Thankfully, we were about to suppress Judge Christopher Kulik's Theatrophobia long enough for him to write this review.
Our review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray), published December 11th, 2012, is also available.
If Hitchcock is cinema's Shakespeare, then Vertigo is his Macbeth.—-Critic Robin Wood
VERTIGO: ver'-ti-go. A feeling of dizziness…a swimming in the head…figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror…as created by Alfred Hitchcock in the story that gives new meaning to the term SUSPENSE!
Facts of the Case
San Francisco police detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart, Rear Window) has recently left the police force. His reason: surviving a near-fall off a tall building, he had acquired acrophobia in the process. His best friend—and former girlfriend—Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, I Remember Mama) is perfectly happy to be spending more time with him. However, a meeting with an old college buddy named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore, The Time Machine) will change Scottie's life forever.
While Scottie is determined to remain retired, Elster manages to coax him into following his wife Madeline (Kim Novak, The Man With The Golden Arm). He believes his wife is possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who has been dead and buried for several decades. Scottie doesn't believe it for a second, but as he pursues Madeline, studying her visits to locations directly associated with the Spanish girl, he becomes more intrigued and drawn to her. When Madeline attempts suicide by jumping into San Francisco Bay, he rescues her, takes her back to his apartment, gets to know her…and falls in love.
When I turned eighteen, I had seen almost every film I the Hitchcock canon, including several of his silents. I first saw Vertigo when I was twelve, and like many serious film aficionados, I'm enamored by the film. Every time I watch it, I discover something new (or at least look for something new). Sometimes I shift perspectives, focusing on a single character, set, color, wardrobe, symbol, or even the puzzle pieces themselves. Sometimes I just soak up the little things, the fragments of the mirror, and going down that long corridor to complete darkness and being hypnotized by the film's dream-like grasp and nightmarish mood.
Despite heaps of contemporary praise, it's almost impossible to think of a time when the film was considered forgettable, just "another Hitchcock and bull story," according to Time magazine. Originally released in theaters in May of 1958, the reviews were mixed to alarmingly average. Many critics of the time had a number of problems with the story (accusing it of being too slow), the miscasting of its lead (Stewart was cited as being way too old), and the inexperience of his lovely co-star (Novak was considered too delicate to be in such heady company). It's fair to say these critics—like the audience—were simply perplexed, and most didn't return the theater to give the film a second chance.
Here's exactly why Vertigo needs to be seen more than once. The average audience will only be initially concerned with the story's crux, which consists of appetizers of a much larger visual feast. The second viewing (or third, depending on your patience and appetite) should yield the psychological layers in which Hitch and screenwriters Alec Coppell and Samuel Taylor have cooked up. Even if additional viewings don't erase the criticisms, they should at least obliterate the confusion, on an basic analytical level. Granted, not everyone will fall under the film's addictive spell, continuing to ask why the film keeps getting ranked among the greatest ever made. The film's primary benefit has been time; when taken out of circulation (by Hitchcock himself), it was remembered, then demanded. In 1983, Vertigo and four other "lost" Hitchcock titles were re-released to theatres and, this time, the reaction was ecstatic.
As the years passed, Vertigo's impact grew and its stature rose to dizzying heights. It was one of the first to be voted into the National Film Registry, it started to appear on top ten lists, and its steady success in the home video market only increased its fan base. In 1996, it received yet another theatrical release, but this time the film had been restored, exhibited in a brand-new, 70mm print and DTS soundtrack. Some purists felt Robert Harris and James Katz—the masterminds behind the painstaking restoration—did more harm than good. The duo were lambasted for certain color changes, the injection of a fresh Foley track, and other minor alterations. As a staunch purist, I must rebuke those complaints and say the film community owes these men a tremendous debt, as their efforts rescued already damaged film elements, including the original music recordings, which were disintegrating while passing through the sound heads. When you consider the project took two years to complete—some of it self-financed—Harris and Katz have made an indelible contribution to cinema.
The icing was smoothed onto the cake by the American Film Institute. In 1997, the film was ranked #61 on the list of the 100 Greatest Movies. In an unprecedented turn of events, Vertigo jumped to #9 when AFI considered the change in cultural attitudes over the past ten years; now it stands one spot higher than Hitchcock's Psycho. Now, if only it could kick The Godfather's ass down, all will be right with the world.
The ultimate achievement of Vertigo rests with its creator. Even though The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Rear Window, North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds have all received near unanimous acclaim, Vertigo has fought long and hard for the title of the Master's masterpiece. Part of this is due to its presentation of Hitchcock's genius in every area of filmmaking; here we have an enhanced vision—laced with allegorical ingredients—which feels personal to the core. There are several themes employed which are universal and easily embraced, such as falling passionately in love and getting a grip on the past. However, there's also the dark theme of obsession. When Scottie meets Judy Barton, it inspires him to re-create his lost love, exactly how she exists in his memory. Judy loves him for her own reasons, but Scottie could never love anyone but Madeline. This is all played out not by the script but by Scottie's emotions, and Hitchcock brilliantly allows us to feel those emotions without fully sympathizing with the character's disturbing determination.
