So what's so wonderful about the film that knocked Citizen Kane out of the top spot on the 2012 Sight & Sound Greatest Film Poll. As an unashamed Hitchcock-lover, I could give you 50 reasons that Vertigo is a masterpiece, but here I've narrowed it down to five.
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
1. The classic Hitchcock checklist
Vertigo is just about the perfect film. It’s classic Hitchcock fare, incorporating many of the director’s trademark elements: distinguished and/or handsome leading man: check!; beautiful blonde icy and/or emotionally vulnerable leading lady: check!; magnificent musical score by Bernard Herrmann: check!, innovative and visually stunning opening credit sequence by Saul Bass: check!, and costume design by wonderful (8-time Oscar-winner) Edith Head: check!
2. It hooks you from the first moment
Even before a location comes in view or an actor says a line, Bass’ spellbinding opening sequence and the first taste of Herrmann’s mesmerising music give the promise that this film will be something special. It’s a delicious taste of what’s to come. The aural and visual languages here speak volumes. Bass’ imagery tells a story of disorientation, of things not being as they seem. Hermann’s divine orchestrations also hint at something deeper: something menacing and unexpected. We’ll soon learn that however fast our hearts are beating here in anticipation of what’s ahead, it’s nothing compared to the confusion and eventually heart-stopping terror that our leading man will be feeling.How wonderful it is to see a spectacular thriller that has you on the edge of your seat from the word go. Case in point: the chilling moment less than one minute into the action, where we see Detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson hanging off a building ledge by his fingertips, perilously close to falling to his death.
3. Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy (James) Stewart (in this his fourth and final collaboration with Hitchcock) brings such humanity and a perfectly-pitched intensity to the role of Scottie. We feel Scottie’s guilt over the fact that a colleague lost his life trying to save him, we feel his confusion when the things happening around him don’t seem to make sense, and we ultimately feel his hurt and anger as a result of a chain-reaction of betrayals. But it’s in Vertigo’s famous nightmare sequence that we most empathise with Scottie. This stunningly colourful sequence (a mix of live action and animation) gives us a scarily close look into the inner turmoil Scottie is suffering. The look of sheer terror on Scottie’s face when he wakes up bolt upright from his dream is unforgettable. The whites of his eyes say it all. (Footnote: Mad Men (2007) TV fans will notice that in a scene depicting Scottie’s nightmare, there’s a ‘falling man’ sequence that’s strongly referenced in the Mad Men opening titles).
4. The rest of the cast
Leading lady Kim Novak is incredibly mesmerising in her dual roles of Madeleine and Judy. The other characters in the film are also beautifully played. They include Broadway veteran Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie’s friend/ex-girlfriend Midge Wood, his long-lost and Tom Helmore as his long-lost college friend Gavin Elster. Also not to be missed is a certain famous rotund filmmaker in one of his trademark cameo spots! Other ‘characters’ in the film include the location itself (beautiful San Francisco), and Herrmann’s fabulous music. His score pushes the action along as much as the dialogue does, and is in fact the co-story teller in some long wordless sequences. (Footnote: A section of Herrmann’s famous Vertigo ‘love theme’ was appropriated in the 2011 film The Artist, which caused a huge controversy in early 2012, with then 78-year-old Novak putting out a full page ad in entertainment trade magazine Variety, voicing her strong disapproval).
5. The big themes
Vertigo covers some huge universal themes: love, loss, death, morality, artifice, reinvention, betrayal, and redemption. Seriously, what more could you want from a film?
Lisa Malouf Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisamalouf