, but you can tell. The music is terrific. It’s not North by Northwest terrific in quality, but is better integrated into the movie.
The performances in this film are also notably good. Jimmy Stewart, who I’ve never loved very much as an actor puts in a career performance. Stewart’s character becomes obsessive about [spoiler] and he plays it perfectly. He spends most of the movie playing the same old character as usual, but later, he’s cracked and it’s great.
Novak is also quite good. Likewise, it is the second half of the film where she really shines through. That’s something worth thinking about–if these pre-1960 actors were just given the room to play real emotions, maybe their performances would ring truer in our ears.
If there’s one thing that is a drawback in this movie, it’s probably pacing. On a second viewing, the story seems tighter and more focused. When the [spoiler] happens the first go-through, it’s a little shocking. Then the aftermath seems a little aimless. Then things get slowly back on track. That’s a weakness.
Otherwise, the story is excellent and each suspenseful moment is very well crafted. The problem, as I say, is when those moments are strung together to show the whole picture. In fact, the big reveal, which couldn’t possibly be given out one clue at a time, but rather slapped on the audience’s face, is done imperfectly. Needs must and I think they made it as artful as they could, but they could have improved on it.
The problem, I think, is that … how do I do this without totally spoiling things? Okay, if you haven’t seen this movie, read after the brackets. There’s almost certainly a way to do this with cursor hoverings, but whatever.
[**The real problem is that Novak as Judy looks too dissimilar to Novak as Madeline. When Stewart stops in the street and starts to follow her, even the second time I saw the movie, I thought, “What is he doing?” Hitchcock did two (or was it three?) fake-outs on us where the women were wearing similar clothes in similar situations as Madeline and then Stewart snaps back to see they aren’t Madeline. Then he stops and looks at Judy and, honestly, I couldn’t see the resemblance. That’s pretty strange considering it is her. I’m going to blame those weird eyebrows.**]
I would also point out that the Midge character could stand some expansion. I can see where there was a competition of instincts. On the one hand, if Hitch were making a typical film of the era, she’d be the one Scottie ends up with and would endanger herself by poking her nose into the case. On the other hand, the movie is really a personal, emotional movie two-thirds from the perspective of Stewart and one-third from Novak, leaving no room for Midge. The thing is, she’s there in the movie, but put to little use.
If you’re even remotely interested in movies, then I’d say you need to own the Essentials–a great collection, only missing Dial M for Murder–if you’re a little more than that, then you might start looking into the others.