Monday, 30 December 2019

Mubi Monday: Vertigo (1958)

When I first saw it, many years ago, The Birds used to be my favourite Alfred Hitchcock movie. I have since changed my mind on that film. Despite the superb set-pieces, there are some other aspects to it that make it a surprisingly weak feature from the master of suspense. And so I moved my love to Psycho. And then Rear Window. Oh, and North By Northwest. The point I am trying to make is that ol' Hitch has a number of contenders that could easily be viewed as his very best. Vertigo should always be in the running.

James Stewart plays a detective, John Ferguson AKA Scottie, who is hired by an old acquaintance to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). There's a building sense that Madeleine is going to do herself some harm, a notion that solidifies into a reality when Madeleine tries to jump into a bay and drown herself. This is only a temporary reprieve, and Vertigo really kicks into gear after the halfway point, which sees Scottie encountering a woman named Judy Barton (Novak), a woman who seems very much like Madeleine in many ways.

It's always easy to admire the works of Hitchcock while also unfairly dismissing them as nothing more than exercises in thrills and tension, yet so many of his movies have a lot more to them than that. It just so happens that it's usually easier to recommend his films without having to go into too much detail. The real exploration and discussion of his classics is left to people who want to write essays, or even whole books, on them. If you think I am going to try and change that with this brief review then you can think again.

What I will do, however, is try to emphasise just why this is one of the greatest films of all time. Because it most certainly is.

Things have a good grounding in the script, by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. Although it's structured in a way that makes some of the 128-minute runtime feel like padding, very few scenes fail to provide food for thought, either in terms of the plotting, the characterisations, or the psychological turbulence of the leads.

Then you have a cast all doing excellent work. Stewart gives another wonderful performance for a director he worked well with, moving from his likeable everyman persona into something darker as the film whirls and dives into ever-darkening waters. Novak gives two performances that are almost flawless, particularly as things develop in the second half of the movie and viewers start to wonder if Judy IS Madeleine, or just someone who looks very much like her. The third main player here is Barbara Bel Geddes as Marjorie Wood AKA Midge, a close friend to Stewart's character, and someone who has similar difficulties to him in processing some complex feelings that she at least manages to manage in a slightly more healthy manner (at least outwardly anyway). There are others (Tom Helmore as the husband of Madeleine, a number of very small roles for characters populating the world that these characters move through, but the focus stays tight on the central pair, for the most part).

Add the masterful direction to this and you have quite the heady brew. Hitchcock isn't afraid to show the psychological cracks deepening and affecting the environments around his leads, and he also manages to show the effects of vertigo with a dolly zoom effect, still used best in both this film and Jaws. Love, obsession, control, regret, madness, all of these things and more are explored in Vertigo, in a flowing and beautiful series of scenes, accompanied by yet another one of the best music scores from Bernard Herrmann.

Watch it, take it all in, watch it again, take more in, and be sure to have it to hand whenever you want to enjoy an absolute classic.


This is the set to get. It is stunning.

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