#9 in the Reverse Hitchcock project.
A slightly unnerving string led score by Bernard Herrman and titles by Saul Bass which play on colours, shapes, and eyes lead us into the first shot of ‘Vertigo’, Hitch’s film of the French novel ‘D’entre les morts’ by Boileau-Narcejac.
That first shot shows hands and a man climbing, running, pursued by the police across rooftops – but these are not the jolly rooftops the sweeps danced on in ‘Mary Poppins’, but something much more sinister. And this is where James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson first started with his own terror of high places.
Stewart was one of the two good guys of Hollywood who went slightly more nuanced for Hitch, in this final collaboration between the two (following ‘Rope’, ‘Rear Window’ and the remake of ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’). This is perhaps the most sinister of the roles he played, and here is is excellent.
Barbara Bel Geddes (later Miss Ellie in ‘Dallas’) makes a strong appearance here, in a naughty conversation between the two about corsets, brassieres and love lives. Her Midge is a honey blonde but she is not one of Hitch’s showpieces, but more of a centering force for Scottie as he trying to conquer his acrophobia and fear.
This is nothing, though, to Scottie’s assignment, to watch the ‘possessed’ wife, Madeleine, of an old acquaintance. It’s perhaps fitting that this conversation takes place in a claustrophobic wood panelled room covered in paintings in a high rise building surrounded by cranes building ships. This wife, of course, is brittle Kim Novak, and she’s trouble.
‘Vertigo’ took a while to build its reputation, and is now generally thought to be one of Hitch’s best films – however, I think it sometimes suffers from a dose of over-cleverness and effects, rather than simple dramatic force.
However, Stewart and Novak are good, and you may be aware as you watch this film unfold of the duality of her nature and of the finality of the ending (slightly reminiscent of ‘Black Narcissus’) which once again threatens to pitch Scottie into madness.
The joy of this film is in watching an actor like Stewart being stretched into some rather seedy territory, especially when he meets Judy Barton and sees in her a way to build a fantasy on an obsession he has lost, an obsession which will eventually become a seed of destruction.