A spellbinding thriller about obsession from the Master of Suspense
Perceptions of films can change over time, and “Vertigo” is a definitive example. Though nominated for two Academy Awards, it originally garnered mixed reviews and was not a hit. But a good decade later, the artistry and stylish suspense of this romantic psychological thriller began to be appreciated, and its reputation only keeps growing. Within the last two decades, “Vertigo” was named the #1 Greatest Film of All-Time by prestigious Sight and Sound, the 8th Top Film of All-Time by Cahiers du Cinéma, scored spots on six American Film Institute (AFI) All-Time Greatest Movies lists, including the #1 Greatest Mystery, 9th Greatest American Film, 18th Most Thrilling, and the 18th Greatest Love Story, and is now largely regarded at the magnum opus of one of cinema’s top directors, Alfred Hitchcock. Even I had to grow to love this haunting movie as well, and can now firmly say it is one you don't want to miss.
Shrouded in the unexpected, the less said about “Vertigo’s” story the better. To give only plot basics, I’ll offer a rundown of the film’s main characters, beginning with protagonist “John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson”. “Scottie” has paralyzing acrophobia (fear of heights) which gives him vertigo (makes him dizzy), and prompted him to quit the police force when it caused dire consequences. Former school chum, shipbuilder “Gavin Elster”, urges “Scottie” to come out of retirement to shadow his wife “Madeleine”, fearing she’s in danger. The beautiful “Madeleine” has blackout spells, wanders around the city, takes long drives, and seems to be possessed by a dead woman in a painting who tells her she must die. Two other characters are also vital: “Midge”, “Scottie’s” college sweetheart who is still in love with him; and “Judy”, a red-headed shopgirl. “Scottie” follows and falls in love with “Madeleine”, becomes obsessed with her, and we eventually find ourselves watching an innocent person unwittingly caught up in murder. But that’s only part of the story.
Filmed in stunning Vista-Vision color, “Vertigo” is a thriller about obsession, yearning, love, trust, and reality versus illusion, and it's chockablock with suspense, mystery, death, and intrigue. The film's steady yet leisurely pace allows us to get inside the psyche of “Scottie” as he goes through an emotional crisis, and provides provocative, nail-biting entertainment.
When Hitchcock was in San Francisco for the premier of his 1951 film “Strangers on a Train”, he thought the glamorous city would make a fabulous setting for a murder. So when he came across the 1954 French novel "D'entre les morts" ("From Among the Dead") by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud (aka Thomas Narcejac), he decided to make a film based on it, changing the setting to San Francisco. Alec Coppel was hired to adapt the novel for the screen (along with others), but the screenplay was deemed unfilmable. So screenwriter Samuel Taylor was brought onboard, and without reading the novel or Coppel’s script, he rewrote the entire screenplay guided only by Hitchcock’s vision. Taylor and Hitchcock worked together closely talking about every detail, and even scouted several of the film’s locations together to infuse the spirit of them into the script.
San Francisco is so well featured in “Vertigo”, it’s virtually a character of its own. All exteriors were filmed in and around the city in landmarks that include the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Palace of Fine Arts, Mission Dolores, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Ernie's restaurant, Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Mission San Juan Bautista (the mission’s bell tower had been destroyed, so a matte painting of the tower was used with a shot of the existing mission). All interiors were filmed on sets at Paramount Studios so Hitchcock could have total control over lighting, blocking, and so forth.
As with all his films, Hitchcock preplanned everything, leaving nothing to chance. Attention was paid to every detail from the color of every costume and set, to the camera movements in every shot. He'd make sketches mapping out each shot and include precise details in the script (such as camera moves and even the mood of a shot or scene) which was supplied to his crew so they could prepare every shot in advance. As such, Hitchcock was notoriously bored during filming. Taylor said, “Hitchcock believed that when a screenplay was finished… the picture was finished. He’d say, ‘Well, there it is. The picture’s done… All I have to do is go out on the stage and shoot it, but the picture is done. In my mind, it’s made”. Unless unhappy with a script, Hitchcock rarely if ever changed things while shooting.
The plot of “Vertigo” contains many twists and turns, a couple of which remain unanswered, which hardly matters, as plot takes a backseat to the richly haunting atmosphere and intrigue. Hitchcock himself summed it up best in the book “Hollywood: The Oral History” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, when he said, “To be honest, I am not interested in content at all. I don’t give a damn what the film is about. I am more interested in how to handle the material to create an emotion in the audience”. And “Vertigo” is indeed a triumphant study in emotion and style that stays with you long after the lights come up.
Perhaps more so than any other film director in history, Hitchcock was expert at guiding an audience’s emotions exactly how he wanted, and every piece of “Vertigo” can be used as an example. To enhance the feel of reality mingling with illusion, fog filters are used to produce a mysterious, ethereal atmosphere. To underscore the passion when “Scottie” and “Madeleine” finally kiss at the beach, Hitchcock has violent waves crash behind them, and later there’s a glorious nearly 360º swirling shot of a kiss in a hotel room which (because of the camera movement, visuals, and music) becomes a moment of euphoria for “Scottie”. Strong colors in costumes, props, lighting, and even walls also add emotion, particularly red and green which symbolize “Scottie”, “Madeleine”, and their relationship.
Because of its astounding craftsmanship, “Vertigo” is one of a handful of films continuously dissected, analyzed, and discussed. And indeed, I could go on and on about its repeated motifs, how themes are masterfully reinforced, how cleverly characters are defined, the skillful use of sound and silence, and so on. It's a wonderful reminder that film is truly an art form. But staying true to the purpose of this blog, I present “Vertigo” as recommended entertaining classic movie watching and to broaden your experience of film.
Known as the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock was one of the most gifted filmmakers in cinema history, and the 1950’s proved golden for him as he churned out a staggering number of all-time classics in that decade, including “Strangers on a Train”, "Rear Window", "To Catch a Thief”, "North by Northwest", and began “Psycho” (released in 1960). His fifty directed feature films include many classics, and “Vertigo” is the sixth to be featured on this blog thus far. You can read more about the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock’s life and work in my previous posts on “Notorious”, “Strangers on a Train”, “Rebecca”, “The Birds”, and “North by Northwest”. Click on each title to open that post. And don’t forget to watch for Hitchcock’s cameo in “Vertigo”.
Also appearing repeatedly on this blog is "Vertigo's" star James Stewart, who plays “John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson”. If you study his performance you’ll witness firsthand his tremendous talent. Stewart creates "Scottie" with complete conviction, astonishing ease, vulnerability, and an enormously likable manner, be it terrified while hanging from a building or looking down a staircase, uncomfortably humiliated at a hearing, slightly maniacal choosing clothes at a dress shop, or cautiously tender with “Madeleine” by a fireplace. He uses an economy of acting to display a wealth of emotion, personality, and honesty – all qualities that keep eyes glued to him to see what he’ll say and do next. It is what makes great actors as well as top movie stars. And Stewart was both.
After having reached stardom as a tongue-tied "everyman" while at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) in the late 1930s and early 1940s, James Stewart served in World War II and returned a changed man. He thought of quitting acting, but instead left MGM and the wholesome, small-town boy image he'd created, and began tackliing darker, more morally flawed roles starting with that of a professor who unwittingly inspires murder in Hitchcock's "Rope" in 1948. As Stewart said about “Rope” in Michael Munn's book, "Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend", "I'd never done anything like it. But Hitchcock persuaded me to do it because he said that James Stewart is the last person on earth the audience will expect to be the instigator of such a horrific crime. And as an actor, that intrigued me... to explore a dark side intrigued me. So I did it”.
While continuing to play complex characters, Stewart became one of the biggest stars of the 1950s. He was one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, his first and only choice to play “Scottie”, and “Vertigo” was Stewart’s fourth and final film with Hitchcock, the others being “Rope”, ”Rear Window”, and "The Man Who Knew Too Much". Stewart had an illustrious career, and along with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, he appears in more top classic Hollywood films than possibly any other actor, and several more of his films will be on this blog in the future. You can read more about the life and career of the gifted James Stewart in my posts on “The Philadelphia Story”, "It's a Wonderful Life”, "You Can't Take It with You”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, and “Anatomy of a Murder”. Be sure to read them and watch the films.
Starring opposite Stewart is Kim Novak playing two roles in the film, “Gavin’s” ritzy wife “Madeleine Elster” and working girl “Judy Barton”. Novak is magical with an irresistible innocence and overwhelming star quality. She creates “Madeleine” as sophisticated, icy and distant, and “Judy” as what you see is what you get, unrestrained, street smart. Novak’s sensitive portrayals add sensuality and mystery, and her molten carnality make it clear how “Scottie”, or anyone, could become obsessed with her. “Madeleine” and “Judy” are quite different and the first time I saw this film (as a kid), I wasn’t yet familiar with Novak and didn’t realize the same actress played both roles. That alone speaks highly of her work. As I better understood the film over time, I found her portrayal of “Judy” to be quite heartbreaking.
Actress Vera Miles was under personal contract to Hitchcock and was originally to play Novak’s roles in “Vertigo” with the intention of turning her into a major movie star. Costume fittings and test shots were completed, but after production delays (including two surgeries for Hitchcock), Miles got pregnant and had to leave the film. Some reports say Hitchcock was devastated while others say he was relieved as he didn’t think Miles had that extra star quality to carry the film. He replaced her with Novak, who he saw in a screening of "The Eddy Duchin Story”, but was reportedly never happy with Novak in the roles. Part of it could be she initially held up production because of her summer vacation in Europe, and then again just before shooting with her brief (and successful) strike for a salary increase from Columbia Pictures.
There was also the issue of her appearance. Hitchcock told François Truffaut in his book “Hitchcock”, “Miss Novak arrived on the set with all sorts of preconceived notions that I couldn’t possibly go along with… I went over to Kim Novak’s dressing room and told her about the dresses and hairdos that I had been planning for several months. I also explained that the story was of less importance to me than the over-all visual impact on the screen, once the picture is completed”. He was referring to “Madeleine’s” pulled back hairdo, gray suit and black shoes, all of which Novak was uncomfortable donning. She later realized Hitchcock wanted her to feel uncomfortable to aid her performance.
Hitchcock was a stickler for having his characters, particularly his leading ladies, look and dress exactly as he envisioned. He even wanted Novak to have a specific rhythm in her speech. But when it came to acting he left her alone (as he did with all his actors). Novak once asked him “what do I do in this scene”, and he responded “That’s why I hired you my dear”. Because of the freedom to create the personalities of her characters, Hitchcock became one of her favorite directors. “Vertigo” proved to be her most important film and roles, and ranks among her best performances.
Born in Chicago to parents of Czech decent, Kim Novak had a bit of a challenging childhood, as her father was plagued with undiagnosed mental illness. Wanting to be a fine artist (a painter), she won two scholarships to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In junior college, she began modeling, and while modeling in San Francisco on a cross-country promotional tour for a Deepfreeze home freezer, she accompanied another model on a visit to Hollywood. The two visited the set of the 1953 Jane Russell film “The French Line”, where they happened to be hiring models, and Novak was given a walk-on. A screen-test for Columbia Pictures quickly followed and she was given a contract. Columbia studio head Harry Cohn was looking for a new sex-symbol to replace Columbia’s shining star, 1940's love goddess Rita Hayworth, and to have their own box-office answer to Marilyn Monroe and thought Novak could be it. He tried to make her over with Joan Crawford lips and a name change to Kit Marlowe, but Novak would have none of that, keeping her looks and her last name (her birth name was Marilyn Novak).
Immediately given a starring role in 1954's "Pushover" opposite Fred MacMurray, Novak's popularity quickly rose, and the 1955 film “Picnic" pushed her to stardom and earned her a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer. After many hit films, by 1956 Novak became one of the top box-office draws and biggest movie stars in the world, and graced the cover of Life magazine in 1957. Films followed such as "The Man with the Golden Arm”, "Jeanne Eagles”, “Pal Joey”, and of course, “Vertigo". Part of her deal in being loaned to Paramount for “Vertigo” was that Stewart would appear in Columbia’s film “Bell, Book, and Candle” opposite her, which he did, also in 1958. The two got along famously, and Novak repeatedly said Stewart was incredibly kind, was her favorite costar, and that she learned a lot about acting from his realism. Cohn was one of Hollywood's most notorious tyrants (you can read more about him in my posts on “Gilda” and “From Here to Eternity”), but as frightening as he was, having grown up with her father, Novak was used to dealing with terrifying people. She was thankful for Cohn because he got her first-rate scripts, and when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1958, there was no longer anyone at Columbia who knew how to maintain her career. She was given scripts that weren’t right for her and her career began to go adrift, so in 1966, she decided Hollywood was no longer for her.
