Vertigo - 1958
Director(s): Alfred Hitchcock
Writer(s): Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor (screenplay) / Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (novel)
Cinematography by: Robert Burks
Editor(s): George Tomasini
Cast: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes and Tom Helmore
Synopsis: A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend's wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her (IMDB).
This review will mark my 250th entry in to the void that is the internet. While I have enjoyed this endeavor, many of the reviews, if not all, have been chosen by me. They are movies I wanted to see or wanted to share with my two readers (thanks mom). My 100th (Back to the Future) and my 200th (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) are movies that I love and shaped my obsession with the art of movies. So, this time around I decided that in my 250th I would tackle a movie I have never seen before and put it up as a poll on both my Twitter and my Facebook. After a couple of days, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was chosen and I was bound by law to review it for my two readers.
I didn’t like this movie. There, reviewed. If you like this review let me know in the comment section down below. Not good enough? Fine, let me dive in a bit further.
I’ll start with what I liked about the movie and honestly there is a lot to like – technically.
Alfred Hitchcock as a director is beyond impressive in how his style evolves through the years. He experiments with many techniques and themes, and any young director would benefit from studying his entire filmography. One of the aspect that I liked about this movie is the long takes he employed during long conversations. In order to avoid boredom or staleness within these scenes, he has the actors move around the room and the camera shifts with them, essentially creating different shot compositions without the need of an edit. This is perfectly utilized during the scene where Scottie, played by James Stewart, is recruited by his friend Gavin, played by Tom Helmore, to follow his wife. We see Scottie sitting in a chair while Gavin moves back and forth as he states what’s potentially wrong with his wife. It’s so seamless that the camera barely calls for your attention.
Quick note: Along with experimenting with styles, he was always on the forefront of cinematic technology, which can be seen with Scottie’s dream sequence. The effects of the floating head going down the spiral turning into a cartoon sequence is very well executed and visually impressive. You really feel you are going into Scottie’s psyche.
The use of color coding throughout the movie leads to a visually satisfying experience. I’m going to tie the color coding with one of the best character introductions I’ve seen. Once Scottie takes the case, he is told that Gavin will be dining with his wife at a particular restaurant and that he should be there so he can see her for the first time. The restaurant décor is bright ruby red, from the walls to the chairs, almost like a warning from the universe telling him to stop. Scottie is wearing a blue suit and the majority of the patrons of the restaurant are in blue or grey muted colors, all with the exception of Madeline, played by Kim Novak, in her bright emerald green clothes. Your eyes immediately go towards her as she draws your attention in, mirroring how Scottie feels the instant he sees her. The color green from there on is associated with Madeline, from her car to the street lights. But the best use of that color is the night Scottie saves her from the attempted suicide. She is sleeping in his bed after he saved her (naked for some reason and that is worrisome) and Scottie is wearing a green sweater. The movie is essentially letting us know that Madeline has conquered Scottie’s psyche and he is now fully obsessed with the woman he was hired to follow. Her color is literally wrapping up his body, keeping him warm and protected from the coldness of the outside world. There is more use of this technique throughout but those two are my favorites.
Alright. Good. There. I praised the movie. Now I feel comfortable talking a bit of crap about it. Spoilers ahead.
The story is one that is completely hard to buy and, for that matter, sell. I’ll walk you through it. We have a retired police officer hired by his friend to follow his wife to get proof that she is possessed/crazy. This way he can get the doctors to institutionalize her and she can be safe. The reason why he retired is because he has vertigo and a fear of heights that led one of his co-workers to die during a chase. Once he accepts this case and starts following his friend’s wife, he immediately falls in love with this woman. Madly in love. He is essentially a voyeur/stalker falling in love with his selected subject. They have zero to no interactions with one another, yet the movie wants us to believe that Scottie is madly in love with her and that his life would be in ruins if anything happened to Madeline. Then we find out that the Madeline he has been following is an actress hired by Gavin to be followed and set up the traces of “lunacy”. She also mysteriously falls in love with him, with again zero context of who this man is outside of the fact that he is following her.
Quick note: the pacing and the length of this movie is also a huge deterrent in my enjoyment of it.
I just couldn’t buy into this overly dramatic “I can’t be without you” feeling both these characters connived without it being shown naturally through the narrative. Then we move towards the… twist… where we find that Gavin planned this to kill his wife in a high tower counting on the fact that Scottie would be paralyzed at the bottom of the tower by his fear of heights. Scottie is still obsessed with Madeline and he sees her in the streets. But who he sees is Judy, the actress hired by Gavin, and he proceeds to try to mold her and shape her into Madeline. He is deeply obsessed, and Stewart’s creepy acting is very believable, buying the clothes and shoes she was wearing when he was following her. He even gets her a wig and Judy plays along with this crazy scheme because she is… in love with him. All this lead to the climax in where he takes her to the same tower to reenact the final moments of Madeline’s life and it ends in the same way. She falls and dies. This story is so implausible that it just takes you completely out of the experience.
Quick note: This “mystery” would’ve been a great twist if they didn’t have a scene in where Judy sits down and writes a letter completely confessing to the entire scheme. The audience is 10 steps ahead of Scottie and you are just left waiting for him to catch up to what you already know.
Alright, how about we add some historical context. Years later it came to light that Hitchcock was obsessed with his leading ladies. Some more than others, but all of them were of the same build- petite, blue eyed and blonde. So essentially, we see Hitchcock insert himself in the movie and Stewart is his avatar reenacting every single moment he tried to get his actresses to act and dress exactly the way he desired… for his movies. Maybe it’s my historical context bleeding into my viewing and maybe it’s a “me” issue but it’s a bit disturbing to see the director as this overly obsessed character “in love” with this woman, forcing her to become the perfect blond he has in his head. Especially with the scene I mentioned above in that Judy wakes up naked, alone in an unknown bed with a stranger standing over her telling her that everything is ok and that he loves her. It’s just weird.
Vertigo turns sixty-years-old today and it is widely considered one of the best movies of all-time. If you are one of the fans, more power to you I will never fault someone for loving a movie, I just don’t share the same sentiment. It has impressive techniques employed throughout the runtime and the score (even if I didn’t touch upon it) is beyond wonderful. But the story, the pacing and the wish fulfilment by the man behind the camera just took me out completely of the experience leaving me looking at my watch waiting for it to end. Thank you for voting and thank you for reading and I look forward to exploring more movies through my reviews further expanding my love of cinema. You reading this review right now is why I love talking about movies.
Vertigo is currently available to be rented on multiple streaming services. It’s just a weird movie.
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