Friday, March 30, 2012

100 Movies - No. 91: Vertigo

91. Vertigo (1958)
Mystery, Romance, Thriller, 128 minutes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes

If you ask movie fans to name their favorite Hitchcock titles, you'll get a lot of different answers. Some would mention Psycho or Rear Window, while others might mention Dial M for Murder, The Birds, Notorious or The 39 Steps. There are probably at least 20 strong candidates. My own favorite is Vertigo because the mystery element appeals to me and James Stewart is involved.

Mulholland Dr. is my favorite film and David Lynch has mentioned how much he likes Vertigo and Rear Window because of the mood each creates. I can see why. Vertigo's mood never reaches the darker depths that Lynch's work inhabits, but there are similarities.

Vertigo begins with a rooftop chase in which Scottie Ferguson is left clinging to the guttering. When a cop tries to save him, Ferguson sees him slip and fall to his death. The traumatic experience leaves Ferguson mentally scarred and he quits his job as a detective. He's hired as a private detective by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), who claims that his wife, Madeleine (Novak), wanders off at random and doesn't remember where she's been. He thinks she might be possessed.

While that sounds unlikely, Hitchcock gives us reason to think that Madeleine really might be possessed as her husband suggests. Ferguson follows her all day. She takes flowers to a gravestone and stares at it as if she is somewhere else. The name on the grave is Carlotta Valdes. Madeleine also spends time in an art gallery staring at a picture, Portrait of Carlotta. The woman in the painting wears the same necklace and has the same hairstyle as Madeleine.

The following day, Ferguson follows Madeleine again. This time she drives to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumps into the bay. Ferguson manages to save her and ask her about her behavior. She doesn't even remember jumping into the bay. We find out that she's the same age Carlotta was when the woman committed suicide. Is the spirit of Carlotta making Madeleine do these things? Is it safe to leave her on her own?

That's the setup and I hope that I've managed to describe the unsettling atmosphere that Hitchcock creates. The plot is more complex than most of his films. Some of the twists are so surprising that I can't bring myself to reveal them here. If you haven't seen Vertigo, you deserve to discover those things for yourself.

The film uses a lot of red and green filters and you'll see the color green featured throughout. Whether it's Madeleine's dress, her car, or a neon sign, you won't be permitted to forget that color. There's an impressive effect created every time Ferguson looks down from a great height. It was achieved by zooming in and moving the camera away from the image at the same time.

Vertigo is sometimes criticized for being boring. I understand why some people might think that, but it's not a view I share. Ferguson spends a lot of time following Madeleine and most of those scenes require us to watch the events unfolding without the use of dialogue. Yes, this is a film that allows you to form your own opinion about what you are seeing. That said, the resolution reveals all of the mysteries. You won't be left to figure out what just happened. The beauty of the film is the way in which the revelations make sense of all the events which preceded them.

I'm always impressed when I look at the list of actors that Hitchcock worked with. James Stewart teamed up with Hitchcock in Rope, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much and all of those are worth your time. Stewart was very effective as Ferguson, particularly in the final 30 minutes of the film when he confronted his fear and obsession. Kim Novak also did a good job in a demanding role.

I've mentioned David Lynch, Madeleine and Ferguson in this review. I finally understand why Lynch named a character Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks.

The film was restored in 1996. I have seen the recent Blu-ray release and the film looks so much better than it ever has. Some titles in the Masterpiece Collection have not been restored well, but Vertigo looks good throughout. The most problematic part is the dream sequence, but it doesn't look too bad. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is another important addition, and everything sounds great. I would definitely look to upgrade when the titles are released on Blu-ray individually, unless you already own the full collection.

If you enjoy Hitchcock, or mysteries in general, Vertigo is a must-see.

If you like Vertigo:

Two of Hitchcock's best films were omitted from this 100 movies series. Not because they weren't worthy of inclusion, but because I wanted to avoid listing films that were too similar to others. I would urge any fan of Vertigo or Hitchcock to make a point of seeing Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. The tension slowly builds throughout both films and the payoff is worth it.

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  1. Nice review. Vertigo is great. Jimmy Stewart is my favorite actor and I enjoy his collaborations with Hitchcock a great deal, although my favorite does not star him but Cary Grant (NXNW). I think my Top 3, until this point, is North By Northwest, Psycho and Rear Window.

  2. Three good ones there. I will be watching Anatomy of a Murder in the next few days. Never even knew Stewart was in it until I looked at the case.

  3. What a great review. I definitely now want to see this and placing on my wish list. From your comments, it sounds somewhat familiar and brings back memories of surrealism reminiscent of work by the Spanish director Bunuel and even the artist Salvador Dali (the dream sequence). At the moment it is still 'The Birds' for a favorite here with 'Marnie' galloping closely behind and most likely after what you have to say, 'Vertigo' in third place for this viewer. From your summary, 'Vertigo' perhaps is the most original of Hitchcock's work and wondering where he found his inspiration for the above. Many thanks for this. Agnes

    1. Thanks Agnes,

      Watching Vertigo is like being taken on an adventure. I particularly like the scenes in which we follow Madeleine without the need for dialogue.

      It's amazing that something this complex and original was made in the late 50s.

  4. That would be the 'touch' of Director Bunuel who became famous for his 'Chien Andalou' in the 30s which the artist Marcel Duchamp had a hand in as well. The originality of 'Vertigo' and its dark complexity stems from these surrealist directors and artists when the movie was made, and makes it stand out from other movies of Hitchcock. Agnes

    1. I've only seen Un Chien Andalou once. It was shown at a Pixies concert before they appeared on stage.