By Marc S. Sanders
Never would I think Alfred Hitchcock would enter the world of the supernatural. At least of all that I’ve read about him and the films I’ve seen to date, I do not recall tales of ghosts and ghouls from the master of suspense. Yet, as I’m watching his classic, psychological film, Vertigo, I’m questioning the territory that Hitch has entered.
James Stewart returned to work with Hitchcock in 1958. He plays Police Detective John “Scotty” Ferguson who opts to retire following a frightening encounter involving a foot chase over the rooftops of San Francisco. When he succumbs to his debilitating fear of heights, a police man loses his life in the process. Scotty just can’t go on.
He is recruited by his wealthy industrialist friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to shadow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novack). Gavin is concerned that Madeleine may be suicidal, because it is becoming not too unreasonable to consider that perhaps a woman from the past has taken possession of her. Scotty is reluctant of course, and it all sounds like a bunch of nonsense. Yet, he accepts the assignment.
Vertigo may be a classic film, known by millions worldwide, but I won’t dare utter any hint of what’s to come. Scotty’s pursuit of Madeleine continues to spiral into new inventive twists like Alfred Hitchcock always took advantage of. The film could have ended on several different notes, and its running time could have been shorter. However, Hitch lay insistent on peeling back more of the onion.
I was fortunate to see the movie following a painstaking restoration after the film was uncovered to be in terrible shape. Now, it is preserved on 4K disc, and Vertigo is tantamount to the necessity of 4K. Firstly, as Scotty continues to oversee where Madeline goes and what she does, Hitchcock keeps much of her activity bathed in a rich emerald green. Green almost works like breadcrumbs for Scotty. She drives a green car. Many of her elegant dresses have green in them. Hitchcock lights many of her scenes in green. Oddly enough though, while green is so apparent from Scotty’s perspective, Madeleine’s overall purpose and intent is such an enigma. So, film historians proudly recall how the most popular outfit for the bleach blond Novack to wear in the film is a plain, simple grey suit which tells us nothing. Grey is melancholy, seeming to express no kind of emotion. Not fear, or anger or love, or happiness or sadness. The suit even becomes a significant plot point later in the picture. The woman is there plain as day, at times shining in the emerald car, or beneath a green light, but why is she there?
As well, Scotty’s continued pursuit and eventual love affair with Madeleine overcomes him and he spirals into a madness highlighted in reds and blues and oranges with spiral lines turning into bottomless pits. Hitchcock even imposes haunting animation to show how Scotty’s mind is splintering and falling away from any depth of reality.
I have seen clips of the original film and the colors are so faded out. It takes you out of the picture. The color is so pertinent to the narrative of Vertigo that there was no question. The movie had to be restored. Watch this movie on 4K. You won’t regret it.
Have you looked at the well-known marquee poster for Vertigo lately? It is definitely one that’s consistent to dizzying turns and descents to overtake the movie.
Furthermore, the opening credits of the film zoom into the pupil of a woman’s eye and then spiral sketches start to turn and spin. It’s easy to connect this to the side effects of Scotty’s acrophobia. He gets dizzy. His visual perspective draws him out of measured reality. As the film progresses, though, it goes further than that. Hitchcock turns Scotty into a man crippled with obsession.
I heard my Cinephile colleagues discuss this film recently, implying that Vertigo is not their favorite. They didn’t like James Stewart’s character. For one thing he falls in love with Madeleine, his friend’s wife. The Cad!!! Later, he invokes unequivocal dominance over a new woman he meets in the second half of the picture. (I won’t say much more, here.) He insists the woman dress like Madeleine and do her hair and makeup like Madeleine. She also needs to walk like her too. Stewart and Hitchcock really put this protagonist through the ringer. He’s first crippled with a fear of heights. However, dominant obsession interferes with him as well. Is it the acrophobia that is so debilitating, or is it a sick obsession that comes into play?
San Francisco is an ironic setting for a film where the main character has a fear of heights. It’s made up of steep hills that descend from high tops, or ascend into the sky. Try climbing the staircases that stand upon these hills and now you are even closer to the heavens and further away from the ground. How could a guy like Scotty Ferguson live in such a city? Yet, here it is. Maybe it was a sick, subtle joke of Hitchcock. I think it’s a nice touch to amplify the suspense.
James Stewart is just as good here as he was in Rear Window. The likable fellow who serves as a sponge to what’s laid out before him. If he absorbs too much though it could defeat him altogether. Much of the suspense Hitchcock is known for, stems from this thread line. Stewart’s Hitchcockian characters get drunk on needing to know more, and delve even further. The audience can’t help but get intoxicated with him.
Kim Novack is radiant. She gives an especially incredible acting performance. Through the first half of the picture, she’s quiet and reserved laying credence to what Gavin suggests to Scotty. Is she being possessed by a young woman with odd resemblances too her, who killed herself back in the 1800s? Is it something else? Her turn in the second half of the picture leaves you questioning if you are even watching the Kim Novack. An amazing double performance from her that lends to one of the twists that Vertigo offers.
Pictures like Vertigo and Rear Window are so important for people to see. These films laid the groundwork for much of the horror, macabre and disturbingly mysterious stories shown today. They are pioneering films that only invent what needs to be shown. In other words, they don’t get diverted in overcompensating with action and gore. Many films that derived from Vertigo desperately turn to blood and over the top stunts and visual effects. Alfred Hitchcock thought about how the actors, the settings and wardrobe, along with his cameras, would capture the terror and embrace the unknown. Filmmakers need to continue learning from a craftsman like him.