Vertigo

Vertigo poster

“He thought his love was dead, until he found her in another woman.”

– James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958) Director, Alfred Hitchcock

 James Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Vertigo: the journey from too slow and long to the greatest film of all time

Bryan James

It must have hurt The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, (given that we know he was often upset by criticism and would take to his bed for a few days if it was particularly harsh) when in 1958, Vertigo, now acknowledged as a masterpiece, opened to lukewarm reviews and poor audience attendance. Back then, audiences considered it too slow and too long. They were not especially interested in his adventurous film techniques and wondered why so much time had been spent on the plot of what they saw as a basic suspense film. An example of how Hitchcock was often ahead, and out, of his time. (A few years later, he had huge problems making Psycho, which he mischievously referred to as a comedy. No studio liked it or wanted to back it so, sure he had a winner on his hands, he mortgaged the house, borrowed money, etc, and produced it himself – making a small fortune in the process!)

Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak

“All this could be yours!” – Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak making Vertigo.

But Vertigo was a labour of love that became one of Hitchcock’s favourites and one of his most demanding films, production wise. He blamed the film’s initial failure on James Stewart looking too old at 50 to play a convincing love interest for Kim Novak, who at 25 was half his age. That did not proved to be the case and seems to have had more to do with the mood of the times and what audiences were expecting after The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, his two previous films – both having a relatively clear-cut plot. In addition, some of the lukewarm reviews of the time didn’t help.

Britain’s Sight & Sound’s reception had a jaded quality about it:

“Vertigo” finds Hitchcock toying weightily with a thriller… the mystery is a question not of who done it but of whether it was really done at all. Only speed, finally, could sustain the illusion that the plot hangs together… and Hitchcock has never made a thriller more stately and deliberate in technique…

“If the plot fails to work, there are still some good suspense diversion. A roof-top chase, decisively opening the picture, a struggle in the church belfry, some backchat in the manner of Rear Window with a cool, astringent second-string heroine (Barbara Bel Geddes) are all reminiscent of things Hitchcock has done before, and generally done with more verve. One is agreeably used to Hitchcock repeating his effects, but this time he is repeating himself in slow motion.”  – Penelope Houston, Sight & Sound

James Stewart in Vertigo.

“Alfred Hitchcock engulfs you in a whirlpool of terror and tension!”

This is similar to many of the ambivalent reviews of the period so I will resist the temptation to quote more, It’s ironic that the same magazine, Sight & Sound, had to finally announce in 2012 that Vertigo was voted top of their poll of The 50 Greatest Films of All Time:

After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film, Citizen Kane, has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.”  – Sight & Sound

This has not changed the views of fans of Citizen Kane and points to the difficulty of naming any film ‘the greatest film of all time’ but it is a great honour for Hitchcock, who was often taken for granted and never received an Oscar for any of the films he directed. Would Hitchcock look out of place or undeserving in a list of best directors from his era who include:

George Stevens, A Place in the Sun (1951)
John Ford, The Quiet Man (1952)
Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity (1953)
Delbert Mann, Marty, (1956)
George Stevens Giant (1956)
Vincente Minnelli, Gigi, (1958
George Cukor, My Fair Lady, (1964)
Robert Wise, The Sound of Music (1965)

I don’t think so. But Hitch had the last laugh, he is more celebrated today than any any of the Oscar-winning directors on that list and his style is still talked about and copied more than any other film director.

In October 1983, Vertigo and  Rear Window were the first of five films re-released by Hitchcock’s estate after his death. These and three others, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Trouble With Harry (1955), and Rope (1948), had been taken out of circulation by Hitchcock in 1968 for legal reasons.

Bryan James

– Sources: British Film Institute (BFI), Sight & Sound, IMDB, Wikipedia, Samuel Shove

Vertigo building

The building where Kim Novak pretended to live when she was being Madelyn. Photo Michael Hadley.

Film location tour and, below, the restored trailer.

Going down? Acrophobic James Stewart nervously descends the tower in Vertigo:

James Stewart in Vertigo.

Vertigo (1958) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring James Stewart .