There isn't a single wasted moment in the entire film. The title sequence, courtesy of Saul Bass, is tantalizing in its use of swirling circles, which serve as a metaphor for Scottie's journey. The famous zoom-effect shots in the beginning, middle, and end are all carefully laid out to emphasize Scottie's condition. The dialogue scenes between Midge and Scottie supply much needed humor, and the sequences showcasing Scottie's investigative pursuit are deliberately paced, which only adds to the mystery of Madeline's "possession." John Farren's contribution of Scottie's elaborate, clue-drenched dream is a stunner no matter how many times you see it. However, it's both of the major, climactic scenes at San Juan Batista in which Vertigo consummates its blood-pumping power, showing no mercy on the audience with its haunting build-ups and devastating conclusions. Add to the entire narrative Bernard Herrmann's searing romantic score, which has the ability to raise neck hairs and water the eyes, and you have one grand motion picture.
When Vertigo premiered, James Stewart was only eleven days shy of turning 50. As great as Stewart was, even director William Friedkin, in his audio commentary, contends that the actor was just too old for the part. I don't necessarily agree, but I can understand a viewer's challenge in accepting the relationship between the principals, considering the age difference. Stewart's grey hairs are far from full development, but have entered their silvery adolescence; regardless, he remains the handsome Everyman we are always accustomed too.
As most Hitchcock fans know, character actress Vera Miles was groomed for the dual role of Madeline/Judy, but became pregnant. Hitch was upset, but more than willing to cast the positively alluring Kim Novak, who was a rising star at the time. It's difficult to imagine if Miles would have done better, but Novak sells both roles with equal depth, passion, and intensity. In his commentary, Friedkin adequately describes Novak as the "embodiment of every male obsession," and the many images of her in the green lighting remain sensually striking. The other female lead, played by Barbara Bel Geddes, occasionally gets overlooked, but she makes the smallish role of Scottie's friend/former lover her own and scores highly.
Now, without further a-do, let's delve into the technical and bonus goodies in this brand-new, 2-disc special edition.
The original 1999 disc—which I utilized for comparison purposes—was quite strong in its own right, with the recent restoration boasting rich colors, fine flesh tones, and a significant disappearance of dirt and grain which plagued the old VHS tapes. Needless to say, I was taken aback by Universal's digitally re-mastered print here, where the colors are even richer, its shades of red and green practically glowing on the screen. The flesh tones are even sharper, bringing out Novak's pale beauty and Stewart's tanned complexion with generous clarity. As for the dirt and grain, I hardly detected a mini-speckle the entire time…and I had to watch it three times because of the two commentaries! Sonically speaking, purists who made a stink about the new Foley track integrated by Harris and Katz will be satisfied with the presence of a Dolby 2.0 mono track, while most will prefer the 5.1 Surround.
All but one of the bonus features on the first disc are ported over from the 1999 release. The meatiest of these is the feature-length audio commentary with Harris, Katz, and Herbert Coleman (the film's associate producer). Coleman does his best to recall certain decisions and events that took place during filming, while Harris and Katz press him with questions, giving an overview of the grueling restoration process. Occasionally, we get separately-recorded comments from Novak, Bel Geddes, screenwriter Samuel Taylor, and others which is not only welcome but not too distracting. Also transferred over are the foreign censorship ending (which is interesting if negligible), archives, production notes, as well as the original and restoration trailers. The original trailer is embarrassing in how it virtually gives away the entire plot, something which no doubt angered Hitchcock because it revealed his delicately hidden secrets. The one new addition is a second audio commentary by film director William Friedkin, which runs hot-and-cold. At best, Friedkin does offer some fascinating views on certain scenes and how he interpreted them. At worst, he repeats what is exactly playing out on screen, which was the major problem with his commentary on The Exorcist.
The second disc starts out with the 30-minute documentary "Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece," also ported over from the original release. It's a nice summary of the film's production and the Harris-Katz restoration, with narration by Roddy McDowall. New featurettes begin with "Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators," which is split into four parts, each focusing on a different contributor to the Master's films. Under scrutiny are title designer Saul Bass, costume designer Edith Head, music composer Bernard Herrmann and wife/muse Alma Reville; all four segments are rock-solid, with new interviews with critics and even Martin Scorsese (who spoke on "Obsessed with Vertigo" a decade ago) returns. Rounding out the collection are interview excerpts from a chat between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, and (finally) the Hitchcock-directed "The Case of Mr. Pelham"—an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents…. While I would have preferred more from Novak (the only cast member still alive) in the new features, Universal has done a terrific job here.
If I were to sum up Vertigo's value in two sentences…It's the cinematic equivalent of a Swiss watch. The components and functions all work perfectly together, making the result timeless, chillingly ticking forever.
Thankfully, of the three Hitchcock films (including Rear Window and Psycho) re-released as part of the Universal Legacy Series, this is the only one that has never been remade. Well, you could count Brian de Palma's sorry Obsession if you wish, but it's Gus Van Sant we need to keep an eye on.
The jury finds that Alfred Hitchcock, along with his cast and crew, made Vertigo while of sound mind. The film is hereby immune to any other charges brought against it, while Robert Harris and James Katz are given a special commendation by the court for their absolute dedication in preserving this work of art.
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