Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
United States, 1958, Color, 128 minutes
“Alright I’ll do it. I don’t care anymore about me.”
– Judy Barton
Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) best films, Vertigo examines a man who ignores the real world in favor of what is portrayed as a fantasy world. Hitchcock often vindicates the protagonist’s obsession, or at least explains it as being the result of mental illness. What is most unsettling about Vertigo is that there is no such justification for the disturbing behavior of the protagonist, and we’re actually made to sympathize with him.
To begin, Hitchcock introduces us to John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a retired detective who suffers from a crippling fear of heights. Ferguson has been hired by his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) around San Francisco. Elster suspects that his wife has been possessed by a dead woman, or at least she believes that she has, and he needs Ferguson to help him confirm those suspicions. As he follows Madeline, Ferguson grows increasingly obsessed with her.
Ferguson appears to be the typical, everyman protagonist that Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) played in many of his earlier films. Stewart’s performance forces the audience to sympathize with Ferguson, even as his obsessive behavior becomes increasingly dangerous in the second half of the film. While Stewart is convincing the audience to trust Ferguson, Hitchcock is busy using every tool available to him to try to convince the audience that Ferguson is descending into madness. As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether Ferguson was an obsessive maniac or a brilliant detective until the very last scene.
If Vertigo has a weakness, it is the somewhat stilted performances of its supporting cast. I find it hard to hold this against the actors themselves. Hitchcock’s minor characters are often little more than devices he uses to push his plots forward.
Still, Hitchcock was not attempting to create a richly layered world of interesting characters in Vertigo. Instead he was examining one question: how far will we go in pursuit of our fantasies? I don’t think I like the answer.
You may like Vertigo if: you’ve ever enjoyed a thriller in your life.
You may not like Vertigo if: you demand complex secondary characters from every movie you see, or you just don’t like movies.
(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe