MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #9. Vertigo (1958)

“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
Vertigo 1
“Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you; you took no notice.”

Vertigo was a bit of a financial and critical flop when it was released 1958. These days, it’s swung so far in esteem that it overtook Citizen Cane as the greatest film ever made, according to the prestigious Sight & Sound poll. I’ve seen it a couple of times before, and this most recent viewing left me with the same opinion… It’s pretty good, but not the greatest film ever made. It’s not even the greatest Alfred Hitchcock film ever made. It’s not even the greatest Hitchcock film ever made starring Jimmy Stewart.


After his own fear of heights leads to a fellow officer falling to his death from a building’s roof, Scottie (James Stewart) quits the police force and falls into a life of leisure, mainly just lounging around the apartment of best friend and former fiancé, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). But when news of Scottie’s roof top incident makes the papers, it’s seen by an old college buddy, and current shipping magnate, Gavin (Tom Helmore). Figuring he’s at a loss professionally, Gavin hires Scottie to work as a PI and follow his wife. Gavin isn’t worried she’s cheating, he’s worried she’s going insane.

Tailing the wife, (Kim Novak as Madeleine), Scottie finds her following a strange pattern. She buys flowers, places them on a grave, then visits a museum where she stares at a portrait, before disappearing into a hotel where it turns out she has had a room for the several weeks. But she never stays overnight, just sits during the day, several days a week. An element of the supernatural appears when it turns out that the portrait is of Carlotta, Madeleine’s great grandmother, although she doesn’t know it, and that she is reliving aspects of Carlotta’s life before her scandalous suicide. But this is Alfred Hitchcock, so any evil in this world is much more likely to come from practical evils like greed or revenge, than it is from anything other worldy.

A good movie twist is one you never saw coming, but the second it’s revealed, you feel like an idiot for not predicting it all along. Vertigo is built on such a ludicrous premise, that the twist just doesn’t pay off. The story basically relies on a con job, a scam. But the scam is so convoluted, so crazy, so slapped together for the sake of the movie’s plot, that no one in the real world would ever join the dots needed to come up with the a plan, let alone attempt to actually pull it off.

Vertigo 2

Don’t get me wrong, Vertigo is good. It’s really, really, really good. It’s just got no business being in the top 10 of this AFI list, or number one on the Sight & Sound list. If you want a better Hitchcock movie, you’ve got Psycho, North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train. And if you want a better Hitchcock movie starring James Stewart, you have Rear Window.

Vertigo
Directed By – Alfred Hitchcock
Written By – Alec CoppelSamuel A. Taylor

Other Opinions Are Available. What did these people have to say about Vertigo?
Roger Ebert
Variety
Max Glas

5 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | ***AFI WEEKEND*** #9. Vertigo (1958)

  1. As pure cinema this film is about as good as it gets. I also think the second woman dying was a twist you never saw coming. I don’t know if it belongs in the top ten, or which films actually do, but everybody should see it at least once.

  2. One thing that’s always puzzled me about this film, the opening scene. How could Scottie have possibly been rescued? He’s hanging from the gutter, which is about to collapse. There’s nobody else around. And even if there were, nobody could have gotten close enough to pull him up?

    Is this scene (ripped off by The Matrix, btw) supposed to have been Scottie’s dream?

    1. I just read an amazing book of interviews between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is very open about his disregard for details like that and was much more concerned with entertainment over plausibility. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he was aware of the issue re. Scotty surviving the opening scene, but probably thought explaining it would just slow things down.

      1. But what does that disregard mean?

        I’ve always gotten the sense that Vertigo is about the fear of downward mobility. Scottie is a rich WASP with inherited money who chooses to be a cop? He’s fine with the contradiction until he hits his 50s and starts declining physically. Then his obsession with Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton/Carlotta (three steeps downward in the social hierarchy) mirrors his worries about the loss of his youth.

        Hitchcock was a not particularly viral or handsome man obsessed with blonds like Madeleine Elster. Scottie’s anxiety mirrors his own, his lack of sexual potency, the fear of every artist of falling off a cliff into the underclass. The surface of Veritgo is wealth/light/order. Yet it’s a surface created by a filmmaker who’s constantly worried about falling into the abyss. So he leaves Scottie hanging permanently.

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