Movie Reviews

The Trouble With “Vertigo”

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WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!

In 1958, Alfred Hitchcock took one of the biggest risks of his long and illustrious career. By this point, he had already released a string of successful movies, both critically and financially, including “Rear Window,” “To Catch A Thief” and “Strangers On A Train.” But these films led up to one piece of work, which Hitchcock said would be his masterpiece; “Vertigo.”

And “Vertigo” was met with a lukewarm response by critics and only did fair at the box office. At the time of the release, Hitchcock considered it a failure.

It wasn’t until after Hitchcock’s death in 1980 that viewers decided to give “Vertigo” a second chance. This led critics to discovering there was much more to it than initially thought, in particular the cinematography, dark storytelling and reflections on how Hitchcock treated his leading ladies within the main character. Over the years, “Vertigo” has steadily risen in popularity, including being in the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of All-Time in 2007. It would reach the height of its popularity in 2012 when Sight & Sound Magazine declared “Vertigo” the greatest film ever made, surpassing “Citizen Kane” for that title.

It seemed that Hitchcock’s masterpiece had finally deserved its rightful place.

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So why is it that something does not feel right about this?

For as much praise as “Vertigo” gets, some of it does seem a bit undeserved. But let me make this clear, I do not hate “Vertigo” or Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is one of the greatest filmmakers and was the king of suspense. One thing people always forget is that Hitchcock knew how to work the camera to his advantage and make it just as much of a player in the scene as any of the actors. He revolutionized many filmmaking techniques that are taken for granted these days, including the dolly zoom used in “Vertigo.”

As for “Vertigo” itself, there are many aspects to enjoy and immerse yourself in. Like many of Hitchcock’s works, the pacing is tight and focused, always keeping you on edge. Even as the lead characters drive around the city, you’re unsure of what the lead female psyche will make her do next. The score is atmospheric and haunting, much like the many themes of the movie. Also, the cinematography of San Francisco and its loopy terrain makes the film all the more tense and beautiful to look at.

I feel that “Vertigo” is at its best when we simply watch Scotty follow this woman around town, as she takes in the flowers or observes the paintings, and Scotty watches over her like a hawk. Few words are exchanged and not much is accomplished, but these scenes add a level of horror and creepiness to the film that would otherwise be absent.

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That being said, this movie has many problems that drag it down. In particular, “Vertigo” has an insanely convoluted story and an unlikable douchebag of a main character.

For those unfamiliar with “Vertigo” here is a basic plot description: John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) has retired from the police force after an altercation where a fellow cop died due to Scottie’s acrophobia, fear of heights. But an old friend of Scottie decides to recruit him to do one last job; the man’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) appears to be possessed by a dead relative and intends to kill her. Scottie’s job is to follow this woman around and make sure she stays alive.

As strange as this premise is, there appears nothing wrong with it on the surface. It is not until the film is halfway over that “Vertigo” gets crazy.

After Scottie attempts chases Madeleine to the top of a high church, but can’t keep up due to his acrophobia, Scottie sees Madeleine’s body fall from the top and land below, dead. Scottie, now completely out of it, wanders around aimlessly, as he had fallen in love with this woman. Things get so bad that he must be put in a sanatorium.

Once he is out, Scottie almost immediately finds another woman, Judy (also played by Kim Novak) who looks very much like Madeleine. Scottie follows her around, this time not being nearly as subtle about it, until Judy confronts him and takes pity on him, agreeing to go on a date with him. Yet, after a terrible date where Scottie can’t stop obsessing over Madeleine, Judy keeps wanting to see him. She even agrees to start looking more like Madeleine, even dying her red hair blonde and getting dresses just like hers.

This all eventually leads up to the climatic reveal: The man who had hired Scottie to follow Madeleine had also hired Judy to look just like his wife and make Scottie follow her around instead of Madeleine, so that the man could murder his wife and get away with it. Scottie never actually saw the real Madeline, just Judy pretending to be Madeleine. The body that fell off of the church was the real Madeline, with her husband chucking her already dead body once Judy reached the top.

The reason Judy stayed around so long after the crime was complete was because she had fallen in love with Scottie and went through being made in Madeleine once again just to make him happy. Apparently, she would rather be a fake dead person who has Scottie than to be herself without this stalking obsessed womanizer who wouldn’t kiss her unless her hair was just like Madeleine.

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There is so much to discuss with the plot alone, but lets start with the basic question I’ve always had: Why did this one guy go to so many lengths just to murder his wife? I get that he wanted to make her death look like an accident, but did he really need to hire two different people to do very elaborate and distracting jobs? To do something like that, he clearly needed a lot of money, which he could have put to use in other places?

Of all the plans to murder someone else throughout the Hitchcock films, this guy’s plan to murder his wife is by far the most elaborate, insane and easily collapsible plan of them all. What if Scottie had found out there were two Madeleine’s? What if Judy decided to place her faith more in Scottie and tell the police what is going on? Why go with the whole possessed by a dead relative plan when it was just an act? Wouldn’t it have just been easier to kill her with poison, take her body out to the middle of the ocean, tie a cement block to her legs and dump her over? Or hell, why did this guy want to murder his wife in the first place?

