Vertigo (1958)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography Robert Burks

Vertigo is a 1958 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock. The story was based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Boileau-Narcejac. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.

The film stars James Stewart as former police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. Scottie is forced into early retirement because an incident in the line of duty has caused him to develop acrophobia (an extreme fear of heights) and vertigo (a false sense of rotational movement). Scottie is hired by an acquaintance, Gavin Elster, as a private investigator to follow

Gavin’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who is behaving strangely.

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The film was shot on location in San Francisco, California, and at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It is the first film to utilize the dolly zoom, an in-camera effect that distorts perspective to create disorientation, to convey Scottie’s acrophobia. As a result of its use in this film, the effect is often referred to as “the Vertigo effect”.

Vertigo received mixed reviews upon initial release, but is now often cited as a classic Hitchcock film and one of the defining works of his career. Attracting significant scholarly criticism, it replaced Citizen Kane (1941) as the best film ever made in the 2012 British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll. In 1996, the film underwent a major restoration to create a new 70mm print and DTS soundtrack. It has appeared repeatedly in polls of the best films by the American Film Institute, including a 2007 ranking as the ninth-greatest American movie of all time.

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Get Lost in It.

6 July 2002 | by tfrizzell (United States) – See all my reviews

Along with “Psycho”, Hitchcock’s best film that wraps itself around the viewer very fast and never does let go. San Francisco detective Jimmy Stewart is slowly going crazy due to a failed mission which did not work because of his intense fear of heights. This is all front-page news of course and Stewart is shamed about the whole event. But a ray of light shines as he gets a job to watch a man’s wife (Kim Novak) who is supposedly having an affair with another man. Stewart believes this is his chance to put the past behind him, but sometimes the future is even darker. Stewart falls in love with Novak and the love turns into a dark and twisted obsession that becomes deeper and deeper as the film progresses. When tragedy strikes, that is the end. Right? Not quite. An amazing screenplay and arguably Hitchcock’s greatest directing venture make the film solid and Stewart’s stunning performance raises the whole project to a classic level. Somewhat ignored around the awards circuit in 1958, but ages beautifully as the years go by. 5 stars out of 5.

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Contemporaneous reception

Vertigo premiered in San Francisco on May 9, 1958 at the Stage Door Theater at Mason and Geary (now the Ruby Skye nightclub).While Vertigo did break even upon its original release, earning $2.8 million in gross rental in the United States alone against its $2,479,000 cost, it earned significantly less than other Hitchcock productions.Reviews were mixed. Variety said the film showed Hitchcock’s “mastery”, but was too long and slow for “what is basically only a psychological murder mystery”. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times admired the scenery, but found the plot “too long” and felt it “bogs down” in “a maze of detail”; scholar Dan Auiler says that this review “sounded the tone that most popular critics would take with the film”.However, the Los Angeles Examiner loved it, admiring the “excitement, action, romance, glamor and [the] crazy, off-beat love story”. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther also gave Vertigo a positive review by explaining that “[the] secret [of the film] is so clever, even though it is devilishly far-fetched.”

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Additional reasons for the mixed response initially were that Hitchcock fans were not pleased with his departure from the romantic-thriller territory of earlier films and that the mystery was solved with one-third of the film left to go.Orson Welles disliked the film, telling his friend the director Henry Jaglom that the movie was “worse” than Rear Window, another film that was not a favorite of Welles.In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock stated that Vertigo was one of his favourite films, with some reservations.  Hitchcock blamed the film’s failure on the 50-year-old Stewart looking too old to play a convincing love interest for the 25-year-old Kim Novak.

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Distinctive & Unforgettable Masterpiece

Author: Snow Leopard from Ohio
19 June 2001

One of the many things that made Hitchcock such a great director is that he did not just stick to the same formula time after time; all of his best movies have their own unique feel and characteristics. “Vertigo” is particularly distinctive, both as a complex story filled with suspense, and as a fascinating study in psychological tension. While it lacks the humor of some of Hitchcock’s other masterpieces, and sometimes moves rather slowly, it is unforgettable, and a great achievement by the director and his cast.

