For the 60th anniversary, I’ve just watched Vertigo again, at Hyde Park Picture House.
I don’t have much to say.
In its restored version and on the big screen, Vertigo is technically accomplished, and more beautiful than I remembered. I still like it, but not as much, and can’t understand how it replaced Citizen Kane and is considered the greatest film ever made. Personally I think more highly of Persona, Citizen Kane, 8 ½, Sunset Boulevard, The Bad Sleep Well, The Godfather, or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring; even among Hitchcock’s films, my favourite would be Psycho, followed by Rear Window, instead of Vertigo.
Structurally, Vertigo is divided into 2 parts, and in a sense, telling 2 stories. The 1st half is about retired detective Scottie (James Stewart) becoming infatuated with Madeleine (Kim Novak), an acquaintance’s wife that he follows, and losing her, not knowing that he’s tricked by the acquaintance, Gavin Elster, to cover up the plot to murder his wife.
The 2nd half is about Scottie coming across Judy, a woman who looks like his lost love Madeleine, and changing her, reshaping her, trying to recreate in her the image of his dream woman, not knowing until later that Judy played the Madeleine he loved that didn’t exist. In the end, he loses both the dream woman and the real woman.
Vertigo begins as a suspense film, and in the 2nd half, turns into a different genre. However, the 2 parts are united by the theme of male obsession and control. At the beginning, Scottie’s so obsessed with Madeleine that he doesn’t see what’s going on. Later he’s so obsessed with the memories of Madeleine that he can’t accept Judy as she is, but has to reshape her into the image in his head.
From another perspective, if we focus on Kim Novak’s character, Vertigo is about a woman being controlled and reshaped by men. In the 1st half, for money, she lets a man (Gavin Elster) mold her looks, dress her up, change her hair and make-up, tell her how to act and what to say; she becomes a tool, a trap. In the 2nd half, she lets another man (Scottie) do the same thing all over again, for love. We might even see it as a film about Hitchcock’s use and control of women—Kim Novak as Madeleine is the quintessential Hitchcock woman, blonde and distant.
Roger Ebert has written about these themes and the qualities of Vertigo. It’s a well-written review—he appreciates the film a lot more than I do.
To me, Vertigo is messy. The structure is, but not only so. How can somebody live that long without knowing he has acrophobia (fear of heights)? Why does Scottie not go to Madeleine’s funeral to see that Gavin Elster’s dead wife is not the woman he has been stalking? (I assume that they look similar, not exactly the same). Why is a detective so dim-witted? How does he think that he can follow someone so slowly without being noticed? Why does nobody in the house have any questions about a strange woman, dressed up like their master’s wife, going into and out of the house? Why do the police not try to verify the 2 men’s account of Madeleine’s mental problems and suicide? Why do we need the scenes at the asylum, especially the conversation between Midge (the average-looking woman who loves Scottie) and the doctor? We already know that Scottie loves Madeleine, and already know that Midge knows. Why does Gavin Elster not try to control or at least check up on Judy, in case she tells someone else about the murder plot? Why does Midge disappear completely in the 2nd half of the film? And can somebody with acrophobia just overcome it, as Scottie does at the end of the film?
Maybe I’m just too literal.
But then just recently I watched a video from Fandor about the influence of Vertigo. They talk about the technical and visual stuff, and the influence of the film on cinema, but then say that its admirers are indifferent to the plot. Martin Scorsese for example doesn’t take any of the story seriously.
Then why do people like it so much and hail it as the greatest film ever made?