Alfred Hitchcock was never a director to shy away from controversial themes. In fact he seemed to be obsessed with controversy, which is clearly present in what many people call his masterpiece, Vertigo. Filled with haunting color design, intriguing set pieces, and memorable finger biting scenes, The Master of Suspense shows once again why he was given that title.
After a rooftop chase that ends in the death of an officer, John Ferguson (James Stewart) realizes his gripping acrophobia (fear of heights) which causes vertigo (dizziness and loss of balance). He decides to quit the force, but is roped back into another investigation by a friend from college who needs him to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), and report her suspicious activities. John soon begins to fall in love with her, and after a tragic event, this love turns into a deep rooted obsession.
Psycho featured graphic murder and Rear Window was a story about a peeping tom, both of which were new and controversial at the time. The themes of Vertigo make these last two films seem like child’s play. What is examined here is a strange necrophilic, psycho-sexual obsession that would make Stanley Kubrick as giddy as a school girl. This theme is never shoved down the viewer’s throat, however, and it is left up to them to decide how far they want to take the theme.
As a person who loves camera tricks, this movie is a treasure. There is a fantastic trick that is still used today. Remember that scene in Jaws when the little boy is attacked at the beach and the camera zooms in on Roy Schneider, while the background gets all distorted? You can thank Vertigo for that shot. This is now called a vertigo shot or a dolly zoom, but I prefer calling it a vertigo shot. This is done by having the camera on a dolly track out, while simultaneously zooming in. This was used to show John’s “vertigo.”
Here’s an example:
Another brilliant aspect of this movie is the lighting design. Lighting is not easy, especially when it is heavily stylized and must succeed at creating some type of surreal mood. One of the most famous scenes of Vertigo has Kim Novak stepping out of this eerie neon green light after making a strange transformation in order to please John. It’s haunting and memorable.
James Stewart steals the show with his almost trademarked nervous energy. His performance is totally genuine and I firmly believe that he was ahead of his time. Kim Novak’s performance is pretty weak compared to his and she sometimes over acts her pretty little head off. Barbara Bel Geddes offers some great scenes, however, as Ferguson’s best friend.
While many people do say this is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, I’m still sticking with Rear Window as my favorite Hitchcock movie. Vertigo is still a classic that is filled with fantastic performances, groundbreaking visual design, and themes that are still shocking today. This is a movie that should be required viewing.