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DVD Pick: Vertigo (Collector's Edition)

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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 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.

A Pedestrian Making-Of Documentary

The DVD contains a 29-minute 1997 documentary titled "Obsessed With Vertigo" that was made for cable TV. It was produced by AMC and is narrated by Roddy McDowall.

The documentary mentions that the source material for the film's story was the 1954 French novel D'Entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The only cast members heard from in the making-of are Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Scottie's longtime gal pal Midge. The documentary touches on several other aspects of the movie, including the Saul Bass title sequence, Bernard Herrmann's score, cinematography, art direction and Novak's outfits. A fashion expert says Hitchcock specified that Madeleine's tailored suit be gray — not really a blonde's color — to deliberately make her off-putting.

The documentary devotes a few minutes to the two-year 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."

A Sometimes Worthwhile Audio Commentary

The DVD provides a feature-length 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 recall almost everything of importance about making Vertigo back in 1957-58. He found the Mission San Juan Bautista location, which had no bell tower, but this was worked around by using trick photography. He also mentions that when Scottie and Madeleine visit the forest with tall trees, it's implied they're in Muir Woods, but the sequence was actually shot at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

Also heard 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. Still, they possess a broad general knowledge of the film that is sometimes interesting. They mention that the Legion of Decency insisted that when Madeleine's clothing is shown hanging on a line in Scottie's apartment, there must be no recognizable undergarments. Also, they discovered an alternate ending to the movie — made to satisfy censors in foreign countries — in which the murderer will be brought to justice.

Another informative speaker is a biographer of composer Bernard Herrmann. The biographer describes how Herrmann strove to heighten the psychological underpinning of the story. In Vertigo, Herrmann paraphrases Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an opera where the story intertwines love and death.

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