Sight and Sound recently named Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the greatest film of all time. Along with most the other films you are supposed to have watched I’d never shown it much interest. Instead it just sat collecting dust as part of the Alfred Hitchcock box set which I proudly display in an attempt to look clever, but with it being awarded such critical acclaim it seemed like the right time to sit down and watch this classic thriller. Set in San Francisco Vertigo stars James Stewart as John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson, a retired detective who is hired by an old friend to investigate the strange behaviour of his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) , who he believes to be possessed. At this point I got a bit confused, Vertigo didn’t seem like the sort of film to focus heavily on anything remotely superstitious. Being quite the skeptic I felt something was amiss, something other than Kim Novak’s enormous eyebrows was not quite right. My suspicions were correct because there’s a twist!
Without going into too much detail Madeline tries to kill herself, Scottie saves her, the two spend time together, proclaim their love for one another and then Madeleine successfully kills herself. Or so it seems. Because after the death of his true love (who he cant have spent any longer than 12 hours with) Scotty becomes infatuated with Judy, a woman who looks uncannily like Madeleine. This obsession takes over and the once kind Scottie descends into obsession and madness.
Since Vertigo is apparently the greatest film of all time it would be fair to say my expectations were high. As I popped it on I was actually worried about whether or not I would like it. Luckily I really enjoyed it. Knowing nothing about the film prior to viewing it I had envisaged a long drawn out story of a man learning to cope with a crippling fear of heights. I was expecting this to come up time and time again something I imagined would become fairly tiresome, not to mention dull. However the fact the condition is only brought up a handful of times throughout the film makes its rare appearances all the more powerful. The method of simultaneously zooming in and tracking out in order to achieve the vertigo effect is superb, not only is it very disorientating it throws the audience into the unpleasant perspective of the films protagonist.
One of the things I admired the most was the films ability to be clever without becoming so overcomplicated that the audience are left completely bewildered as to what happened. Having said this it is by no means a simple film, there a enough hidden themes and messages to give the film the potential to be more entertaining upon repeat viewing. The twists came as a genuine shock to me, their timing was perfect with them always occurring just as I started to question where the narrative was heading, and in the final scene when the cloaked figure emerged at the top of the stairs I was genuinely frightened as to who it could be.
Scottie, the films protagonist, proves to be a very interesting character. By the end of the film this once kindand gentle man has transformed, at least in my opinion, into a monster. His attempts to mould Judy back into Madeleine were extremly uncomfortable to watch as it was so apparent that it was a transformation Judy was desperately unhappy about. As an audience we are really encouraged to feel Judy’s pain when she asks “Couldn’t you like me? Just me, the way I am?” The short answer to this is no and poor Judy is left to cope with the fact that the real her will never be enough. When Scottie finally discovers Judy’s true identity he faults her for being so sentimental that she kept Madeleine’s necklace. I was apalled by this comment, such hypocrisy coming from a man who is so sentimental he needs to mould a woman into his deceased love in order to go on.
Despite Scottie’s despicable treatment of Judy, the character I felt most sorry for was Midge. It was when Scottie so casually asked her “weren’t we once engaged?” that I felt we first saw the darker side to his character. This throw away comment clearly really upset Midge and Scottie didn’t even realise. For me, Midges exit was the most tragic moment of the film, her footsteps echoing as she walked down the empty hallway proving to be quite an emotional moment. While it does create a bit of a loose end I liked that the film never went back to Midge, I’m glad she was able to escape from Scottie as his mental instability became all the more apparent.
The look of the film is absolutely beautiful. Hitchcock rarely filmed interior shots on location favouring purpose-built sets. I love the effect this allows for, creating a somewhat dream like quality to the portrayal of San Francisco which in turn makes everything seem all the more theatrical and dramatic. On a visual level there are so many different layers that it wasn’t untill I viewed Vertigo a second time that I noticed the distinct absense of dialogue in many scenes
The more I think about Vertigo the more it fascinates me. Admittedly the plot is far-fetched, but its a film so that doesn’t really matter. While I praised the plot’s surprise twist I don’t believe that knowledge of it ruins the film for future viewings. Vertigo is a mystery and Hitchcocks attention to detail means there are always little secrets which can be discovered and make the it all the more entertaining. All things considered I don’t know whether Vertigo is the greatest film ever made. While it is certainly a cinematic masterpiece there are a few things I have a problem with, in particular the films treatment of women, however it is without a doubt worth a watch.