Before seeing this film, I made the mistake of reading an analysis of the story, which of course revealed way too much information. So the effect of the reveals was greatly diminished for me. I’ll try to avoid that here.
Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s most experimental film (after Rope, I suppose—the film seemingly done in one take—but not really). The movie starts with police detective Scottie Ferguson (played by James Stewart) chasing a criminal across rooftops—and hanging from one after a nearly fatal leap. Thus, the title of the film. Having developed vertigo and a fear of heights, Ferguson retires to a (presumably) quiet life in San Francisco.
But that’s not to be. An old college friend wants Ferguson (or Scottie) to follow his wife, Madeleine, a haunted blonde beauty (played by stunning Hitchcock blonde Kim Novak) who seems fixated on a deceased woman named Carlotta whose portrait hangs in an art museum.
At some point, Scottie is called upon to rescue her from what seems to me the most feeble attempt to commit suicide by drowning. Nonetheless, he follows her into the drink (where she flails about with great gusto), fishes her out, and takes her home. Needless to say, Scottie falls hard for Madeleine. And vice versa.
Based on Madeleine’s description of a dream, Scottie takes her to the Mission San Juan Bautista. And while they exchange words of love, Madeline suddenly runs inside and up into the bell tower. Scottie tries to follow, but is slowed by … what else? … vertigo. By the time he reaches the top …
I’m stopping there. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what happens. If you haven’t seen it, you should.
Let’s just say the story is about love, obsession, and emotional manipulation. It’s also about greed, deception, and the blurry line between perception and reality. All set against the magnificent background of San Francisco and the Golden Gate (bridge and all).
It also includes some of the most unique and visionary uses of color, cinematography, and montage (which in combination border on the psychedelic at times).
Without spoilers, I’ll just say the dénouement is bittersweet, yet satisfying.
A movie of psychological thrills way ahead of its time, Vertigo gets two thumbs up!