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Five-Star Movies: Vertigo (1958)

Five-Star Movies: Vertigo (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by dorrk
27 March 2018

If I do what you tell me, will you love me?

I last watched Vertigo, for (I think) the second time, in 2012 while exploring some movies on Sight and Sound's most recent poll as I recovered from knee surgery. It was at that point that I exalted it into the rarefied company of my few 5-star movies. It's easily Hitchcock's most intoxicating combination of color and sound, and arguably James Stewart's most complicated performance. It also addresses a subject which seems to play very well for me: Obsession.

I also, however, have misgivings about Vertigo. For one, I hate the very ending. Both how it's handled and its substance. Its gimmickry suggests that Hitchcock simply ran out of ideas, and it plays almost as if it was haphazardly created in the editing room out of inconclusive footage. If Hitchcock had a purpose behind this ending, I instinctively reject it*. It feels like a gag at the wrong place and the wrong time by someone who should know better.

Secondly, Vertigo flirts with one of my movie pet peeves, but I'd have to go into spoilers to really get into that. I'll just say that something within the plot seems to be needlessly elaborate, and that a person chosen to do something is preposterously good and dedicated at what ends up being a pretty complex task. All of that, of course, is secondary to Hitchcock, who is really after the mood, the psychology and the sex of it all, which he absolutely nails — and he does so with such elegance and feeling (and perversity) that Vertigo has a haunting permanence few movies will ever achieve.

Bernard Herrmann's score is so enveloping, I sometimes wonder why every movie doesn't just license and recycle it. Robert Burks was cinematographer for my favorite Hitchcock era, the 1950s through the early 1960s, shooting all of my favorites except for PSYCHO. Even as part of this vibrant hot streak, Vertigo manages to feature an almost unprecedented number of perfect images for one movie, with the added bonus that these aren't simply feats of art direction and composition, but also of meaning.

Also, Barbara Bel Geddes. As terrific as Kim Novak is at playing a role of which possibly too much is asked, Bel Geddes is my object of obsession each time I watch Vertigo. For a supporting character who conveniently disappears when not needed, it’s a surprisingly rich and nuanced performance, and I need to further consider how Midge figures into Hitchcock’s overall vision for this frustratingly great movie.

* There's a compelling argument to be made that Vertigo was a deeply personal movie to Hitchcock, who was notorious for his meticulous attention to the ideal of a certain type of blonde woman. It's difficult to watch Vertigo and not see Hitchcock's own obsession in Stewart's character, as he carefully recreates his own vision of how a particular woman should look. In this light, the ending of Vertigo becomes less a joke than tragic self-flagellation on the part of a director acknowledging his own impotence. Still, within the context of the movie, it plays like a bit of a tortured gag, unless we are to equate Scotty's denial of the devoted Midge, in pursuit of an unattainable and fictional woman, as a moral failure commensurate with Hitchcock's decades of frustrated lechery.

Five Star Movies: Vertigo (1958)

Trailer for Vertigo (1958)