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If you have never seen it, you will enjoy it more if you do not know too much about the plot, although the actual story is somewhat secondary to the ways that the characters are tested and their weaknesses exposed by the various events. Hitchcock uses a complicated story, interesting characters, lavish visual detail, and deliberate pacing, plus a fine musical score by the incomparable Bernard Hermann, to produce a mysterious, almost unearthly, atmosphere. The tension rarely lets up, and the viewer is caught up completely in it, at times almost to the point of discomfort. It’s the kind of film that repays careful attention, as almost every moment is filled with significant detail.

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There are also some great acting performances. Jimmy Stewart is outstanding in a role far different from his usual screen persona. He enables the viewer to sympathize completely with him, even as we cringe at many of his character’s actions and decisions. Kim Novak is completely convincing in a difficult dual role, and the movie would not have been as compelling without her fine performance. The rest of the cast all have much smaller roles, but are all quite good too, especially Barbara Bel Geddes as Scottie’s (Stewart’s) old friend, who provides important insight into Scottie’s character.

“Vertigo” is a classic by any standard. It’s a must-see that remains just as impressive with each viewing.

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You’re not lost. Mother’s here.

10/10
Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
19 July 2009

John “Scottie” Ferguson is a San Francisco cop who decides to quit the service after his acrophobia results in him being unable to save the life of a colleague. Whilst taking it easy he gets a call from an old school friend, Gavin Elster, asking him if he wouldn’t mind doing a little bit of detective work for him. The job is simply to tail his wife because she’s obsessed with an ancestress who committed suicide, and the wife, Madeline, is showing signs of herself being suicidal. Ferguson tails her diligently and as the tail progresses, Ferguson himself starts to become ever obsessed about the demur blonde Madeline. As the story twists and turns, Ferguson’s obsession will have far reaching consequences for both parties…

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Vertigo is Alfred Hitchcock’s most discussed, dissected and critically reappraised film, based on a novel by Pierre Boileau called D’Entre Les Morts, (also writer of Diabolique), Vertigo was not well liked on its release and unable to be viewed for some time due to copyright, the film was restored from a destroyed negative into a glorious 70mm print, and now in all its glory it can be seen as one of the greatest films to have ever been made. What is most striking about Vertigo, outside of Hitchcock baring his innermost that is, is that its plot on the surface is simplicity personified, but delving deeper, and repeat viewings are a necessity, its apparent that Vertigo is a chilling force of cinema, taking great delight in gnawing away at your perceptions, perhaps even your own capabilities as a human being.

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Very much a film of two great halves, Vertigo first seems intent on being an almost ghost story like mystery. Once the prologue has introduced us to Ferguson’s fear of heights, we then enter an almost dream like sequence of events as Ferguson tails the troubled Madeline, the suggestion of reincarnation bleakly leading to death hangs heavy as Hitchcock pulls his atmospheric strings. Then the film shifts into dark territory as obsessions and nods to Dante’s Inferno and feverish dreams take control, Hitchcock, as we have come to learn over the years, lays out his soul for us the audience to partake in, the uneasy traits sitting side by side with fascination of the story. All of which is leading us to a spine tingling finale that is as hauntingly memorable as it is shocking, the end to our own dizzying journey that Alfred and his team have taken us on.

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Technically the film is magnificent, the opening credits from Saul Bass brilliantly prep us for what is about to unfold, while Bernard Herrmann’s score is as good as anything he ever did, unnerving one minute, swirlingly romantic the next, a truly incredible score. Hitchcock himself is firing from the top draw, introducing us to the brilliant zoom-forward-track-back camera technique to induce the feeling of Vertigo itself, with that merely a component of two hours of gorgeous texture lined with disturbing little peccadilloes. The two leads are arguably doing their respective career best work, James Stewart as Scottie Ferguson goes real deep to play it out with an edgy believability that decries his aw-shucks trademark of years since past. Kim Novak as Madeline is perhaps the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, perfect with the duality aspects of the role and playing off Stewart’s ever creepy descent with seamlessly adroit skill. It however should be noted that Hitchcock and his loyal subjects had to work hard to get Novak right for the role, but the result proves that Novak had ability that sadly wasn’t harnessed on too many other occasions.

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Vertigo is a film that I myself wasn’t too taken with on my first viewing, it’s only during revisits that the piece has come to grab me by the soul and refuse to let go, it not only holds up on revisits, it also gets better with each subsequent viewing, it is simply a film that demands to be seen as many times as possible. Not only one of the greatest American films ever made, one of the greatest films ever made…period, so invest your soul in it, just the way that Hitchcock himself so clearly did. 10/10

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A Standard Rave

10 July 2002 | by james.king@optusnet.com.au (Sydney, Australia) – See all my reviews

Starting in 1958, Alfred Hitchcock directed a remarkable sequence of films in a row, each of them a classic; Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Never has a director made four such genuinely great movies in such a short space of time, either before or since.

