Released in 1958, Vertigo was seldom hailed as Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. Yet, in the decades following, the film has climbed numerous ‘Best Film’ lists, notably the Sight and Sound poll in 2012 that crowned it the greatest of all time. While a title of that status is always dubious, it begs the question as to exactly how and why Hitchcock’s masterpiece has eluded so many cinemagoers for so long?
This not an argument that Vertigo is, at first glance, dense or difficult. It begins with a gripping but nonetheless typical Hitchcockian chase sequence, distinct only in the rich use of Technicolor (Vista Vision, you will be informed), before he delivers the promise of the film’s title in dizzying fashion – if you’ll permit the pun. Vertigo’s sparse, refined moments of violence are not distinct from Hitchcock’s overall style, rather, merely pathological. What makes Vertigo so quietly radical is its obsession with implicit, unconscious tension, bristling between the frames. Stewart’s subtle performance helps to convey this ethereal suspense, wasting not even the most insignificant facial tic in breathing bewildered life into Scotty Ferguson as he is led through his ghostly investigation. The subject, Madeleine, though achingly beautiful is nevertheless a damsel in mental distress, possessed by a madness that will consume the both of them.
Scotty is a far cry from perhaps Stewart’s most famous role as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life; Hitchcock, keeping us intimate throughout his twisted journey, expertly exploits Stewart’s curious everyman quality. This may well be the main reason why the most far-fetched aspects of the story seem minor as we watch them: Stewart’s natural magnetism secures our empathy enough for us to perceive things exactly as he does, even as he becomes dangerously obsessive, almost abusive, towards Madeleine.
Setting the story aside, Vertigo marks Hitchcock at an understated peak. The camera sweeps effortlessly through San Francisco, restrained but nevertheless hypnotic; the heavy use of deep-space conveying a San Francisco that, while magnificent to look at and at times deeply romantic, conceals something much more sinister and unfathomable. The set design is impeccable, utilizing Technicolor in all its glory to seduce us into this tale of agonizing obsession and sordid betrayal.
Released two years before the monochromatic Psycho, Technicolor was by no means simply a condition of the studio – it is wholly essential to the story. In its richness, the imagery dazzles and invites you, simultaneously enhancing the film’s more dream-like sequences. What’s more, in Scotty’s notorious dream sequence it bursts forth as a fabulous tool of manipulation to lure us into Scotty’s disturbed psyche, the audience victims of cinematic Stockholm Syndrome. The brightest tool in Hitchcock’s box, however, is the score. Perhaps Vertigo’s defining trait, there is simply no substitute Bernard Hermann’s rich and hypnotic power, perfectly evoking the haunted romanticism that plagues our melancholic protagonists. Though occasionally melodramatic – if anything, undermining the suspense – at its peak it is utterly spellbinding, outweighing the odd moment of heavy-handedness.
To dismiss Vertigo as Hitchcock-does-melodrama is to ignore a masterwork that is oozing in pitch-black romance and unconscious terror. Do not expect to be immediately blown away, however. The film’s sensational twists and turns will perhaps baffle you, and incline you to relegate it to a more dated and melodramatic past. But Vertigo will nevertheless squat at the back of your mind with its moments of terrific longing, beauty, and tragedy. Don’t let it escape you.