Something strange and mysterious happened this summer – something that sent film critics into a frenzy: popcorn went flying, drinks got spilt, hotdog relish splattered. For the first time in half a century a film other than CITIZEN KANE (1941) has hit the heady heights of the BFI’s top film list – and that film is Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958). The story follows Scottie (Jimmy Stewart), a retired-detective-now-private-investigator suffering from a fear of heights, who’s hired to snoop on the wife of an old friend because of her weird behaviour (lots of hanging round cemeteries and staring at a painting of a dead woman). Scottie soon finds himself spellbound by Madeleine (Kim Novak), but things take a darker turn as Scottie’s dragged into a vortex of mistaken and stolen identity, obsession, paranoia and murder – before he finds out he’s the ultimate catspaw.
But does VERTIGO live up to the hype? After all, the film’s reception was lukewarm on its release with critics scratching their heads about a confusing plot, messy structure and a craggy (or lucky) Jimmy Stewart pursuing a woman half his age. Hitchcock in true Hitchcock fashion blamed it on the blonde and said he never liked Novak’s performance much anyway, but more recently in a volte face audiences have been a lot kinder, until it finally won gold this year. So just what is it about VERTIGO that saw it conquer its fear of heights and climb to the top?
5. It Starts Twice
One thing audiences in the ‘50s really didn’t like was VERTIGO’S broken backed structure. What kind of film starts twice? The first part follows Scottie’s investigation into Madeleine and their brief love affair – brief as she hurls herself off the top of a bell tower. It seems quite final. But after a spell in a sanatorium where he has this bizarre nightmare (seriously, Youtube ‘Vertigo dream sequence’ if you’ve never seen it – Jimmy Stewart’s wafting hair is amazing), Scottie’s back into society and stalking – sorry – um, following…no that sounds creepy too…anyway let’s just say he’s making new friends with Judy, who’s the spitting image of Madeleine (no wonder – she’s also played by Kim Novak). Scottie can’t believe his luck. He may have carelessly lost the original girl, but here’s another he can mould into shape in Stepford Wifely fashion. And mould he does – forcing Judy to wear Madeleine’s clothes, dye her hair the same colour and generally turn herself into a dead girl. Except, by a strange plot twist, it turns out that Judy is actually Madeleine! And – the original Madeleine isn’t actually real – there’s another! Confused? Don’t worry, that’s the VERTIGO effect. Whilst some might say this kind of chaotic and crazed plotting only induces nausea, I think it’s a triumph of cinematic theme. Scottie’s a man fixated, a man who can’t let go. And what better way to show his obsession with trying to re-write the past than by trapping him – and us – in a story that’s stuck in a loop?
4. It’s A Film For Film Lovers
Perhaps even as much as REAR WINDOW (1954), VERTIGO is a film about film. In fact it’s a voyeur’s wet dream. We look at Scottie, as he looks at Madeleine, as she looks at a painting of a woman she’s (sort of) impersonating. Scottie’s supposed to be our hero, but he never quite makes the cut. Right at the start he helps cause the death of a fellow police officer so we know he’s got a big flaw, but he doesn’t redeem himself. Instead we’re forced to identify with him as he barrels from one disaster to another, seemingly spreading death and destruction, oblivious to the fact he’s being played. We see the world from Scottie’s eyes as he sizes women up and makes them change to fit in with his preconceptions, which to be honest, can be just a bit uncomfortable at times. It’s tempting to see our protagonist as some sort of director, orchestrating the staging of the cool blonde into his dream woman – much like Hitchcock famously controlled the women around him. Now this might not sound like a particularly good reason for loving VERTIGO so much, but it’s certainly a film that invites discussion, analysis and, my god, more analysis. You can never run out of things to talk about – and for me that’s part of what makes VERTIGO such an enthralling and challenging watch.
3. A Haunting Soundtrack
Music can make or break a film and that’s why VERTIGO comes up trumps with Bernard Hermann’s score. From the opening credits showing a close-up of an eye, harps and strings swirl and soar, pulling us into the whirlpool of paranoia and obsession. Hermann found inspiration in Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’, an opera about two adulterous and ultimately doomed lovers, and with the repetitions, signatures and leitmotifs in his score Hermann somehow suggests that the characters are destined to repeat their same mistakes. VERTIGO owes almost everything to its music; think of the scene where Madeleine wanders through the sequoia forest like a sleep-walker or ghost, tracing her finger along the cross-section of a felled tree – ‘here I was born and there I died,’ she notes in slightly morbid fashion as she prods the life lines (she clearly hasn’t quite got the hang of dating). It’s impossible to remember this scene without hearing the music start up in spooky fashion in your head. I should know – I watched VERTIGO so many times in one week that everything I did for days afterwards was to this soundtrack (it made doing the washing up a lot more glam). Hermann’s score is so brilliant in giving us a short-cut to atmosphere and emotional response that Michel Hazanavicius nicked the love theme for his much lauded THE ARTIST (2011) – to the consternation of Kim Novak (she likened it to ‘rape’ – perhaps a little extreme but I get her drift).
2. The Little Details
One of the most memorable scenes in VERTIGO is when Scottie finally succeeds in forcing a reluctant Judy to transform fully into Madeleine. The lady vanishes into the hotel bathroom only to emerge reborn…as a dead woman. And she does look a bit zombie-ish when Scottie gets all romantic (is anyone else a little grossed out by this?), swooning in his embrace with all the ardour of a wet fish (some might say it’s bad acting; I prefer to think it’s all part of Hitchcock’s grand plan). She’s bathed in an eerie green light – she looks like a ghost. This gruesome green isn’t just some dodgy discolouration. It’s a repeated symbol, reminding us of the ‘ever living, ever green’ sequoia forest from earlier – the one that freaked Madeleine out and got her reflecting on her own mortality. And it’s these little details that make VERTIGO so compelling. The symbol I like best is the spiral though. From those opening credits with the swirly eye to Madeleine’s corkscrew hair-do to Scottie’s dream fall with his limbs twirled out, twists are everywhere, inducing dizziness, nausea and, ahem, vertigo.
1. That Shot
You know the one. Hitchcock pioneered the so-called trombone shot or dolly zoom in this film; that delicious, unsettling feeling of real-life vertigo, like the ground is shifting beneath your feet which happens when the depth of field and zoom are manipulated. It feels like we’re about to fall down the rabbit hole. And of course that’s what this film is going to do – take you into a shadowy dream-world where nothing is what it seems. So the next time you’re watching JAWS (1975), take a moment to remember VERTIGO.
VERTIGO is the kind of film that just gets better with every viewing. It frustrates, it teases and is always tricksy. And it’s just put together so seamlessly. With all those twisting motifs and repetitions in image and sound, it’s swirlier that all those tiny little chocolately bits inside a Cadbury’s Twirl, or at least a Mister Whippy ice-cream. VERTIGO makes you dizzy and your head spin – it’s like a whirlpool, it never ends. Without a shadow of a doubt, VERTIGO deserves its place at the top (well, out of the top ten options anyway) – that is until the film critics recognise the true majesty of BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989). Maybe next year eh?