More than half a century ago, at a preview in San Francisco, moviegoers looked up at the screen and saw “Vertigo” for the first time, and maybe some of them looked down too in confusion or dismay, wondering, as in a dream, where they were and how they had gotten there and how they would make it back to safer ground.

With “Vertigo” you never know. It’s a movie that – even if you know that it will always end the same way, tragically – never takes you to that inevitable conclusion by the same route.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

“You feel as if you are wandering, which is the word Scottie (James Stewart) and the object of his desire, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), use to describe their days… You can’t help wondering what those first Bay Area viewers 50 years ago must have thought as they watched this strange, drifty, hallucinatory romance unfold on the big screen, with the strains of Bernard Herrmann’s lush score — brazenly echoing the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” — swelling on the soundtrack. It wasn’t what they had come to expect from Hitchcock, the beloved portly “master of suspense,” who had been making impishly macabre thrillers for 30-some years and had since 1955 also been the host and impresario of a very popular mystery-story anthology series on television.”  – Terrence Rafferty, New York Times

Kim Novak being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Kim Novak being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Ask Alfred Hitchcock about Vertigo.

Isn’t Vertigo about the conflict between illusion and reality?

Hitchcock: “Oh, yes. I was interested by the basic situation, because it contained so much analogy to sex. Stewart’s efforts to recreate the woman were, cinematically, exactly the same as though he were trying to undress the woman, instead of dressing her. He couldn’t get the other woman out of his mind. Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, “When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.” He said, “Good God, why?” I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

“Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: “So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.” What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense. And we come to our old analogy of the bomb: you and I sit talking and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! the bomb goes off and they’re shocked – for fifteen seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock – it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one–show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. “Look under the table! You fool!” Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds.”

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

“Now let’s go back to Vertigo. If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on. “Now,” I said, “one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, “I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?” So,” I said, “we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.” Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, “Little does he know.” Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason – she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the gray suit, doesn’t want to go blond – because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you. We play on his fetish in creating this dead woman, and he is so obsessed with the pride he has in making her over. Even when she comes back from the hairdresser, the blond hair is still down. And he says, “Put your hair up.” She says, “No.” He says, “Please.” Now what is he saying to her? “You’ve taken everything off except your bra and your panties, please take those off.” She says, “All right.” She goes into the bathroom. He’s only waiting to see a nude woman come out, ready to get in bed with. That’s what the scene is.”

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

“Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost – he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light. You see, in the earlier part – which is purely in the mind of Stewart – when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past – in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect – fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street – because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered – until he saw the locket – and then he knew he had been tricked.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Kim Novak being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Kim Novak being directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo.

Vertigo is the pinnacle of moviemaking

There is nothing in the film that fails and it has more great scenes and ideas than i need (or dare) count. Its powerful and affecting story is concise, clever and unpredictable. Hitchcock is playing at the peak of his game, with great depth of character and storytelling, and his actors do not let him down.”  – Scott Macdonald

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

The Restoration of Vertigo

“In 1996, the film was given a lengthy and controversial restoration by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz and re-released to theaters. The new print featured restored color and newly created audio, utilizing modern sound effects mixed in DTS digital surround sound. In October 1996, the restored Vertigo premiered at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, exhibited for the first time in DTS and 70mm, a format with a similar frame size to the VistaVision system in which it was originally shot.

One bone of contention regarding the 1996 restoration was the decision to re-record the whole film with Foley (a method of reproducing sound effects that are added to the film) to allow Dolby-quality mixing for surround sound and stereo. Harris and Katz wanted to stay as close as possible to the original: “It was our intent to remix the original music tracks with dialogue culled from the old mono and new Foley and effects tracks, which were to have been created following Mr. Hitchcock’s original notes. That was the intent. It is not what occurred, the studio having made the decision to re-invent the track anew”. Harris and Katz sometimes added extra sound effects to camouflage defects in the old soundtrack (hisses, pops, and bangs); in particular they added extra seagull cries and a foghorn to the scene at Cypress Point. The new mix has also been accused of putting too much emphasis on the score at the expense of the sound effects. The 2005 Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection DVD contains the original mono track as an option.

Kim Novak as Judy Barton in Vertigo.

Kim Novak as Judy Barton in Vertigo.

