Classic Film Reviews: Vertigo

This is part of a weekly blog series in which I review a classic film every Wednesday. Last week, I covered Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, a film I consider to be the last of the classic Western genre. This week, I’m reviewing what many believe to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film, ‘Vertigo’.

The year is 1958 and Alfred Hitchcock reached celebrityhood. After winning over audiences both on the big screen and the small screen, Hitchcock quickly became one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. On a yearly basis, Hitchcock wrote and directed a film that many laud today as classics. At this time, Hitchcock was more than a director, he became a face people recognized thanks to his popular television program. It seemed that Hitchcock could do no wrong in the eyes of critics and fans. That is, until he released ‘Vertigo’, a film that challenged conventions he was known for and thwarted the expectations of audiences. Critics gave the film tepid reviews and fans were not thrilled with its departure from the thriller genre. Ironically, this lukewarm reception was aimed at not only what was perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest film, but one of the best films ever made.

The brilliance of ‘Vertigo’ is difficult to fully explore within a Medium blog post without going into an entire collegiate essay, but the best way to summate why the film is highly regarded as a masterpiece is to understand what it doesn’t do. As previously mentioned, ‘Vertigo’ is not a thriller film. It’s a story about obsession and the consequences that arise from it. The narrative is much more allegorical in nature, which would explain why the mystery is treated as a MacGuffin of sorts before the last act of the film. ‘Vertigo’ isn’t about solving a mystery, despite the story following a detective solve a mystery. The audience doesn’t need the know the answer to the mystery, rather they need to know the ramifications of John Ferguson’s, nicknamed Scottie (James Stewart) pursuit of Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak).

‘Vertigo’ engages in the act of misdirection and misconception in such a way where the audience does not even trust the story. Scottie’s character arc from a timid, apprehensive detective to a desperate stalker being torn apart by his own nightmares showcases how obsession can warp someone into a different person. Of course, John’s transformation is not his own doing, but it demonstrates how the audience shouldn’t always root for the protagonist. None of these are particularly revolutionary narrative choices, but how ‘Vertigo’ unravels the story is what keeps the film constantly enthralling.

The opening sequence (which follows the masterfully done opening credits sequence done by the legendary Saul Bass) would suggest that this film is a suspenseful crime thriller with two cops chasing after a criminal upon the rooftops. Immediately, the film hooks you in, despite cleverly telling you a lie. It is not an action-packed thriller, but a slow, surrealist film wearing a film noir coat. This is the only intense action sequence the film offers the audience a glimpse to a completely different story. We never see the culprit running away from the officers again. We never learn more of the officer who fell off the roof trying to rescue Ferguson hanging from the storm drain. With minimal dialogue or context, the audience is thrown into a film that refuses to slow down and breathe. Little do they know ‘Vertigo’ has a slow, meandering plot structure that mostly focuses on the confusing relationship between Ferguson and Madeleine.

Contrary to Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’, ’‘Vertigo’ is not an exciting film to watch. Several scenes are primarily Ferguson slowly tracking down Madeleine in his car accompanied by a drawling (yet still beautiful!)score by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Despite the monotonous, slow nature of the story in the first hour, the thin layer of intrigue and elusiveness compels the audience to examine every detail that Ferguson finds during his attentive study of Madeleine. This intriguing sluggishness also amplifies the beauty of ‘Vertigo’s cinematography. The vibrancy of the colors, moodiness of the prevailing shadows, and breathtaking scale of certain structures. Some people consider cinema to be “paintings in motion” and ‘Vertigo’ is certainly the film that comes to mind when thinking of that phrase. You could place the iconic Golden Gate Bridge shot in an art museum and nobody would complain.

‘Vertigo’ is a surprisingly atmospheric film, especially for a Hitchcock film. Hitchcock is notorious for stitching together complex narratives that necessitates mountains of dialogue and exposition. ‘Vertigo’ bucks that trend and primarily tells the story through the lens of Scottie’s conscience. One could argue that ‘Vertigo’ is a dream film, which is entirely plausible with the nightmare sequence that occurs. There are certainly distinct auras people could identify with a Hitchcock movie, such as the droning music and the slower moments that precede a shocking event in the story. ‘Vertigo’ certainly has some shocking twists, especially with the abrupt ending that still has my head spinning (pun intended). However, ‘Vertigo’ primarily communicates its story through emotion, which is both expressed by the actor’s performances and the color of the scene.

We do not hear the voice of Madeleine until nearly an hour into the film and the audience spends dozens of minutes in silence as Scottie patiently watches her wander. This is not a noticeable silence either, which further illustrates the inefficiency of dialogue in cinema. As a visual medium, the director and cinematographer can provide the audience with a deluge of information without a single word being spoken. When dialogue is needed to elaborate on untied knots in the story, it is sometimes ejected towards the audience with minimal care. The last scene in particular explains the major twist through hastily spoken lines by a panicked character. I missed crucial information because it was spoken so quickly. Normally, this would be a flaw in the script, but ‘Vertigo’ is not meant to be a narrative-driven film in the first place.

It chronicles the mental deterioration of a man who manages to overcome a petrifying fear while causing anguish to those around him in the process. Scottie is entrapped in a nightmare that repeats the same terrifying conclusion that has haunted him ever since the beginning of the film. It goes beyond reason to claim that ‘Vertigo’ does not sufficiently explore the mysteries when the focus of the film is on the unconscious realities of the main protagonist. ‘Vertigo’ is Hitchcock’s first major endeavor into surrealism and what an achievement it was.

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Peter Finaldi

Graduate at Rutgers University. Writes about movies, video games, and anything else that I find interesting. My twitter: @PeterJFinaldi