I have a pretty big Alfred Hitchcock-sized hole in the films I’ve seen.
Obviously Hitchcock is widely considered to be one of the best filmmakers of all time, and yet I’ve managed to accidentally avoid most of his films. For a long while, the only film of Hitchcock’s I had seen was “Psycho.” I absolutely love “Psycho” — how could anyone not? But for whatever reason, I just never got around to his other works.
Well, for this week’s Rewind Review, I decided to start remedying that with another one of Hitchcock’s classics, “Vertigo.”
“Vertigo” was released in 1958, and it stars James Stewart as John Ferguson, a detective who recently left the police force. His reason for leaving stems from his acrophobia, the fear of heights, which he blames for the death of another detective. However, when an old friend of Ferguson’s comes to him for help solving a case, he gets sucked into a mystery with all the essential twists and turns one would expect from Hitchcock.
Despite Hitchcock’s reputation as the master of suspense, “Vertigo” wasn’t very suspenseful. It doesn’t have that typical get-under-your-skin creepiness that’s common in a lot of classic horror. Instead, “Vertigo” is Hitchcock delving fully into the world of mysteries.
The central mystery of “Vertigo” surrounds a woman named Madeleine Elster, the wife of Ferguson’s old friend. Elster has been acting strange, and it seems as if she’s become either obsessed with or possessed by the spirit of a deceased woman named Carlotta Valdes. It seems that Elster is occasionally taken over by the spirit of Valdes, which results in her behaving rather strangely and not remembering anything of the experience. As Ferguson spends time investigating Elster and the complexities of her situation, he begins to fall in love with her, becoming almost as entranced with her as she is by Valdes.
What really brings the mastery of the whole film together is Stewart’s performance in the lead role. Older films, particularly from the 1940s and 50s, tend to have a reputation for large, grandiose and almost caricatured performances, but Stewart’s performance in “Vertigo” is entirely different. His emotions are subtle, and he carries himself with a genuine sense of intellect. Even when he’s doing something as simple as driving a car, Stewart always makes Ferguson appear to be two steps ahead of the audience. Ferguson feels like a widely complex individual who’s still trying to figure out a lot of his own beliefs, and that’s largely due to Stewart’s performance. Despite his massive popularity and status as Hollywood royalty, Stewart disappears into this role. It’s easy to forget it’s even him you’re watching on screen.
Hitchcock’s handling of this mystery is unsurprisingly top-notch. Even though the film has a pretty slow pace, Hitchcock manages to create an atmosphere that sucks the audience in and refuses to let go. As the film goes on, there are more and more intricacies and twists introduced to the central mystery, but none of them feel out of place. The puzzle comes together very naturally, which makes it much easier for the viewer to follow along and even try to solve for themselves.
A large contributing factor to building the film’s atmosphere is the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann’s score in “Vertigo” isn’t nearly as big or flashy as his music from “Psycho,” but it strikes a perfect tone for the mystery. The whole score is very cyclical, often coming back to the same themes and motifs, and by doing this it maintains a sense of continuity throughout the entirety of the film. It helps craft the world that “Vertigo” is unfolding in, and it envelops the audience in an intensely heavy yet wondrous mood that matches the mystery unfolding on screen.
“Vertigo” was exactly the kind of brilliance one would expect from Hitchcock. Every second of the film is so meticulously crafted, and it provides one of the best mystery film experiences out there. It’s a truly phenomenal film in every sense, and it certainly has me excited to delve further into Hitchcock’s filmography.