Significant color correction was necessary because of the fading of original negatives. In some cases a new negative was created from the silver separation masters, but in many instances this was impossible because of differential separation shrinkage, and because the 1958 separations were poorly made. Separations used three individual films: one for each of the primary colors. In the case of Vertigo, these had shrunk in different and erratic proportions, making re-alignment impossible. As such, significant amounts of computer assisted coloration were necessary. Although the results are not noticeable on viewing the film, some elements were as many as eight generations away from the original negative.

When such large portions of re-creation become necessary, then the danger of artistic license by the restorers becomes an issue, and the restorers received some criticism for their re-creation of colors that allegedly did not honor the director and cinematographer’s intentions. The restoration team argued that they did research on the colors used in the original locations, cars, wardrobe, and skin tones. One breakthrough moment came when the Ford Motor Company supplied a well-preserved green paint sample for a car used in the film. As the use of the color green in the film has artistic importance, matching a shade of green was a stroke of luck for restoration and provided a reference shade from which to work.”  – Wikipedia

Vertigo

Filming Vertigo

“Vertigo” was filmed from September-December 1957. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco under the working title “From Among the Dead”.
The scene in which Madeleine falls from the tower was filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista, a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, California. A steeple, added sometime after the mission’s original construction, had been demolished following a fire, so Hitchcock added a bell tower using scale models, matte paintings, and special effects photography at Paramount studio in Los Angeles. The original tower was much smaller and less dramatic than the film’s version. The tower’s staircase was later assembled inside a studio.

Following 16 days of location shooting, the production moved to Paramount’s studios in Hollywood for two months of filming. Hitchcock preferred to film in studios as he was able to control the environment. Once sufficient location footage had been obtained, interior sets were designed and constructed in the studio.

James Stewart, Kim Novak and Alfred Hitchcock

James Stewart looks on while Kim Novak is being directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock popularized the dolly zoom in this film, leading to the technique’s sobriquet, amongst several others, “the Vertigo effect”. This method involves the camera physically moving away from a subject whilst simultaneously zooming in (a similar effect can be achieved in reverse), so that the subject retains its size in the frame, but the background’s perspective changes. Hitchcock used the effect to look down the tower shaft to emphasise its height and Scottie’s disorientation. Following difficulties filming the shot on a full-sized set, a model of the tower shaft was constructed, and the dolly zoom was filmed horizontally.

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head used color to heighten emotion. Grey was chosen for Madeleine’s suit because it is not usually a blonde’s colour, so was psychologically jarring. In contrast, Novak’s character wore a white coat when she visited Scottie’s apartment, which Head and Hitchcock considered more natural for a blonde to wear. – Wikipedia

Barbara Bel Geddes and James Stewart in Vertigo.

Barbara Bel Geddes and James Stewart in Vertigo.

“Vertigo” is performed in the manner expected of all performers in Hitchcock films. Mr. Stewart, as usual, manages to act awfully tense in a casual way, and Miss Novak is really quite amazing in dual roles. Tom Helmore is sleek as the husband and Barbara Bel Geddes is sweet as the nice girl who loves the detective and has to watch him drifting away.”  – Bosley Crother, New York Times

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo

James Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Awards for Vertigo

Win:
Most Distinguished Reissue – 1996 New York Film Critics Circle
US National Film Registry – 1988 Library of Congress
100 Greatest American Movies – 1998 American Film Institute

Nomination:
Best Art Direction – Henry Bumstead – 1958 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Art Direction – Frank R. McKelvey – 1958 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Sound – George Dutton – 1958 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Art Direction – Hal Pereira – 1958 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science
Best Director – Alfred Hitchcock – 1958 Directors Guild of America
Best Art Direction – Sam Comer – 1958 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science

Vertigo @ Amazon USA – Vertigo @ Amazon UK

Hitchcock Books

Recommended reading:

Alfred Hitchcock: “A Life in Darkness and Light” (2004) by Patrick Mcgilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983) by Donald Spoto
Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) by John Russell Taylor
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2008) by Donald Spoto
It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock – A Personal Biography (2005) by Charlotte Chandler

See also: The Hitchcock Zone

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