Oscar-winningJames StewartBarbara Bel GeddesKim Novak
Medium: film
Year: 1958
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor, Pierre Boileau, Thomas Narcejac
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, The Five Lost Hitchcocks
Country: USA
Actor: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore, Henry Jones, Raymond Bailey, Ellen Corby, Konstantin Shayne, Lee Patrick
Format: 128 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052357/
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 14 May 2010
It's the film that keeps getting called Hitchcock's greatest, but if you read a few reviews you'll find a lot of its biggest fans saying they didn't appreciate it on their first viewing. It also wasn't that successful on original release, either critically or commercially, for which Hitchcock blamed his actors and never worked with his former favourite James Stewart again.
Even when the French were re-evaluating Hitchcock as an auteur, Vertigo didn't get any special attention. It was only later that its reputation went nuclear, almost certainly helped by the fact that it was one of the Five Lost Hitchcocks that were bought back from the studios by Hitchcock, left in his will to his daughter and then unavailable commercially until 1983. Interestingly enough, it's particularly worshipped by other filmmakers. Hitchcock famously invented the dolly zoom for it, for instance, although he'd wanted to use the technique in Rebecca (1940) and only hadn't because film technology back then hadn't been good enough. That's a shot where the camera zooms in while moving away or vice-versa, which keeps the subject of the shot a constant size while doing subtly unsettling things to the background.
They say that it's Hitchcock's most personal film, reflecting his relationships with his actresses. It's also his most analysed, if only because Hitchcock gives away the big plot twist with half an hour still to go and thereafter heads like a freight train at his characters' damaged psyches.
Personally, I agree with both sides. You could spend a lifetime trying to plumb how deeply screwed up this film is, but I can't disagree with Hitchcock when afterwards he blamed his actors. This is a disturbing, intense story of love and obsession in which the woman isn't sexy and the man isn't intense. James Stewart's too nice. After all, this is a man who can say without irony, "Oh gee whiz, I wouldn't like that." As a thought experiment, try imagining his role here in the hands of someone like Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken or even Ray Winstone. An obvious heavyweight with a real sense of danger would have made for a much more predictable and hence less interesting film, but it would also have been more powerful. Kim Novak meanwhile is drifting through the film like some kind of ethereal alien, damaged and unapproachable. Theoretically she's a femme fatale, you know. Hitchcock was obviously wrong when he decided Stewart had got too old to appeal to audiences, but I can't say this screen partnership ever conjured much chemistry or sexuality. I don't even really blame their age difference, because the detached sterility comes from Novak as much as Stewart.
However that said, this eccentricity is what gives the film its greatness. I don't know to what extent it was deliberate, but there's something personal and disturbing in the way Hitchcock takes one of the nicest men in the world, then twists him into something a long way from anything a healthy man would recognise. It's about how men can ignore the love of a good woman and instead throw themselves like lemmings into something much less healthy. It's about treating women as objects, to be reshaped to fit your own desires.
Besides, Stewart's such a good actor that even when miscast he's still well worth watching. The most important thing he brings to the film is his ability to hold an audience, keeping you caring about him and even paradoxically identifying with him no matter what his behaviour. A lot of actors would have simply lost us. Furthermore it seems clear that at least with Novak, Hitchcock was deliberately going for a sense of otherness. Of course they don't have chemistry! That would be too normal. Novak never stops being defined by her otherworldly image, even when she's technically shed it. She's certainly not the traditional sex bomb, for instance, as with that elderly-looking white hair and unflattering grey clothes. Pretty much every choice in this film avoids the obvious. There's something delicate about it, almost fragile.
One of my favourite touches, incidentally, is how charmingly bad Stewart is at shadowing Novak. Anyone with eyes should have spotted him in minutes. He looks like a stalker... and again that might seem to have been the intention.
The acting isn't quite as great as you might expect from a Hitchcock film. Stewart's a master of his craft, but eccentrically cast. Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes are efficiently doing as they're told, but you wouldn't call either of them a superstar and it's not an affront against decency that Bel Geddes ended up a regular on Dallas whereas with Novak it was Falcon Crest. There are also several scenes where actors have to deliver exposition about people and things we've never seen, which Novak and Tom Helmore don't bring alive as effectively as Stewart and that guy in the bookshop. One could find plot justifications for that, though.
The story's nuts. The identity issues are theoretically very Hitchcock, but the psychological and even supernatural slants he's taking on them aren't. Plot for once is taking a back seat, as is underlined by the early reveal, but it's a surprise to realise afterwards that Hitchcock's taking this to such an extent that he's leaving plot holes. So what was going on at the hotel, then?
This is a mad film. You could study its filmmaking for years, with a famous Bernard Herrman score and Hitchcock putting as much echoing and reflection into the visual symbolism as there is in the script. If nothing else, you've got to love the bit where Stewart has a pop art nightmare made of Disney animation, hippy disco lights and a spinning cardboard cut-out. It was nominated for two of the technical Oscars, by the way: Art Direction (sets) and Sound. More fundamental than that for me though is the fact that the storyline didn't need a writer so much as a psychoanalyst. I'm particularly fascinated by the way in which Hitchcock's use of Stewart and Novak forces us to identify with the former and share in his objectification of the latter, which makes this a much more subtly disturbing film than something that might have merely tried to scare us.
I'd never seen this film before, despite having seen the Sledge Hammer parody version, and I think I was a bit bewildered by its tone. It's not right in the head, frankly. However for me, that's what makes it special.