"Vertigo" is easily the most analyzed of the works of the late, great Alfred Hitchcock. Less than universally admired upon its release in 1958, the film is now considered by many to be Hitchcock's masterpiece, although more literal-minded folks point out that the story is convoluted and illogical.
While admitting that point, I still would have to put "Vertigo" in the upper echelon of Hitchcock films, right behind "Rear Window," "Psycho," "Strangers on a Train" and "The 39 Steps."
For good or ill, this story of a romantically obsessed man forced too often to confront his fear of heights redefined the psychological thriller. The good, we will try to cover adequately in this short review as we go along. The possible ill effect of "Vertigo" might lie in the notion that the making of this film by the meticulously logical Hitchcock gave license to less talented directors to abandon logic altogether in favor of postmodern nonsense.
James Stewart plays John "Scotty" Ferguson, a police detective who retires after a tragedy results from his fear of heights. He is hired to follow a college friend's beautiful wife, Madeline Ellster (Kim Novak), because her husband (Tom Helmore) thinks she is acting strangely. Scotty becomes obsessed with the woman after saving her life, then after losing her, with her double, Judy - or is it her double?
It would be unconscionable to reveal much more of this plot, which turns in on itself to the point that we become unsure if we are seeing this through the camera's all-knowing eye, or through Scotty's abnormal imagination.
Every detail of "Vertigo," from costumes to set design, from Hitchcock's splashy use of color to the hypnotic score, is masterfully combined for the ultimate psychological effect. Of all of the Master's movies, this came the closest to his notion of "pure cinema."
Stewart skillfully shows a dark side to his Everyman persona that he explored more during his postwar performances but never better than here. In another example of ingenious Hitchcock casting, Novak's off-putting aloofness was exactly right in this film, but she would never come close to this level of performance again.
Barbara Bel Geddes lends a sense of grounding - and humor - as Midge, Scotty's lifelong friend who serves as the voice of reason. Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score is a little less well known than the one he composed for "Psycho" a few years later, but it is just as intense, and darkly romantic.
Hitchcock worked for years and through three screenwriters trying to bring the French novel "D'entre les Morts" to the screen in the romantic San Francisco settings he had in mind. This was perhaps his most personal film, and even by his standards, the completeness of the cinematic vision is stunning.
The print of "Vertigo" being shown at the Flint Institute of Arts this weekend is the result of a marvelous two-year, million-dollar restoration by Robert Harris and James C. Katz for Universal Studios. But the term "restoration" is really a misnomer, for this is actually an improvement over what audiences in 1958 - or even the 1984 re-release - could see. For the first time, "Vertigo" is available in 70mm with DTS digital stereo sound, and the results are spectacular.
Do yourself a real favor. Go see "Vertigo" on the big screen at the FIA this weekend, then buy the widescreen video. This is a picture that requires multiple viewings.
Oh, and don't forget to look for Hitchcock, strolling along the sidewalk near the beginning of the movie.