100 Greatest Films of all time – 9: Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)  Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock  Screenplay by: Alec Coopel and Samuel A Taylor Based on the Novel D’Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac  Produced by:  Herbert Coleman   Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes  Oscar Count: 0 (Nominated for Best Sound and Best Art Direction)

After the initial critical and box office failure of Vertigo, famed master of suspense, was never allowed to make another “film.”

Don’t get me wrong. Hitchcock made plenty of crowd pleasing films, that were successful critically and commercial. But except for Psycho, Hitchcock was never free to experiment again (and he only got away with that slasher shocker because it was cheap to make). The rest of his films were fairly standard, designed with the studio’s bottom line in mind. They also conform to the rigid standards of a thriller – good vs evil, intense action sequences, and the use of the Cold War or the media obsession with violent crime in the background. There was never an exploration of humanity or with analyzing what makes us tick.

Vertigo was the opposite of Hitchcock’s later popular work. The point of the film was that the enemy is within a man – in his fears, desires, and weaknesses. Yes, there is a murder and a double cross, but these acts are almost an afterthought. The main focus of Vertigo is Scottie Ferguson and his investigation about a woman who thinks she is living in a different century. Scottie falls in love with the woman, and becomes obsessed with her after she apparently dies. But he sees someone who looks just like her…

Well, this would the part of any standard thriller where Scottie attempts to figure out what happened and why this doppelganger has suddenly appeared. But Vertigoinstead delves into Scottie’s acknowledgement of his madness, and how far he is willing to go to satisfy desires he cannot explain.

Some of the criticism was leveled at Stewart, who, at 50, was too old to play a romantic lead. But that was not what Stewart was doing in this film.  The character of Scottie Ferguson is required to be a man who is burned out from a lifetime of violence and watching the worst of humanity. He has stayed on the outside looking in, but the opening (in which one of his co-workers is killed in an accident) shatters that boundary, and everything from Scottie’s point of view seems that much further away. A younger man would have been able to possibly recover, but with Scottie, that is no longer an option. It could have only been an older man who played Scottie, and Stewart was an appropriate choice.

It also makes his contrast with Madeline, the woman, that much more pronounced. She is a woman who, Scottie is lead to believe, is a ghost of deceased royalty. In reality, she is a naïve woman who can be shaped and molded by anyone. Scottie, tired of being molded by his fears, tries to do the same and make the woman love him. The fact that he fails is what shatters him. Of course, the instigation for everything is Scottie’s own basic limitations. He tries to “think” his way into something with no solution – both his fear of heights and the “mystery” of Madeline. Strangely, this is the most relatable Hitchcock film – but one that made people uncomfortable.

Why did Vertigo initially fail? Possibly because, like today, audiences wanted to be spoon fed the story. When they were not, it was time for outrage rather than reflection. But the film also explores the emotions that are present in everyone. Phobias can have a bigger impact on people’s lives than anyone would care to admit, as can sexual attraction. While most of Hitchcock’s filmography hints at this relationship, Vertigo is one of the few films that actually discuss it openly. It would be brave today, and was downright revolutionary to show in 1958. But the film also has all the hallmarks of the master filmmaker, and demonstrates just how his films demonstrated an understanding of the human experience while simultaneously deconstruction penny dreadful schlock. Hitchcock frequently said that he enjoyed playing audiences like a piano. Vertigo is like a Shostakovich piece – very brutal, very complicated, but highly effective.

There are two sequences in the film that stand in the popular imagination – the dream sequence (which was psychedelic before psychadelia was a thing) and the staircase scene. Although the dream sequence is proof that Hitchcock was free to experiment with the medium, but the latter scene has been copied numerous times, including the first Batman film. So it is prudent to talk about what that scene was meant to do and how it works. It was meant to be the moment in which Scottie thinks he has everything figured out about the situation, and has finally found an opportunity for happiness in his hopeless situation. That is destroyed on Scottie’s metaphorical climb – a long road up just to quickly fall down and lose everything. The famed cinematography emphasizes Scottie’s personal journey – and how afraid of it he really is. This scene encapsulates what the film truly means.

Did you Know: The novel Vertigo is based on was specifically written for Hitchcock to make a film out of. The authors’ previous success was made into the also noteworthy Diabolique. Hitchcock had tried to buy the rights to that novel, but was beaten to the punch by Henri-Georges Clouzot. When the authors found out, they wrote D’Entre Les Morts to make it up to Hitchcock.


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