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Vertigo (1958), A Hitchcock Classic
The cinema's greatest romantic thriller
Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is ablsolutely unique. It is a strange and haunting film of breathtaking beauty, the crowning artistic achievement of Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant career as a director.
It flopped on its release, which is understandable, as it is easily the most psychologically ambitious, disturbing and unclassifiable of Hitchcock's films.
However its reputation has steadily grown over the years and it is now regarded as one of the best and most important movies ever made.
Basic Story Line
The plot is extremely complicated with many twists and turns and depends upon a fiendishly unlikely murder scheme. The following is an abridged version.
The plot is intricate . John 'Scotty' Ferguson is an LA cop who has to quit the force after his fear of heights prevents him from saving the life of a colleague. Working casually as a private eye he is hired by an old friend, Gavin Estler (Tom Elmore) to tail his blonde wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) who is apparently obsessed with a look-alike ancestress who drowned in the nineteenth century. The first half of the film is almost a ghost story as Scotty is drawn to the neurotic Madeleine with the suggestion that her reincarnation is ironically going to lead to her death. After Madeleine's fatal plunge from a bell tower the film becomes even more intense as Scottie comes across Judy Barton (Novak again), a brunette shopgirl who resembles the lost Madeleine, and enters into a relationship with her. He tries to force a re-incarnation of his lost love as he transforms her with a new hairtyle and wardrobe into the elusive Madeleine.
Scotty later learns from Judy that the woman who fell from the tower was Elster's real wife, hurled, already dead, from the tower by her husband. Elster had hired Scottie to follow the false Madeleine simply in order to have someone reputable to act as witness.
Scottie grows suspicious of Judy when he sees her wearing a red, jeweled pendant that he remembers Madeleine claiming to have inherited. He forces her to re-enact the scene in which he failed to save Madeleine. As they inch to the top of the tower, she confesses the truth, but pleads to Scottie that she does love him. The two embrace and the music begins to swell before, suddenly, a shadowy figure appears at the top of the stairs. Judy steps backwards off the tower ledge, plunging to her death. The figure, a nun, whispers, "God, have mercy," and rings the tower bell as Scottie stares down at Judy's fallen body; the emotional shock has cured his vertigo — but at a terrible cost.
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Vertigo is an undoubted masterpiece, a genuinely great motion picture. There is so much in it, that a single showing is not enough for a complete understanding. For a full appreciation it demands multiple viewings. Part murder mystery, part twisted love story, the film is steeped in portentous melancholy. Certain scenes have an spiritual quality that returns to haunt the viewer's imagination. When we first see ‘Madeleine’ in the cemetery, she is bathed in a ghostly green light. Later, when Judy finally emerges as Madeleine, she is illuminated by the green neon lights of a theatre marquee (inspired by Hitchcock’s memories of theatregoing as a boy). The scene ends with the famous ‘revolving kiss’. In extreme close-up, Scottie grabs Judy and kisses her violently, the camera appearing to whirl around them as Scottie is transported by memories of Madeleine (in fact, it was the scenery that was spinning). Here, as at other key moments, the insistent probing Bernard Herrman score swells to a crescendo. Herrman’s music is absolutely integral to the mood of the entire movie.
Useful Vertigo Resource
Take a more in depth look at this classic multi-layered film.
James Stewart - Detective John "Scottie" Ferguson Stewart was a Hitchcock stalwart. His ability to portray deeply flawed men who were sometimes overwhelmed by doubt, rage, and hesitancy has never been equalled.
Kim Novak - Madeleine Elster / Judy Barton Frosty blonde beauty who broke into films in 1954. Novak soon became a popular Hollywood star, with her off-screen romances (Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, amongst others) attracting as much publicity as her film roles.
Barbara Bel Geddes - Midge Wood She will always be remembered for playing the matriarch Miss Ellie in long-running glamorous soap Dallas but had been a successful and well respected actress fom the mid 1940's.
Tom Helmore - Gavin Elster
Henry Jones - Coroner
Raymond Bailey - Scottie's Doctor
Ellen Corby - Manager of McKittrick Hotel
Konstantin Shayne - Pop Leibel
Lee Patrick - Car owner mistaken for Madeleine
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock
Herbert Coleman - associate producer
Written by: * Pierre Boileau - original novel ("D'Entre les Morts")
Thomas Narcejac - original novel ("D'Entre les Morts") * Samuel A Taylor * Alec Coppel
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock