By the time those words are uttered we already know that our main character John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) suffers from debilitating acrophobia that brings about his symptoms of vertigo. We know that after a particularly traumatic onset, Scottie, a former Lawyer of "independent means" has been forced to retire from the San Francisco Police Force and muses to his best friend (and former lover) Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) about what the hell he's going to do now.
That's where an old college chum named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) comes in and poses that very question to Scottie. Could someone from history enter Elster's wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and possess her? Elster convinces Scottie that this is the case and hires him, this time as a private detective, to follow and investigate Madeleine in the hopes of finding out if she truly is possessed by the unquiet spirit of her ancestor Carlotta Valdes (played, when seen, by Joanne Genthon).
Sound like quite a set up? It most assuredly is. Additionally, by the time those words are uttered we still have almost two full hours of screen time for the story to play out!
And play out, it most certainly does in this vintage Hitchcock classic. The screenplay by Alec Coppel, Samuel Taylor and Maxwell Anderson is based on the French novel Sueurs froides: d'entre les morts ("Cold Sweat: From Among the Dead") by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (as "Boileau-Narcejac"), a novel hand picked by Hitchcock to adapt.
Not that critics tended to get it upon its initial release. Vertigo is a meandering and complex story that branches out wildly from its central plot into unexpected territories. That goes especially for the time in which it was released. Since that time many of these elements have been re-used in spoof films like High Anxiety and rip-offs so direct, they might as well have been spoofs like Body Double! Needless to say the initial core plot of a vertigo-afflicted Investigator helping a woman who may be possessed by a ghost is far, far, far, far, far from where the tense and intense plot ends up... even at the half-way point.
What makes Vertigo work is the brilliant way that Hitchcock takes the admittedly implausible concepts (like Possession) and makes them into a believable mystery. Naturally, this is no Exorcist! It's not that Madeleine necessarily IS possessed. The important part is that Kim Novak makes the audience believe that she believes it! This allows this strange shock suspense story about identity, deception and terror progress in its brilliant way. We all know Hitchcock has a surprise of some kind for us, but what that is, we can't truly guess.
Confusion, for some but enrichment for others might be experienced due to the fact that somewhere just past the half-way mark, Vertigo becomes an entirely second movie, almost a sequel to itself with a different mood and feel but much of the same nightmarish characteristics. Nightmare can be the key word here, especially as we delve deeply into the mind of Scottie Ferguson. These sequences and many others serve to push the movie from "very good" into "great" territory. The true evocation of silent emotion (especially surrounding Jimmy Stewart) and the tasteful use of special effects and trick photography truly bring the viewer into the mind and mystery of the characters.
Truly, this is a credit to the actors almost as much as to the writers and Hitchcock himself. Stewart, Geddes and Novak are all perfect for their roles and bring a realism to their respective plights. Likewise the supporting actors give a balance to what is, without question, an intentionally dizzying feature film.
And, of course, as with the best of Hitchcock, the real keys here are the parts that the audience is privy to that no other character has any idea about. The revelations that pp up and make the viewer feel like a willing conspirator have a tendency to keep the audience enthralled and fascinated with the proceedings, all the while knowing just where the film ought to go, whether it's going there or not. Just where Vertigo is going can't be revealed until we experience dips in the San Francisco Bay, weird revelations through the redwood forest and paralyzing heights that bring us toward a fantastic finish.
A strange twinge is felt here and there when it comes to the role of women in Vertigo, particularly toward the second half. There is an uncomfortable feeling of manipulation here that the first-time viewer may pick up on when analyzing certain characters. However, it's not quite clear that this is at all intended to be reflective of women on the whole, especially considering the strong, independent women that do appear in this film. Further, a deeper understanding of the story and what is behind each motivation (deeper than I might offer without spoilers) shows that this is not truly the reality of the fiction, but another layer therein. In short, such a claim can be dismissed almost as easily as the theory that Stewart was "too old" for his role.
All told, Vertigo is among Hitchcock's very best, which says something in and of itself. It's a complex and fascinating narrative that requires multiple viewings to truly enjoy to its fullest. Stewart is excellent, Geddes is great and Novak is beautiful and wonderful in her role! Five Stars out of Five for Hitchcock's Vertigo, the mysterious, suspenseful almost-ghost-story that welcomes you into its nightmare... but might never let you out! For Hitchcock fans and fans of classic dramas, do not miss Vertigo, no matter what planet you're from. Make no mistake, though... this is far from a "feel good picture"! The tension never stops and it's hard to imagine all that many people reaching the closing credits with anything remotely resembling a warm and fuzzy feeling! Word to the wise... it's not meant to cheer you up on a down day, kiddos! So until a case of mistaken identity finds us both at the top of a bell-tower, spinning in vertigo and suspended in mystery... I'll see you in the next reel!
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