“And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil too, weren’t you? You were a very apt pupil! Well, why did you pick on me? Why me?” Scottie asks Judy.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has been touted as one of his great masterpieces for many years. I first came across the film in my Film Analysis class in college over a decade ago (it was a lead-up to the actual Hitchcock film that we were going to analyze: Psycho). I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the film wasn’t very successful when it first came out. I liked the film a lot when I saw it in my class and hoped that I’d get a chance to see it on the big screen one day. Seven years later, I finally got that chance at the Chelsea Cinemas in New York City as part of their Thursday night Chelsea Classics, and I enjoyed the film even more. Luckily enough, I got to see it on the big screen again two years ago, this time at Film Forum in a brand new DCP restoration. The difference in quality was clear; it was quite possibly the most gorgeous DCP restoration I’ve ever seen.
Based on the novel D’Entre Les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, 1958’s Vertigo centers on a former police detective named Scottie who’s been forced into early retirement due to the vertigo and clinical depression that he developed in the line of duty (particularly after failing to save a fellow policeman who was hanging from a rooftop during a chase). He’s hired some time later by an old friend as a private investigator to follow his friend’s wife, who is behaving oddly. Things become complicated when he falls in love with her and becomes entangled in a tragic romance. Hitchcock’s tale of tragic love and extreme obsession became one of the greatest movies ever made (it became #1 in the BFI’s Sight and Sound critics poll in 2012, replacing Citizen Kane). Hitchcock was able to get great performances from his cast, especially James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. His choices for shot compositions and use of cinematography were creative and inspiring (not to mention effective). The combination of a forward zoom and reverse camera tracking to create the vertigo effect successfully creates a disorienting effect on both Scottie and the viewers, and has since been famously used in one variation or another in other movies (such as 1975’s Jaws and 1990’s Goodfellas) ever since. Then there’s Saul Bass’ unforgettable opening title sequence, which alone should hook viewers into watching the film.
Robert Burks’ almost dreamlike cinematography, while dark and subtle, enhanced the film, making the most of the high-quality VistaVision process. He used a palette that is lush with browns, greens, and reds (as evidenced by such shots of the art museum, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the sequoias in the forest). He often uses these colors to heighten emotion (like in the forest, where Madeleine appears dreamlike, and in Judy’s apartment, which is dominated by green). The growing obsession displayed by Scottie in the film mirrors Hitchcock’s real-life obsession with blondes (of all the Hitchcock characters who display obsessive behavior, Scottie’s obsessions are the closest to matching Hitchcock’s). The costume designs by Edith Head were just splendid, as was the Oscar-nominated production design (the restaurant scene where Scottie sees Madeleine for the first time is a classic example on how the combination of production design, cinematography, music, costume design, and shot composition can create a memorable, albeit brief, scene). Bernard Hermann’s marvelous score is filled with mystery and a foreboding sense of tragedy. His love theme is also one of the best ever composed. Vertigo contains one of James Stewart’s greatest performances of all time, and will only continue to grow in its classic status. This is one film that is NOT to be missed!
The restaurant scene: