Friday, October 28, 2016


Vertigo (1958) is Alfred Hitchcock's most ambitious and hypnotic movie. Forgoing the man-accused-of-a-crime-he-didn't-commit narrative and globetrotting race against time for the McGuffin, he instead tells a twisted tale of doomed love, obsession, and a man's attempt to reshape one woman into his fantasy. All the while, it's wrapped up tightly in a crackerjack mystery story that builds not to a violent chase at the climax but a warped, heartbreaking revelation.

Acrophobic detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) has just quit the police force after his fear of heights caused an officer to fall to his death. Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old friend of his, approaches asking for a favor. His wife has been acting strange, almost as if she has been possessed by another person altogether. He wants Scottie to follow her, find out what's going on, whether she's going insane or if something else is happening. Scottie takes the job, and before long, he falls hopelessly in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak).

Hitchcock pioneered the "Vertigo" effect with this movie, also known as the dolly zoom. As the camera physically moves in toward the subject in focus, the operator uses the lens to zoom out. The subject remains unchanged but the perspective of the background becomes distorted. In the case of Vertigo, the simulate Scottie's unease with great heights, the shot elongates the distance to the ground, making a great height seem that much greater and more perilous.

I bring the "Vertigo" effect up because it's part of the surreal, dream-like trance Hitchcock places on the film. When Scottie begins following Madeleine, the camera has a sort of haze or softness that creates the effect of a dream. Things move a little slower, a little more graceful, and how fitting: Madeleine comes to be Scottie's dream girl. When the two finally kiss, they're along the coastline, and waves batter the shore as the music swells.

Color is important, too. Scottie first sees Madeleine at a club, the walls are all red, but she's wearing a green gown, an emerald in the midst of all this intrigue and all these possible threats that emerge as the movie continues.

It's impossible to continue talking about the movie without discussing spoilers, so be warned. Madeleine seemingly kills herself, pushing Scottie further into anguish, shame, despair, and possible mental breakdown. Her presence seems to haunt him as he goes to all of her old haunts, seeing things that remind him of her.

Then, he sees Judy Barton (also played by Novak), a redheaded girl he becomes fixated on. He begins to reshape her, making her dress and act like Madeleine, treating her like a real-life Barbie doll, even making her dye her hair platinum blond. What he doesn't realize is that Judy and Madeleine are one in the same. It was part of a murder scheme orchestrated by Gavin, and Scottie was the sucker.

Yep, Vertigo is warped, and it casts one of the most iconic American actors as the most warped: Jimmy Stewart, he of the saint-like, aw-shucks demeanor. True, he was manipulated, emotionally tortured, and has his heart broken twice, but that wouldn't have happened if he hadn't so willingly gone along with it, if he hadn't so desperately tried to control and reshape another person to his fantasies and desires. He clung to a dream, even though it wasn't real.

The tragedy of it was Judy really fell in love with him. Try as she might - wear the dress, cut her hair and dye it, dance with him at the club - she'll never be Madeleine because that Madeleine was never real. By the end, history repeats itself, and the results are dire.

Vertigo is set in San Francisco, and Hitchcock brings it to life. The city is practically another character: the winding seaside roads, the Golden Gate bridge, the historic architecture. It gives the movie a real sense of time and place, which ironically doesn't detract from the dream-like atmosphere. It seems fitting, almost like remembering a far off, distance place.

Vertigo is a such a different kind of thriller, one built on character psychology and secrets rather than chases and action, and it's one of Hitchcock's finest.

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