The pick of this high standard bunch is undoubtedly Vertigo. From the opening titles, with their circling spiral imagery, to the dramatic final scene this is a movie that takes you to a different time and place. Specifically, to a San Francisco of the past; full of deserted parks, discrete rooming houses, oddly menacing art galleries and florists where the customers enter and exit through the back door. Through this landscape wanders Jimmy Stewart, towering in the lead roll as a former detective recently retired after a bungled arrest leaves him with chronic vertigo. Plot machinations lead him to the alluring Kim Novak (one of Hitchcock’s famous “blondes”), the young wife of a friend who has started behaving rather oddly.

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“To reveal more,” as Leonard Maltin wrote, “would be unthinkable.”

While the performances of Novak and Stewart are memorable, the movie is really set apart by the intelligent script and the stylistic touches provided by the director. Hitchcock is in his very best form creating hypnotic scenes and a general sense of unease and dread in even the most banal of situations. He is aided in this by the wonderful score of Bernard Herrman. A particular favourite of mine is the extended (largely silent) segment where Stewart follows Novak for the first time. Nothing much happens, but the atmosphere of these scenes is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat!

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Hitchcock’s most stunning achievement. A fascinating masterpiece which improves with each year and viewing.

Author: Infofreak from Perth, Australia
15 January 2003

I get a bit tongue-tied talking about Hitchcock’s greatest movies because they are just so remarkable, so astonishing, so entertaining, so multi-levelled, that it’s very difficult to put into words what makes them great. Hitchcock made some of the greatest movies ever made, and ‘Vertigo’, though by no means his most accessible film, is quite possibly his crowning achievement. It is without any doubt a masterpiece, and I cannot fault it in any way. Every time I watch it I am knocked out, and every time I see something new, some nuance or moment that I appreciate more than I did the previous viewing.

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Jimmy Stewart, one of the most popular movie star in Hollywood history, gives a remarkable performance throughout, one of the best in his career. Stewart had worked with Hitchcock before, and had always been superb, especially in the much copied suspense classic ‘Rear Window’ a few years prior to this, but he plays against type in ‘Vertigo’ and is jaw-droppingly good. It’s difficult to remember now that ‘Vertigo’ is regarded as a movie milestone, that it received many bad reviews when it was originally released, and was a relative failure for Hitchcock. A lot of this had to do with Stewart’s intense performance I think, and also the difficult subject matter. ‘Vertigo’ is essentially a tale of sexual obsession, something most people were probably not expecting at the time! Almost as good as Stewart is Kim Novak (‘The Man With The Golden Arm’) in a role that she will always be remembered for. ‘Vertigo’ is a virtuoso piece from Hitchcock, and a movie that will no doubt continue to inspire other film makers over the years to come. However the most important thing about it is that it is still wonderful viewing, and a movie experience that you will never forget. In my mind it is one of the three of four greatest American movies. Simply astonishing.

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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, with Kim Novak and Patricia Hitchcock in person. At this screening, the film was 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. When restoring the sound, Harris and Katz wanted to stay as close as possible to the original, and had access to the original music recordings that had been stored in the vaults at Paramount. However, as the project demanded a new 6-channel DTS stereo soundtrack, it was necessary to re-record some sound effects using the foley process. The soundtrack was remixed at the Alfred Hitchcock Theatre at Universal Studios.

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Aware that the film had a considerable following, the restoration team knew that they were under particular pressure to restore the film as accurately as possible. To achieve this, they used Hitchcock’s original dubbing notes for guidance of how the director wanted the film to sound in 1958. 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. Significant color correction was necessary because of the fading of original Technicolor 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.

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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, in particular the entire “Judy’s Apartment” sequence, which is perhaps the most pivotal sequence in the entire film. 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’s and cinematographer’s intentions.

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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.

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In October 2014, a new 4K restoration was presented at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. This version gives credit to Harris and Katz at the end of the film, and thanks them for providing some previously unknown stereo soundtracks. This version, however, removes some of the “excessive” Foley sound that was added in the 1996 restoration.

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