VERTIGO – 1958 – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★
Color – 128 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Kim Novak (Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster), James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Barbara Bel Geddes (Marjorie “Midge” Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry Jones (Coroner).
Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor, based on the novel D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Costumes by Edith Head
Title sequence designed by Saul Bass
(My analysis of Vertigo will be divided into two parts.)
In 1956 Paramount purchased two books as potential Alfred Hitchcock projects: Flamingo Feather, and D’entre Les Morts (From Among the Dead). He was planning to make Flamingo Feather first; it was announced in the trade papers as his next movie, and he went so far as to take a trip to South Africa, scouting locations for the movie. What he saw there discouraged him. He felt the movie would be costly, and the political subject matter touchy. So after returning to Hollywood, he scrapped this movie for From Among the Dead, the movie that would become Vertigo.
Alfred Hitchcock sometimes chose his projects based on one particular scene or concept in the source material that intrigued him. He wanted to make Psycho because of the shower murder; he wanted to make Marnie because of the honeymoon rape scene; and he wanted to make Vertigo because of the idea of a man remaking a woman into the image of another woman, now dead. This idea of lost love and obsession was very intriguing to Hitchcock.
Vera Miles as Madeline? Initially, Vera Miles was cast in the role of Madeline. Hitchcock had signed Vera to an exclusive 5-year contract. He had starred her in the pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, an episode that Hitchcock directed himself. He then gave her the leading role in his film The Wrong Man, in which Miles gives one of the great performances in the Hitchcock canon, as a woman who loses her grip on reality when her husband is wrongfully accused of a crime. Next on the agenda for her was Vertigo. Hitchcock was convinced that this film would make her a star. Below you can see a photo of an early costume test of Vera Miles as Madeline.
Shortly after this photo was taken, Vera announced to Hitchcock that she was pregnant. He would now have to recast the role. He ultimately settled on Kim Novak, borrowing her from Columbia Pictures. Hitchcock was extremely unhappy with Vera Miles, although he did direct her two more times before her contract expired; once more for television, and finally as Lila Crane in Psycho.
Titles by Saul Bass: Alfred Hitchcock hired famous graphic designer Saul Bass to design the title sequence for Vertigo. Saul Bass was one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. Familiar logos designed by Bass are still used by many major corporations, and his movie posters are works of art. Bass believed that a movie’s title sequence should not just be a dull scroll of names; he thought the titles could serve as a sort of prologue to the film. Bass said “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.” His work on Vertigo is arguably his best.
The sequence begins with a close up of the lower portion of a woman’s face. The camera focuses on her lips, then moves up to her eyes, finally zooming in on her right eye. The film title actually comes out of her eye. This is followed by several spiral designs. These spirals were created for Bass by a man named John Whitney. Whitney had to use an early computer which would plot the graphs of 19th century parametric equations and draw them perfectly on paper. What the audience is seeing here is one of the earliest uses of computer graphics in a movie.
Of course it is impossible to talk about the title sequence without mentioning the great score of Bernard Herrmann, which is perfectly married to Bass’ titles, creating an unforgettable opening to the film.
The film opens with a rooftop chase, the city of San Francisco acting as a backdrop. Jimmy Stewart is police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson, and he and a policeman are chasing a third man. Who is this man and what is his crime? We never learn.
An errant jump leaves Scottie hanging on for dear life. The policeman attempts to pull Scottie up, but loses his balance and falls, presumably to his death. Scottie discovers that he has vertigo, and if ever there was a bad time to learn that, it’s while you’re hanging from the side of a tall building.
The movie then cuts to an apartment interior, with San Francisco visible out the window. Here sit Scottie and his friend (and former fiancee) Midge. Scottie is holding a cane, and mentions a corset that is going to be removed soon. How did he get injured? Is the implication that he fell from the roof, and survived? We never do learn just how he got down from there.
The expository dialogue here informs us that Scottie is now retired, because of his vertigo. We can also plainly see from Midge’s looks that she still has feelings for Scottie. He mentions that he is going to pay a call on an old college acquaintance that got in touch with him.
I could point how how perfect this scene is; how the set design, costumes, dialogue and acting all paint such a perfect picture of these two characters, their current position in life and with each other, but I could say the same of any scene in this movie. The technical construction of this film is near perfect.
Next (after Hitch’s cameo) we go to the interior of Gavin Elster’s office. Elster is the old college chum who called up Scotty. Once again, the set is exquisite.
