Hitchcock's Greatest Masterpiece
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo is a haunting, unsettling, twisted love story that involves deception, murder and two accidental deaths. The movie features exceptional performances by stars James Stewart and Kim Novak, and it has one of the great scores, composed by Bernard Herrmann. Most importantly, Vertigo is visually stunning: there are memorable location shots at scenic and historic places, the sets are charming, the characters wear elegant clothing and the cinematography often makes the film dreamlike.
When initially released in 1958, Vertigo was not a major box-office hit, and critical acclaim was not heaped upon it. But over the years, it has come to be considered one of the greatest movies of all time. In the 2002 Sight & Sound critics' poll of the best films ever made, it ranks number 2. In the 2008 American Film Institute list of 100 top movies, Vertigo is number 9.
Vertigo is psychologically complex and raises many issues. It takes a gloomy view of romantic love and has a bleak ending. James Stewart, arguably the most beloved actor of his generation, portrays a character who has a nasty cruel streak in him. Kim Novak is another in the series of Hitchcock icy blondes that includes Madeleine Carroll, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Vera Miles, Eva Marie Saint and Tippi Hedren. It seems likely that Vertigo has so much emotional resonance because Hitchcock is working through some of his own feelings about women. The movie makes the viewer uncomfortable by providing insights that are painful, but beneficial.
A Strange Tale of Doomed Love
"The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast," says one of the characters in Vertigo, and he goes on to enumerate: "Color, excitement, power, freedom." And those are the qualities that retired police detective Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) must yearn to have in his dull life when circumstances lead him to the elegant, wealthy and troubled Madeleine (Novak). Eventually Scottie saves Madeleine from drowning and, off camera, removes her wet clothing, dries her and places her in his bed. The middle-aged man is besotted by this damsel in distress.
For a while, Scottie has a wonderful time taking Madeleine to glorious places, and it's thrilling when they share their first kiss beside the turbulent waters of Monterey Bay. But ultimately there is a dramatic development in the story, and Madeleine is lost to Scottie forever, leaving him devastated.
Despondent, Scottie wanders the streets and happens upon a woman named Judy (Novak again), who comes across as a coarse, working-class version of Madeleine. They begin to date, and an ugly side of Scottie emerges as he relentlessly pushes Judy to change her hair, makeup and clothes so she will be more like Madeleine. It's heartbreaking when Judy asks him, "If I do what you tell me, will you love me?"
But all is not as it seems, and Scottie finally figures that out. When he comes to his senses, he realizes that another man had previously transformed Judy, and Scottie says angrily, "He made you over just like I made you over, only better." By this point, Hitchcock has stripped bare some of our illusions about romantic love.
The Special Edition DVD Set Contains New Bonus Materials
There have been previous DVD editions of Vertigo, but the Special Edition two-disc set provides new extras. The best of these is the 55-minute "Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators," which takes a look at composer Bernard Herrmann, costume designer Edith Head, title creator Saul Bass, and Hitch's wife, Alma. In this informative documentary, experts make the claim that Herrmann and Hitchcock comprised the greatest combination of composer and director in cinema history, and they have some fascinating remarks about how the two geniuses parted ways over Torn Curtain (1966).
In 1962 François Truffaut spent hours interviewing Hitchcock for his book about the American director, and the DVD set contains a 14-minute extract. When asked what interested him most about the story in Vertigo, Hitchcock responds, "I was intrigued with the efforts to create a woman out of another in the image of a dead woman." Hitch also identifies what he considers to be a "hole in the story."
Another DVD extra is the mildly amusing "The Case of Mr. Pelham" starring Tom Ewell, a half-hour episode from Season 1 of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. The only connection with Vertigo seems to be that they both involve the notion of the doppelganger.
Previous DVD editions of Vertigo contained one feature-length audio commentary, and the Special Edition adds a second, this one by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist). But he spends an inordinate amount of time describing the obvious and provides little in the way of insight or information not contained elsewhere on the DVD set.
Bonus Materials Carried Over From Previous DVD Editions
The Universal Legacy Series Special Edition of Vertigo carries over the supplements from previous DVD editions. Perhaps the best of these is the run-of-the-mill 29-minute making-of titled "Obsessed With Vertigo." The only cast members in it are Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Scottie's longtime gal pal Midge. The documentary devotes a few minutes to the restoration of Vertigo by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz that was released in 1996. Their version of the movie is in 70mm with six-channel DTS sound and should be seen on a big screen whenever possible. The restorers claim they tried to be true to the spirit of the 1958 original, but Katz admits, "We're putting up something that Alfred Hitchcock never saw."
Also brought over from older DVD editions is a sometimes-worthwhile audio commentary in which about 10 different people are heard. The focus is on production details, and there's no critical analysis or interpretation. The speaker heard from most is producer Herbert Coleman, an old-timer able to remember almost everything of importance about making Vertigo back in 1957-58. Also heard from frequently are Harris and Katz, who discuss technical details about their restoration, many of which are likely to be over the heads of most listeners.
A curious extra carried over from older DVD editions is the two-minute alternate ending made to satisfy censors in foreign countries where the murderer could not be allowed to get away with his crime. There are also some stills, text and trailers.
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