Reviewing a film that almost solely relies on its twists and turns can be a tricky task. In the case of most Alfred Hitchcock films, the enjoyment comes from the suspense and the relief that flows over the viewer when the narrative twists and the shocks have been revealed. Hitchcock’s magnum opus, Vertigo is one of these films and so therefore this review comes with a spoiler warning as nothing can quite match that first viewing which sticks the knife into the viewer and then twists it by repeatedly by torturing our main protagonist.
Vertigo opens with a rooftop chase over the dark terraces of San Francisco. However before the film has even kicked off, it’s made its mark with a stunningly Freudian introduction sound tracked by Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. James Stewart plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, the acrophobic detective hired to follow his old friend’s suicidal wife as he’s convinced she’s becoming possessed by a woman from the past. The film is littered with set pieces, often wheeled out to showcase the best of western cinema yet in between its big, memorable scenes are quiet evocations of San Francisco, beautifully shot and played. The bigger scenes simply wouldn’t work without these smaller more subtle shots and this exemplifies what Alfred Hitchcock was all about. The detail in every scene is just astonishing, even down to the cars and this makes it demand repeat viewings.
Though initially starting with a supernatural edge to the mystery around the woman who Scottie disturbingly becomes obsessed with, it twists and turns into a scam, both emotionally and financially, with his friend setting him up for an extremely big fall for the gain of wealth and murder of his real wife. The second half of the film surrounds a dark coincidence with Scottie finding a girl who looks suspiciously like his friend’s suicidal wife (now apparently deceased). The gradual process of turning her back into the woman he fell in love (which she is anyway being part of the original scam) both disturbs and reveals the truth behind Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his real wife but this becomes a side strand to the true narrative of the film.
It’s a giveaway that the title that the film is named after a character trait of Scottie’s and he is exactly what the film is about. His emotional journey, falling in love twice with the same woman, finding out he’s been betrayed by her and his friend and then losing her as she dies twice, makes it a real sucker punch to the gut. Unlike other Hitchcock films there’s no real break from the darkness and instead of the occasional humorous edge or comedic turn found in his other films, Vertigo remains distinctly dark until its very end. This makes it the most trying and emotionally consistent film he probably ever made.
The film however simply wouldn’t work without James Stewart as the poor and tortured Scottie. His gentle naivety and genuine friendliness make it very easy to sympathise with him and possible to travel along with his journey at a disturbingly close level. Vertigo also works as a sickly dream with bright and vivid colours representing different aspects of memory as well as the famous shot of the zoom in/zoom out view high floor drop. Scottie’s dreams within the film also play to this idea, being bright and colourful visions of the falling man and animated flowers along with Scottie’s iconoclastic face zooming down a corridor.
Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by Psycho, Vertigo is a more consistent contender for Hitchcock’s best film. The magical combination of Hitchcock, Stewart and Herrmann is never better than here and though we may be accustomed to spoilers and information about films even before they’re released these days, there’s something about Vertigo that makes its shocks just as powerful, disturbing and gripping on a re-watch as when first viewed.