Having retired from the police after developing a fear of heights, Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart) is hired by an old acquaintance (Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Novak), a troubled woman whom he believes is possessed by a dead ancestor. After quickly falling for her, Scottie is tragically unable to stop Madeleine from committing suicide, rendered powerless by his vertigo. Tormented, he roams San Francisco until he meets Judy (Novak), a dead ringer for Madeleine whom he tries to mould into her image…
While many critics understandably hail Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, there’s little doubt that it ranks as his most personal. Aside from the inclusion of various key Hitchcockian trademarks (themes of mistaken identity, an ordinary protagonist thrust into a dangerous situation, the mysterious femme fatale, threatening staircases), it exists as such by providing a curious window into the acclaimed filmmaker’s well-known obsession with seductive platinum blondes. That being true, it also remains among Hitchcock’s finest as a haunting psychological thriller, adapted from Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s French novel by The Master Of Suspense into a dream-like masterpiece.
Looking back, it’s surprisingly easy to pick holes with the plot (Surely the death-faking plot is overly elaborate? And what happens to Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge?), but Vertigo is compelling enough that it matters little. Right from Saul Bass’ hypnotic opening credits it’s an evocative experience, amplified by Bernard Herrmann’s swelling score, a distinctive colour palette and the use of some striking San Francisco locations. The film is also rightly celebrated for its camera work – most notably the infamous (and innovative) use of the celebrated zoom-in-track-back shot when vertigo paralyses Scottie. Speaking of, perpetual nice guy Jimmie Stewart offers one his best career performances in a great example of casting against type, while Kim Novak is appropriately bewitching in a timeless duel role.
While many critics understandably hail Vertigo as Alfred Hitchcock’s best work, there’s little doubt that it ranks as his most personal.