Vertigo is an odd, elliptical masterpiece that manages to somehow embody Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic eccentricities and yet stand apart from the rest of his sprawling filmography. It covers his familiar terrain of obsession and death (and his fetish for platinum blondes with icy dispositions) but is defined and distinguished by a melancholic fog that hangs densely over every scene. Its lead characters each spend half the film lost in a catatonic gloom, all while the plot snakes around them.
Jimmy Stewart, the evergreen Everyman, plays John “Scottie” Ferguson, a San Francisco detective who is forcefully retired by acrophobia and what modern medicine would label PTSD. He fidgets restlessly in the art studio of his platonic ex-fiancée and longs for adventure. Scottie is pressed into service by Gavin Elster (great 50s villain name, by the way), an old college buddy, to tail Madeline, his trophy wife. Madeline wanders from landmark to landmark in a kind of fugue scavenger hunt. Elster has to know: Has his wife lost her mind, or could she be in the occultish grip of a long-deceased woman?
Scottie pursues Madeline unsubtly, often gawping in plain sight as she leads him across the city. (San Francisco, with its winding streets and frothy shores and ominous old Missions, is such a brilliant backdrop for the story that it’s a supporting character in of itself.) Scottie draws closer to his subject, until he is eventually ensorcelled by her. This leads a wicked plot twist, which I won’t reveal here.
The initial response to Vertigowas lukewarm. Critics regarded it as beautiful slop. It had attractive components—the arpeggiated score, the scenery, the attractive cast—but those pieces didn’t seem add up to much. In a way, this reaction is understandable, as is the modern assessment of those who find it overrated. Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s most difficult movies because it doesn’t offer the instant gratification of his other work. The plot is one of deliberate pacing and patience; its mystery burns by a slow, smoldering fire. Vertigois a film that must be absorbed, by multiple viewings over many years.