Doused in lust and obsession, Vertigo remains one of cinema’s defining mystery films by revealing Hitchcock’s darkest fantasies.
Vertigo is possibly the greatest of Alfred Hitchcock’s films because it succeeds at being an effective psychological thriller as well as a careful study of his filmmaking approach. In the movie, Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with the woman of his dreams and shapes her into an object of his desires. Hitchcock was notorious for choosing blondes as his leading ladies; fetishizing them in objectifying costumes and ultimately humiliating them at the hands of controlling men. You could almost use Scottie as a reflection of Hitchcock’s fixation.
This dichotomy is perhaps the reason Vertigo remains so disturbing. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked it as the best mystery movie, and in 2012, Sight & Sound magazine named it the best film of all time, just ahead of Citizen Kane. Why not Notorious? Or Rear Window? Or Psycho? Those were great films about horror and paranoia, but Vertigo is more in harmony with its director.
I won’t go over the plot. You either know it or you don’t, in which case its surprises are best left for you to discover. Vertigo, however, is less about plot and more about the imprisonment of its characters. Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine (Kim Novak) is an entrapment, and Madeleine’s subsequent love for Scottie binds her to a man who only thinks he shares the same feelings. Both characters tumble ever downward into loneliness and despair, and Scottie, who spends the entire film trying to overcome his irrational fear of heights, succeeds at the cost of his twisted fantasy.
If it sounds like a dour, unforgiving tragedy, it is, but Hitchcock is a master of his tools, and in Vertigo he manages to strike intrigue, while Stewart’s subversive, edgy performance makes Scottie a thoroughly captivating individual. Stewart was known for playing the implausible hero – like L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window – but in Vertigo he is transformed. He still retains much of his natural charisma, but it’s sullener, tuned down, toned up. He creeps into the picture as a man torn apart by himself, and he is absolutely fascinating to watch.
The female characters are, of course, victims of Hitchcock’s gaze. Both Madeleine and Midge (Scottie’s college friend, played by Barbara Bel Geddes) subject themselves to humiliation and demise, but by the time they realise it, the plot has twisted so tightly around itself that there is no escape for anybody. This magnificent play on lust, obsession and guilt is what gives Vertigo a backbone. A plot of games to last through the decades.
But the movie is also a technical marvel. It is perhaps most remembered for pioneering the “dolly zoom”, a camera technique in which the lens zooms in while the physical camera tracks back, creating the illusion of compressed space around an unchanging subject. It was a visual phenomenon popularised by Spielberg’s Jaws in 1976, used to highlight acute fear. In Vertigo, its use is more fundamental but no less effective; as Scottie stares down from great heights, the ground rushes up to greet him.
One of the great joys about Hitchcock’s oeuvre is that you’re never short of a masterpiece. Here is a director who made more than fifty films; around half of them observe humanity from behind a door of fear and mistaken identities. They’re always about more than what they’re about. Spellbound was more than just proving a man’s innocence. Notorious was more than just uncovering Nazi secrets. And Vertigo is certainly about more than a fear of heights. By uniting so many strands of his life into 120 minutes of personal agony, Hitchcock has crafted one of the most enduring films of all time.
You can catch Vertigo on the big screen at Windsor Cinema Monday 1 August & Sunday 7 August
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures