Vertigo (VHS, 1997, Restored, remastered, widescreen version) Reviews
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Vertigo (VHS, 1997, Restored, remastered, widescreen version)

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VERTIGO was no PICNIC, but Judy fell for Hitch in the end!

Jan 16, 2000 (Updated Dec 28, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A moody, mesmerizing tone poem that draws us repeatedly back to a precipice of madness.

Cons:It's not a film to be analyzed in terms of logic or a realistic plot.

The Bottom Line: Hitchcock's VERTIGO, like many of his films, explores guilt about women, desire and death. Unlike some others, an ordinary, decent man -- like Alfred Hitchcock -- is to blame.

Perhaps one should not make crude puns about a great motion picture, but my title here is one I'm sure the master suspense director, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), in an unguarded moment, might have appreciated, in private if not in public. From his beginnings as a plump, shy, repressed Catholic child from a lower middle class home in London's East End, Hitchcock used a dark, almost sadistic humor to cover the wellsprings of material from which he fashioned his art. He was afraid to let us know how seriously he felt about his deadly subject. As he always said, he was deeply afraid that one day he might be arrested, and he wanted his audiences to experience his fear.

Like many artists, he was deeply troubled and appears to have used his motion pictures both as wish fulfillment and psychological therapy. From his return to England from Germany in 1925, flush with expressionistic techniques for THE LODGER (a Jack the Ripper tale), until his homecoming to England from America for his final significant film FRENZY (1972), an almost out of control production in its violence, again about a serial killer, Sir Alfred Hitchcock (as he was to become) explored terrible, guilty urges. The product of proper Victorian parents, he concerned himself with men, perhaps including himself, who escape their mothers, evade responsibility, postpone punishment for sin, avoid being found out; must dominate and control people, especially women, and if necessary, kill them.

That brings us to VERTIGO (1958).


On a windy, damp Sunday in San Francisco (Hitchcock's favorite American city), the anachronistic horns of ships seeking safe anchorage seeming to mourn the past, it is easy to imagine Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old man now, looking down on the Harbor, remembering Judy Barton (Kim Novak).

Judy was a young country beauty, a Catholic girl with a deep sense of sin, from Salina, Kansas, who left home, as she told Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) in the film, perhaps following a guy, and gravitated to San Francisco in the early 1950's. She saw herself a movie actress, had a flair for makeup, gave an impression of poise and stature. She rose from salesperson to model. She enrolled in the University of San Francisco. Her interest in art, good food, fine wine, the latest fashions and romance were well served, and she was soon seen at the Marines Theater, the De Younge Museum, and restaurants like Ernie's and the Blue Fox.

In the company of his wife Madeleine, a rich heiress of an old California family, Gavin Elster met her at one of these places. Well educated, a Navy veteran, he had married money and taken over his wife's shipping interests, but Elster couldn't understand her moods, her depression. She was obsessed by "the ghost" of her sexually abused ancestor, Carlotta Valdez, whose portrait, holding an elaborate bouquet of dusky pink roses, hung at the Legion of Honor Museum. Increasingly, she stayed at their country estate, far from the lush nightlife Elster enjoyed. Judy Barton, despite a few rough edges, reminded him of Madeleine when he first met her. He was instantly infatuated with Judy. He made bold to meet her, then make her over. They had an affair.

To this point it is a rather common story.

Then one day, when his buzz had worn off and the subterfuge was becoming difficult, he read in the Examiner that old school chum, John "Scottie" Ferguson, a San Francisco police plainclothesman, had been put on light duty after a tragic accident. Elster had an idea. He made inquiries about Scottie's status, and after a few months, when he had Judy firmly in his grasp, his preparations laid, he reached for the phone.

Is that really the story?

Well, no. I just made it up as a back story, but it fits an array of given facts and the known motivations of the director.

Only Alfred Hitchcock knew for sure.


What we know is that VERTIGO was adapted for Hitchcock by veteran screenwriters Alec Copel and Samuel Taylor from a French novel D'ENTRE LES MORTS (Amongst the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (DIABOLIQUE, 1955), but, as was true with all his later film projects, Hitchcock storyboarded and tailored the script to his own concerns.

Throughout his career, he played a kind of artistic cat and mouse game, first with his model Director Fritz Lang (M, 1931), and after his arrival in Hollywood, (strangely, perhaps) Val Lewton (THE BODY SNATCHER, 1945) and Orson Welles (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, 1948), and then with his old mate in English "quota quickies," Michael Powell (THE RED SHOES, 1948). In VERTIGO, Alfred Hitchcock would bring the themes and expressionistic technique of these masters together in his greatest, most personal later masterpiece.

Hitchcock liked blondes, and a long line, from Madeleine Carroll to Doris Day, had created the "cool blonde" image that was his ideal. He considered brunettes and redheads, on the screen, at least, to be coarse, immoral creatures, who more or less encouraged men to take them sexually. (His subsequent proposed film NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE was shelved when Audrey Hepburn balked at a script that called for her to be dragged off the street and raped in Hyde Park.) He was enraged (heartbroken?) when, while VERTIGO was being readied for production, his latest protegee Vera Miles married and got pregnant.

In his sound films, increasingly in the later ones, he was obsessed with strangulation, falling, and legs, as visual metaphors. In a majority, one of the main characters, often a woman, took a fall, or was in danger of taking a fall.

