Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

25Jan11

James Stewart (John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeleine Elster). Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: PG. Running time: 128 minutes.

Hitchcock, more than any other auteur, likes to take his time developing plots. Think of those drawn out, detailed montages in Rear Window of James Stewart pointing his binoculars, us getting a glimpse of the quad, and then returning to see his reaction. This set the scene for some lengthy and mysterious voyeurism, and similarly in Vertigo, a strangely familiar formula is repeated. For an incredible length of time towards the beginning of the film, we hear no dialogue, but still somehow remain interested in what we see. And yet those images consist of little more than Stewart spying on a woman, watching her with the deepest curiosity. We watch him watching her, and we wonder where the hell this one is leading.

Stewart, despite my description, does not in fact play a rapist nor a ripper here. He has been employed to follow and observe this devilishly good looking woman by her husband, who believes her day time wanderings to be tantamount to a period of time in which she becomes possessed by spirits. We get similar vibes when we watch her at length aimlessly glaring at artwork, driving mindlessly for miles, and eventually standing at the waterside by the Golden Gate Bridge seemingly staring into the distance for minutes on end. Then something happens out of nowhere, and from that moment on Vertigo moves from being an investigation to a love affair and then finally, through the most unforeseen of twists, a sinister mystery.

That means what I can say is limited, but nothing in the wish to preserve the suspense and shocks is there anything stopping me from praising the filmmaking here. I saw Vertigo for the first time many years ago, and for some reason, unlike other Hitchcock efforts like Psycho, it was not one I rushed to return to. In retrospect, I now see I had no good reason not to. Vertigo is slow, if you mean to compare it with equally superb but totally incommensurable modern efforts like The Social Network. But if you are truly focused – and by that I mean appreciating what we’re being asked to observe and think about here, on top of reading very carefully the intricacies of Stewart’s expressions – then it is equally enthralling, and rewarding in a special, highly unique way.

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