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Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Edition Vol. 7: Hitch's demented romantic masterpiece, featuring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak as lovers both dead and alive....
Universal / 129 Minutes / 1958 / Unrated / Street Date: October 30, 2012
[As preparation for our comprehensive review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, we're investing each of that massive Blu-ray sets films one by one chronologically. If you missed them, check out our reviews of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.]
Vertigo is one of Hitchcock's most praised films, but also one of his less accessible and controversial. It wasn't a hit when first released in 1958, but has slowly grow in stature amongst critics and film historians over the years. While many of the film's images have to become well-known to audiences, the fact of the matter remains that many people still just don't "get" Vertigo.
The story follows John (Scottie) Ferguson, a San Francisco police detective who leaves the force when his acrophobia (fear of heights) causes the death of a fellow officer. He's hired by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, to follow his wife Madeleine, who he believes to be suicidal. Madeleine is exotic, interesting, and exciting, and Scottie is quickly drawn into her world: a world in which she's haunted by...something. (Or someone?) Soon, Scottie finds he has fallen in love with her. But that's only the beginning...
Hitchcock has a lot to say in Vertigo, about the nature of love, our inability to really control and choose whom we fall in love with, and the ultimate futility of love in the face of death. These are not easily digestible themes to explore in a motion picture, especially one expected to be a typical Hitchcock entertainment. Perhaps because of such preconceived notions about what a Hitchcock picture should or shouldn't be, many remained puzzled, mildly disinterested or even hostile to Vertigo.
Personally, I can understand how some find it dull or even silly. Watching the plight of a man obsessed, which is of course a very personal, private nightmare (some would call it "stalking") requires a leap of faith and much empathy to really connect with. While casting the likable James Stewart in the lead certainly helps, Vertigo is a dark journey and a difficult one for many viewers to appreciate.
Vertigo is a dark, complex film with a story structure that is daring even by today's standards. Three fourths of the way through the film Hitchcock reveals to the audience exactly what happened to Madeleine. It is not altogether pretty, and changes the focus of the film from a mere mystery-thriller to a tragic romance. But Vertigo has some undeniably powerful images, a terrific score, and strong performances. While I'm not as sold on the picture as some of its very dedicated followers, nor dismissive of it like some critics, it is a haunting, intelligent and evocative work that deserves to be seen by even the casual Hitchcock fan.