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USA 1958
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock
128 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Vertigo, based on the novel 'D'Entre les Morts' by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac is widely regarded as Hitchcock’s best film and even one of the best films ever made. I have no problems with the first evaluation, the second seems to me a considerable overvaluation.

James Stewart plays John Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who retires from the force after developing an extreme fear of heights (aka, as we are told multiple times, acrophobia). He is contacted by a wealthy acquaintance (Tom Helmore) who asks him to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because he believes that the spirit of a dead woman is attempting to kill her. Ferguson, surprisingly, given its implausibility  but conveniently, accepts the case and in completing his brief eventually falls for her as she in turns falls from a bell-tower. He blames himself but one day he encounters a woman, Judy (Novak again) who looks just like his dead love and he sets about turning her into Madeleine's spitting image.

From the get-go, the Saul Bass titles, Bernard Herrmann’s music, Robert Burks’ cinematography (the film was shot in Vista Vision, a high-end format), Henry Bumstead's art direction and Edith Head's classic costume design all combine to create an above-average filmic experience with its symbolic use of colour, extensive back projections, frequent use of sound stages and so on making the film an exemplary demonstration of Hitchcock’s unmistakable style.

If the first part of the film is rather slow as a low-key thriller it gets quite creepy as only Hitchcock can be once Ferguson starts turning Judy into Madeleine. There are certainly strong thematic links here to many other Hitchcock films which focus on an intense male-female relationship.  But what really stands out about the film is how far the director pushes his non-naturalistic style as he goes about his business of exorcising his demons.

Hitchcock gets us to accept the rather far-fetched plot but the film is less convincing dramatically, with the at 50 year old and as-ever mildly paternalistic James Stewart (who had starred in another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, 1954, as well as The Man Who Knew Too Much,1956) having an inexplicable appeal for when it comes Barbara Bel Geddes' Mitch, good sort of gal who is really in live with him, and Kim Novak's rather troubled soul. Novak, who was only 25 at the time impresses in her dual role (although she looks a bit of a fright as Judy) and aside from its technical polish it is her performance (and certainly not Stewart's) which gives the film a lot of its staying power.

FYI: Novak was a last minute replacement for Hitchcock protégé, Vera Miles, who had fallen pregnant, the resulting tense atmosphere of the shoot being cited as one of the reasons for the success of the film with the transformation of Novak's character by the Jimmy Stewart character effectively being an onscreen analogue of the director's desire to bend Ms. Novak to his will




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