Novak had been funneling her frustrations onto the canvas her entire career, and now painting became a priority. She worked in films more sporadically, along with some TV appearances starting in the 1970s. To date, Novak has appeared in 34 films and TV shows, and her other films include "Middle of the Night", "Kiss Me, Stupid ", "The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders", "Strangers When We Meet", "The Notorious Landlady", "Phffft", and "The Mirror Crack’d". On TV, Novak played the role of "Kit Marlowe" (she chose the character's name) on 19 episodes of "Falcon Crest" in 1986 and 1987. Her final film to date is the 1991 Mike Figgis film "Liebestraum". Novak had high hopes for that film, but disagreements with Figgis over her character devastated her so much, she swore never to return to the screen (and hasn’t thus far).
Novak has been married twice, with a first marriage to English actor Richard Johnson, and a second to veterinarian Robert Malloy that lasted over 40 years until his death in 2020. In the 1950s, she dated many people, most famously Black actor and singer Sammy Davis, Jr., (though she later said it was a friendship), which caused a backlash at the time, including threats to harm Davis if he didn't stop seeing her (reportedly indirectly from Cohn). I had the honor of meeting Kim Novak at a party where we had quite a lengthy chat and I can honestly say she is one of the most honest, unguarded, and down to earth people I’ve met, particularly in Hollywood, and I will always cherish that night. I also saw an exhibit of her artwork, which is quite beautiful. As of this writing, Kim Novak is 90 years old.
Barbara Bel Geddes is marvelous as “Marjorie ‘Midge’ Wood”, an artist who works in the underwear department of a store. Though she and “Scottie” were engaged only for three weeks while in college, she still loves the guy. Geddes makes “Midge” sympathetic, warm and motherly, with a mournful jealousy, humor, quirkiness, and always with a hope she’ll get “Scottie” back one day. The character was invented by Taylor (“Midge” did not exist in the book), for he felt the script needed someone to represent reality and humanity in the middle of all the illusion. He knew Bel Geddes and wrote the part with her in mind. The only direction Hitchcock gave her was “Don’t act!” – and she doesn’t. Geddes inhabits the role.
New York City born Barbara Bel Geddes was the daughter of Broadway scenic designer-producer-director Norman Bel Geddes. Growing up around theater, she studied acting at the Actors Studio and made her Broadway debut at the age of 18 in 1951's "Out of the Frying Pan". More Broadway shows followed, and her breakthrough came in 1945, with Elia Kazan's "Deep Are the Roots", earning her a Theatre World Award. The stage remained her main home for most of her career, and the acclaimed Bel Geddes earned two Best Actress Tony Award nominations, (one playing "Maggie" in the original 1955 production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"). She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1993.
While working on Broadway, Bel Geddes made her film debut in 1947's "The Long Night", followed by "1948's "I Remember Mama", which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only). Focusing more on theater and TV, she only appeared in twelve films, others of which include "Panic in the Streets", "Blood on the Moon", "Fourteen Hours", and "The Five Pennies". She began appearing on television in 1950, working there steadily, with appearances on four episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (including what is considered one of the show’s best episodes, 1958’s "Lamb to the Slaughter"). She most famously starred as "Miss Ellie Ewing" in the long-running nighttime soap opera "Dallas", which earned her an Emmy Award (with three nominations) and a Golden Globe (with three nominations). She retired from acting in 1990, worked as a fine artist, and wrote two children books. She was married twice. Barbara Bel Geddes died in 2005 at the age of 82.
Another actor in “Vertigo” who became famous on TV is Ellen Corby who plays the manager of the McKittrick Hotel. Corby appears in one brief scene with Stewart, and because she was such a talented actress, she endows this woman with her own unique personality in very little screen time.
Born in Wisconsin to Danish parents, Ellen Corby grew up in Philadelphia, began acting on stage, and made her first film appearance in 1928's "Buster's Big Chance". She moved to Hollywood in 1932, and worked as a script girl (now called script supervisor) before appearing in uncredited bit parts in movies, starting with 1933’s "Storm at Daybreak". Her films from this period include "The Spiral Staircase", "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer", "The Dark Corner", and as "Ms. Davis" in "It's a Wonderful Life". In 1948, she appeared in "I Remember Mama" (with Bel Geddes) for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination (her only) and won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. In 1950, Corby began appearing on television, working extensively on TV for the rest of her career. She amassed 267 film and TV credits in over seventy years, and her other films include "Little Women", "Mighty Joe Young”, "Shane", "Sabrina", "Pocketful of Miracles", and "Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte". She is most famously known as "Esther 'Grandma' Walton" on the classic TV series, "The Waltons" (from 1972 to 1980), which made her a household name and earned her three Emmy Awards (with six nominations) and a Golden Globe Award (with four nominations). Her TV appearances also include "Night Gallery”, "Hawaii Five-O", "The Lucy Show", and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". She also wrote stories for several films, one screen play, and two episodes of "The Waltons". She married and divorced director Francis Corby before living with a woman named Stella Luchetta for over fifty years, until her death. Ellen Corby died in 1999 at the age of 87.