Yeah, that important question goes unaddressed. He just wants to murder his wife to see what it feels like. This wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it weren’t pulled during the last few minutes of the movie. We’re led to believe that “Vertigo” is more about paranormal possession and getting over one’s fears of the past, only to find out that this was all a convoluted murder scheme by a character that is on-screen for less than five minutes. This reveal makes me so scratch my head every single time I watch “Vertigo.” Not only is it a moronic murder plan, but it reduces the roles of our main characters to pawns in this guy’s scheme.

But then my favorite part of the plot happens: While Judy is telling Scottie about all that happened and Scottie scolds Judy about what she did, they have been climbing the same church tower that Madeleine died on. By the time they reach the top, Scottie has realized that he is over his fear of heights. All looks well for our couple, until they hear someone else climbing up the tower. Judy, scared that it might be the man who hired them, runs away but seems to forget that she is on a tiny ledge at the top of a large tower, and falls to her death. Out of the shadows comes a nun, who came to see who was climbing the tower. Scottie looks down at Judy’s body, but at least his acrophobia was cured.

I’m not going to lie, this ending makes me laugh every single time. It is so sudden, so out of no where, and so disturbing that it is hilarious to me. It’s made even more gut-bursting when you remember that this was supposed to be taken seriously. Yet here is our main female lead thinking that a man who hasn’t followed her in months has suddenly come back, and runs over the edge of tower. That’s something I’d expect out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, not an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

My overall point on “Vertigo”‘s plot is that it is illogical and puzzling, even for an Alfred Hitchcock film. It works while Scottie is tracking Judy disguised as Madeleine, but once Scottie creeps on Judy after Madeleine’s death, the film loses something. It becomes less about a man tried to redeem himself for his failure and more about stalking someone who looks like a dead person and making them look like that corpse. It’s creepy and messed up, but that is what Hitchcock was going for, so I can’t fault “Vertigo” for that.

I’ve talked about how Scottie does many unpleasant things in “Vertigo” but what really gets me is that Scottie is played by James Stewart, who is known for playing nice, lovable, average joe characters, like in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Harvey.” Yet here he is playing a guy who is so obsessed with a dead person that he makes another woman lose her identity and become this other person. He stalks, creeps and won’t stop until he can get someone who never existed. That makes Scottie all the more disturbing.

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If the main character of your story is so unlikable and unsympathetic, then why should I care about anything he does?

Some people might argue that this was a change of pace for Stewart and that Hitchcock was going for a disturbing feeling. To those, I say this is disturbing for the wrong reasons. You can have a relatable and interesting main character and still have a creepy atmosphere. But by making your lead be played by a man known for how friendly he can be just makes me think that Scottie is going to go beat up Jefferson Smith and George Bailey after the film is over.

Certain actors carry stigmas with them: Robert De Niro is associated with gangsters. Humphrey Bogart is associated with detectives and military officers. Rob Schnider is associated with terrible Adam Sandler flicks. James Stewart is another one of those actors.

When you think of James Stewart, scenes of “It’s A Wonderful Life” come to mind, where he gives up his happiness and chance at the life that he wanted to save the lives around him, or “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” where he stands in front of Congress and the entirety of the United States to defend the lives of innocent people, no matter what the odds are against him.

Sometimes actors can go against their stigmas and give wonderful performances. And while Stewart does give a one-of-a-kind performance, seeing him demand Kim Novak to die her hair and wear Madeleine’s clothes does not seem right. It could have worked, but because I see those eyes of his stare at me with unflinching obsession, I know that this is wrong.

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So the question is whether or not “Vertigo” deserves the title of “Greatest Film Ever Made”? I don’t think it even deserves the title of Hitchcock’s best film. I can think of at least five other movies made by Alfred Hitchcock that I thoroughly enjoyed and would not mind watching again, which include “Shadow Of A Doubt,” “Strangers On A Train,” “Rear Window,” “North By Northwest” and “Rebecca” and “Psycho.” Hitchcock’s work has stood the test of time in many regards and many still continue to be as suspenseful today as they were upon their release.

But I would not call “Vertigo” a bad movie. For as much as I’ve bashed the film here, there is something to be respected. In a way, the movie is just as much about Hitchcock as it is Scottie. How he treated his leading ladies and used them as pawns in his own game of filmmaking. To him, they were nothing more than tools to be used to meet his goals, much like Judy was to Scottie. Hitchcock is putting himself on the screen for everyone to see, completely exposed and naked, in all his awkward, disturbing self. For that reason, I respect both Alfred Hitchcock and “Vertigo” for being so honest with us, but at the same time fun to watch.

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Is “Vertigo” the best movie ever? No. But is it a film that deserves to be watched? Most certainly, yes.

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