For Scottie Ferguson he had Jimmy Stewart, whom he had used in ROPE (1948), THE REAR WINDOW (1954) and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956). Here it would amuse him to play Stewart against a "nice guy" image, as far as he could push it.

But as so frequently in the past, Hitch had lost his blonde Madeleine before he could get it right. He was nearly sixty, recovering from a scary emergency operation, having his blood pressure checked each day. He sullenly accepted Kim Novak, a loanout replacement from Columbia, in the part.

Once groomed by Harry Cohn to replace red-haired Rita Hayworth, Kim was no Madeleine. That perception Hitchcock let her know from the start, but perhaps she might make a good Judy. With her hair dyed blonde, she had just played a witch opposite Jimmy Stewart in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958) after being a chorus girl in PAL JOEY (1957), both set in San Francisco. Before that, in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955), a story of her native Chicago, she had been a junkie's girlfriend. The clincher, however, was that at the end of PICNIC (1955), the film that made Kim Novak a star, she had played a red-haired schoolgirl who, as the film ends, appears ready to run away from Salina, Kansas, to follow n'er-do-well William Holden into parts west.

Kim objected to being a blonde in a grey suit, wearing reddish-brown pumps -- she was after all, like Judy, a former model -- but Hitch straightened her out. As Costume Designer Genius Edith Head recalled: "Hitchcock had been very specific. He had insisted that she was to look as if she just stepped out of the San Francisco fog -- a woman of mystery and illusion...."

Kim was to be Judy Barton, a Lady from Shanghai.


And so, in the film, with the promise they would be together at last, Gavin Elster persuades Judy, dressed and made up like Madeleine, to seduce the gullible Scottie, still recovering from an operation, full of guilt over causing a fellow officer's death; and to lure him to a Catholic monastery south of San Francisco, where Gavin takes his real wife to murder her. The suspicion for a wrongful death falls again on Scottie.

Aided by a tone poem worthy of Richard Strauss, Bernard Herrmann's most evocative, comprehensive musical score since THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942), the rest of VERTIGO repeats the event in a dizzying, hypnotic series of sequences and montages, as if in a whirling, shattered mirror, with the real Judy, now in love with Scotty, groomed by him and forced to re-enact the role she played as the false Madeleine. In her own guilt, she falls for it completely. And once again, the guilt becomes Scottie's.

[VERTIGO is a film a couple contemplating marriage might well see and sit down afterward to discuss.]

All Hitchcock would say of Kim Novak's performance, years later, was this: "At least, I got to throw her into the water." It is a reference to the famous scene where Scottie first makes real contact with Madeleine/Judy when she jumps/falls into San Francisco Bay at Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, those present, remember Hitchcock ordered take after take of her plunge into a cold studio tank replica of Frisco Bay -- until he decided he had it right.

A number of critics, however, have reluctantly concluded that Kim Novak in VERTIGO, despite the Director's misgivings, perhaps because of her awe and fear of him, may have been Hitchcock's most sympathetic and effective heroine.


Several years ago, I was privileged the go, with an old pal, a Kim Novak fan, to the premier at the Castro Theater in San Francisco of the great restoration of VERTIGO by Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz and Walter Murch. They were there, as were Kim Novak and Hitchcock's daughter Patricia. Miss Novak was introduced before the film, and interviewed afterward, on the stage. She looked elegant in a black, backless, square necked dress, much like the one she wore to Ernie's in the film, and she was given a bouquet of pink roses identical to Carlotta's, from Florist Podesta Beldocchi (also featured in VERTIGO). Kim was animated and informative, and at the end of the interview, she turned her back like a bride and tossed her bouquet into the crowd.

Later, my friend and I went downtown to the reception, appropriately held at Restaurant Vertigo in the TransAmerica Building. Arriving late, we had a couple glasses of excellent chardonnay and, eventually, climbed the circular stairs to the upper level where Kim Novak, her rough bearded husband and what I assume was a seven foot bodyguard, were chatting with local dignitaries. Knowing my friend's admiration, anesthetized a little by the wine, and noting that her husband and the bodyguard, for some reason, were peering away from her at the ceiling, I said to my pal: "Come on, Christianson. I'll introduce you."

What struck me when I introduced myself, and took her small, warm hand, was that this goddess of the screen was tiny, not up to my shoulder. The slightly Tartar cast of her eyes had become accentuated with time, but otherwise, we might have been at Ernie's in 1958. She was astonishingly beautiful! "Kim," I said, leading her a few steps as she smiled trustingly up at me, "I want you to meet an admirer."

My friend was, understandably, startled almost speechless, but she was very gracious to him until a local TV news anchor reclaimed her with, "Kim, I so remember our interview in...."

"Let's go back downstairs, Christianson," I said. "It has been a memorable evening. We'll have a real drink at the bar to celebrate."


And so, Kim is married to a doctor, paints and lives on two estates, one south, the other north of San Francisco, with llamas. She seemed very happy when I saw her.

What of Hitch? In a sense, he was a dead man when they pulled the plug on his film unit in 1979, but he actually died a year later. "I am . . . I . . . a sea of alone," he told his secretary.

What of Gavin Elster? He may not be happy in his mansion in Pacific Heights, but like John Huston in CHINATOWN (1974), he got away with murder.

Hitch and Scottie Ferguson did not.


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VERTIGO is Alfred Hitchcock's haunting tale of deception, madness, and death--a masterful exploration of fantasy and anxiety. The film ranks with REAR...
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