Elster wants Scottie to follow his wife. She is acting strange, leaving for long periods of time, and he wants to know why. Scottie is reluctant, but Elster convinces him to go to a restaurant that night where the Elsters will be dining, so he can see her.
(For a continuing look at the film’s sequences, and the introduction of Madeleine, see Vertigo Part Two.)
Performance: This film is very well cast, and every performance is great. First notice has to go to Kim Novak, who I believe pulls off the greatest performance by a female lead in any Hitchcock film. She is essentially playing two roles, both of them multi-layered. There are rumors that Hitchcock partially blamed Jimmy Stewart for this film’s initial box office failings; that perhaps he was too old to play the part. I don’t know if Hitchcock truly felt this way, but I disagree completely. Scottie Ferguson had to be older; the fact that he is a seasoned detective makes the film all the more powerful. Stewart shows us a darker, obsessive side seldom if ever seen on the screen outside of this performance. Barbara Bel Geddes also shows her range in the part of Midge, Scottie’s friend who clearly still has feelings for him.
Source material: The screenplay is based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, a French duo who co-wrote over a dozen novels together. The film retains the basic plot of the novel, with some minor changes. The book begins in France, during the Second World War. A prosperous shipbuilder named Gevigne asks an old schoolmate named Flavieres to follow his wife. There is a similar set-up as in the novel, with Gevigne telling Flavieres that his wife Madeleine (the one named retained for the movie) appears to be haunted by the spirit of her great-grandmother. Just as in the film, the protagonist has vertigo; he falls in love with “Madeleine”; and he watches in horror as she falls from a church tower. At this point in the novel comes the German occupation, which makes a nice point to divide the story. Years later, after the war, Flavieres sees a woman that reminds him of Madeleine. Just as in the film, he courts her, dates her, and ultimately gets her to confess to the plot, which is the same as in the movie. Although in the novel, Flavieres, consumed with rage, begins choking the woman (named Renee in the book), and without realizing what he is doing, strangles her to death. An even darker ending than the movie.
Recurring players: Jimmy Stewart had earlier appeared in Rope, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Tom Helmore had appeared in a couple of very early Hitchcock films, The Ring and Secret Agent. Paul Bryar (Captain Hansen) had uncredited roles in Notorious and The Wrong Man. Bess Flowers (the Queen of the Hollywood extras) appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films. Fred Graham (the policeman who falls at the beginning) earlier played a policeman in Rear Window. Forbes Murray (one of the diners at Ernies) had earlier played the judge in Dial M For Murder. Jeffrey Sayre (another diner at Ernie’s) also had small uncredited appearences in Saboteur, Notorious, and North by Northwest.
Academy Awards: It seems shocking today to learn that Vertigo was only nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Sound) winning neither.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 11:40 mark. He crosses left to right in front of Gavin Elster’s shipyard. He carries a strange-shaped case in his hands. People speculated for years that it must be a musical instrument; a trumpet, perhaps? That is actually a case for a manual foghorn! Very appropriate, considering the movie’s locale.
What Hitch said: In summing up the plot, Hitchcock says to Truffaut: “To put it plainly, the man wants to go to bed with a woman who’s dead; he is indulging in a form of necrophilia.”
He also says:
Cinematically, all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around. What I liked best is when the girl came back after having had her hair dyed blond. James Steward is disappointed because she hasn’t put her hair up in a bun. What this really means is that the girl has almost stripped, but she still won’t take her knickers off. When he insists, she says, “All right!” and goes into the bathroom while he waits outside. What Stewart is really waiting for is for the woman to emerge totally naked this time, and ready for love.
Definitive edition: The 2014 Universal blu ray release (which is also available as part of the Masterpiece Collection box set) is the best version available. Picture and sound are absolutely sublime. The disc includes many extras, including a commentary track by filmmaker William Friedkin, a half hour documentary on the making and restoration of Vertigo, an hour’s worth of material on four of Hitchcock’s key collaborators, an extended ending shot to appease foreign censors, 14 minutes of excerpts from the Truffaut interviews, a nine-minute mini doc on Lew Wasserman, a multitude of production designs drawings and photos, and two trailers. Left off unfortunately is the commentary track from the earlier DVD release which featured the film’s associate producer Herbert Coleman, along with the two men responsible for the amazing 1996 restoration, Robert Harris and James Katz. Coleman was a long-time friend and collaborator of Hitchcock, and his memories are worth hearing.