Another character actress appearing brielfy in "Vertigo" is Lee Patrick as the new owner of "Madeleine's" car. It's a blink-and-you-miss it role, yet Patrick makes her presence felt. I'm pointing her out because this New York City born actress has appeared in many classics, several of which are already on this blog: as "'Deb' McIntyre" in "Now, Voyager”; as "Maggie Biederhof" in "Mildred Pierce”; as "Mrs. Walters" in "Pillow Talk”; and most memorably as Humphrey Bogart's secretary "Effie Perine" in "The Maltese Falcon". After appearing in 26 Broadways shows between 1922 and 1938, Patrick embarked on a steady film and TV career, and from 1937 though 1975, accrued 110 credits, others of which include "Caged", "In This Our Life", "Auntie Mame", "The Snake Pit", and her final, 1975’s "The Black Bird". Her TV credits include "Hazel", "Wagon Train", "Boss Lady", and as "Henrietta Topper" in the 1950 TV series "Topper". She was married once until her death. Lee Patrick died in 1982 at the age of 81.
Another name I must mention is costume designer Edith Head. In a film largely about appearances, Head's costumes do a fantastic job helping define the characters while showing off the shapes of the actors. In particular, notice how "Madeleine's" clothes appear stiff and sleek next to “Judy’s” soft and curve-emphasizing apparel. Head was one of Hollywood's top costume designers and I've mentioned her in several posts, including "Double Indemnity", "The Heiress", "Hud", "Roman Holiday", "Sunset Boulevard", "Sullivan's Travels", "The Birds", and particularly "A Place in the Sun".
"Vertigo's" lush score is by one of filmdom’s great composers, orchestrators, and conductors, Bernard Herrmann. Because of an ASCAP strike at the time, Herrmann was prevented from conducting this score (it's the only score he wrote and didn't conduct), and it was recorded in Vienna and London. His score is dazzling, with repeated patterns and unresolved notes that keep the film mysterious and romantic, and AFI named it the 12th Greatest Film Score of All-Time. "Vertigo" was the fourth of seven Hitchcock films he scored along with many other classics. You can read more about Bernard Herrmann in my posts on "The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “North by Northwest”, "The Birds", and "Citizen Kane”.
A quick mention of graphic designer Saul Bass, who designed the opening titles. With the use of closeups of an eye and spiraling spirograph type designs, he sets up the feeling of a dizzying psychological landscape which is echoed throughout the film. This was the first of three collaborations with Hitchcock, the other two being "North by Northwest" and "Psycho". You can read more about Saul Bass in my post on "Anatomy of a Murder".
"Vertigo" earned two Academy Award nominations – one for Best Art Direction - Set Decoration (Hal Pereira, Henry Bumstead, Sam Comer, and Frank McKelvy), and a second for Best Sound (George Dutton). It's influenced many films such as Kannan Shankar's "Kalangarai Vilakkam”, Brian De Palma's "Obsession", Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety", and David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive", among others.
This week offers an opportunity to be dazzled by striking colors, dynamic performances, heavenly visuals, and a stirring story, all etched with haunting suspense by the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. It's a spellbinding treat. Enjoy “Vertigo”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
Alfred Hitchcock appears for a second or two in many of his films, “Vertigo” included. In case you missed it, about ten minutes into the film, he walks across the screen past the shipping building holding something that looks like a bugle case.
For his 1940 masterpiece “Rebecca”, Hitchcock wanted to create a dizzying effect but no one could figure out how to do it, but by the time of “Vertigo” he was able to create it using dollies and zooms. To ease production and lower costs, a miniature of the staircase was built and laid on its side to film the effect. The camera tracked (moved) backwards at the same time the lens zoomed in. It worked tremendously and has been replicated in countless films ever since and is now called a dolly-zoom, trombone, or contra-zoom shot, and has become one of the most famous images in “Vertigo” and all of cinema.