Vertigo, the richest blossoming of Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic and fatalistic sensibility, was disparaged by reviewers at the time of its original release and uncourted by the public. But the film has grown and grown in stature until, now, it ranks second only to Citizen Kane in the latest (2002) Sight & Sound poll of critics worldwide as the greatest film of all time. For me, the film doesn’t quite measure up to either The Wrong Man (1956) or Psycho (1960), or a few other Hitchcocks; but it’s so irresistible, one must wonder how so many resisted its grave, mysterious, passionate beauty for so long.
An adaptation of D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the pair who wrote the novel on which Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1954) is based, Vertigo is an hypnotic, richly colored dream of mirrored reflections, and of long passageways promising, just ahead, some flash of revelation and an end to aching yearning. Steeped in Hitchcock’s Roman Catholicism and, therefore, ideas of guilt, Original Sin, and ideal womanhood, Vertigo—on one level a psychological travelogue—follows the course of a man’s obsession with a beautiful woman who (he believes) dies as a consequence of his weakness—his acrophobia and the vertigo it induces but, more than that, his inability as a rationalist police detective to grasp the mystery that she is a part of, which is way more complicated than the murder-deception plot that she is also a part of, which he does unravel. When he tries to make over (he believes) another woman into the image of his lost love, we confront Everyman’s dream of attaining his romantic ideal, whatever the cost. The object—an apt word here—of this “second chance” of his is in fact the original woman, out of disguise and alive, whose love for him, and whose tortured desire to be loved for herself and not for the woman she pretended to be to faciliate the latter’s murder by her spouse, lends Vertigo some of its deepest emotional chords; and rounding out the tragedy is still another woman who loves the detective, whose “motherliness”—a threat because of the sexual confusion it engenders—has assisted in creating the platonic nature of their association, at a cost of great pain to her to which the Everyman-detective remains oblivious. However, it is he who suffers a mental breakdown between his encounters with two versions of the same accomplice to murder, and it’s the woman who has loved him since their college days together who helps nurse him back to a functioning existence. We know the depth of this woman’s anguish and pain from the index that Hitchcock provides; she never again appears—we suffer this loss of her—after she has centrally participated in returning her beloved to the ranks of the living.
This darkly enchanted film achieves its height of romance and beauty in a redwood forest—most of the film’s action unfolds in and near San Francisco—where the trees loom as the material realities in which—this is his Achilles’ heel—the detective is determined to believe and also as the mysteries of time that play a fatal role in his love life. The film ends with him, as it were, stranded on the ledge of a bell tower after his second beloved, exposed as the first, has fallen again to her death, now for the last time. Translation: “second chance” = “too late,” the utterance that echoes from Hitchcock’s earlier (and haunting) Rebecca (1940). Everyman’s hands are stretched out; “safe” again, he also (a friend, Margot Fein, has suggested) appears to be falling. Scottie Ferguson has lost all peace of mind; his beloved has lost her life.
James Stewart, Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes all give their finest performances. Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor wrote the excellent script. Robert Burks is responsible for the gorgeous, deeply affecting color cinematography. The essential music: who else? Bernard Herrmann.
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