Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vertigo: A Review (Review #15)


Necrophilia Was Never This Weird...

While Alfred Hitchcock is called The Master of Suspense, it appears to me that few of his films involve suspense exclusively. Some of his very best films are about love with the veneer of suspense. Films like NotoriousSpellbound or Rebecca all revolve not so much on suspense or mystery but on love.

Vertigo, one of his greatest films, is also about love: a very twisted love, built on obsession that borders on necrophilia, if not actually about that.

John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart), a San Francisco cop has to retire from the force after his fear of heights and accompanying vertigo causes the death of a fellow officer. An old Army buddy, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) asks him to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). He says that his wife believes she's being taken over by the spirit of a dead ancestor and fears for her life. Scottie agrees, and after he rescues her after she jumps into San Francisco Bay they fall in love.

He tries to help her solve the mystery within her mind, but the pull of death is too strong. She throws herself off a church bell tower as Scottie attempts to save her but cannot due to his acrophobia. Madeleine's death plunges Scottie into a complete breakdown, from which his best friend and former fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cannot help him emerge from.

Eventually, he recovers, but it's an empty recovery. He haunts all the places they would go, following the trail he would use to follow Madeleine when she lived. In one of his wanderings, he finds Judy, who bears a striking resemblance to his lost love. Scottie convinces Judy to essentially become Madeleine, but there's one final twist that will plunge them all to tragedy.

While there is a mystery within Vertigo, the film is really about how love can be an illusion, and that the illusion can grow into an obsession that destroys all those that come in contact with it. Scottie becomes so obsessed with Madeleine that once she leaves, he tries to recreate her in Judy. His obsession with his memories takes on a doomed nature, where in his fragile mind he soon no longer can tell reality from fantasy. His methodical way of recreating Madeleine becomes possessive, and when Judy reemerges to fit his fantasy world it's as if the line separating reality and fantasy blur into ultimate tragedy.

Stewart's performance is among his greatest. There is no folksy down-home mannerisms to his Scottie. He's a man obsessed, unhinged, totally given over to love that he sacrifices sanity to keep his myth of love alive. Novak also shines in her role, the object of a man's desire who would go along with his madness for the sake of love. Barbara Bel Geddes brings a touch of humor but also of pathos as the woman who loves Scottie but cannot save him from himself.

Hitchcock creates one of the greatest films of all time, and his skills are unmatched in capturing the subconscious. For example, when Stewart is getting the backstory of Carlotta Valdes, the ancestor, note the lighting in the room. It's a brilliant piece of directing.

Also, note how there are long periods when there is no dialogue, only the music to provide the mood. This is the place where special recognition needs to go to Bernard Herrmann. His score evokes the intense longing in the characters, their doomed romance, even the swirling nature of the plot.

Vertigo is a dizzying exploration into the madness of obsessive love. It's an intense, mournful experience. Part psychological horror film, part twisted romance, Vertigo is Hitchcock at his darkest.


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