A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Yes, Vertigo is a great movie. No, it's not the greatest movie ever made, and to call it that does the film a disservice, inviting skeptics to investigate and overemphasize its flaws. The central flaw is narrative; Vertigo is at heart a preposterous melodrama, and the film raises questions that probably shouldn't be asked: How, for instance, did Scottie (James Stewart) get down from that gutter he was hanging onto after the cop fell to his death? How did Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) arrange to be at the top of that tower with his dead wife at the exact time when Madeleine (Kim Novak) and Scottie were climbing it? Why is the coroner (Henry Jones) so needlessly hostile to Scottie at the inquest? And so on, until the screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor reveals itself to be a thing of shreds and patches. If it is a great film, it's because it had a great director, and that almost no one will gainsay. Alfred Hitchcock drew a magnificent performance from Novak, an actress everyone else underestimated. (And one that he, initíally, didn't want: He was grooming Vera Miles for the role until she became pregnant.) He helped Stewart to one of the highlight performances of his career. He inspired Bernard Herrmann to compose one of the most powerful and evocative film scores ever written -- one whose expression of erotic longing is surpassed perhaps only by passages in Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. He worked with cinematographer Robert Burks to transform San Francisco and environs into one of the great movie sets. And he turned what could have been a routine thriller (which is what many critics thought it was at the time of its release) into one of the most analyzed and commented-upon films ever made. It will never be my favorite Hitchcock film: I place it below Notorious (1946), Rear Window (1954), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960) in my personal ranking of his greatest films, and I enjoy rewatching The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and Strangers on a Train (1951) more than I do Vertigo. Yet I still yield to its portrayal of passionate obsession and its masterly blend of all the elements of cinema technology into a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk in which the whole transcends the sometimes indifferent parts.

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