Friday, August 6, 2010


Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock
Based on the book by Boileau and Narcejac
Release Date: May 9th, 1958
Starring: James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Tom Helmore
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy
John "Scottie" Ferguson has left the police force. After the tragic death of his colleague following a criminal through San Francisco's rooftops he has severe agoraphobia. He spends his spare time hanging around his friend Midge's apparent, which she doesn't seem to mind in the least. One day he gets a call from an old college buddy, Gavin Elster, who wants to see him. Gavin wants Scottie to use his spare time to find out what's wrong with his wife, Madeleine. He doesn't know what's wrong with her. He has not taken her to doctors because he fears that she is possessed, as he tells Scottie "Do you think the dead can live again?" Scottie reluctantly agrees to at least see Madeleine. That night at Ernie's Scottie catches a glimpse of Madeleine and there is no doubt he will accept the case. The following day he trails Madeleine from a florist to a grave to a painting in an art museum to a hotel. The painting being the most unnerving, in that the flowers match those in the painting, as does Madeleine's hairdo. What's even stranger is that the portrait is the woman whose grave Madeleine visited earlier in the day. With Midge's help, they learn the history of the woman, Carlotta Valdes, who lived in the hotel Madeleine visited and committed suicide after her lover took their child for his own. When Scottie presents this information to Gavin, it's clear Gavin knew all this and more, as Carlotta is Madeleine's great-grandmother. But Madeleine does not know this, so it can't be an obsession with her family's history. Scottie continues to trail Madeleine and even hauls her out of the bay after an apparent suicide attempt. Scottie now becomes her protector and they start to fall for each other. But soon a fall from a bell tower will end Madeleine's life and Scottie's will be shattered. Time passes and Scottie wanders the streets he walked with Madeleine till one day he sees Judy. Judy, not only looks like Madeleine, but unbeknownst to Scottie, she is the Madeleine he knew, the one hired to help Gavin murder his wife and use Scottie as a pawn. But Judy, instead of running, decides to stay and hopefully get Scottie to love her for her. But all he wants is to turn her back into Madeleine. Can either of them survive this destructive path they are on?

As Hitchcock said, in regard to adapting a book for the screen: "What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema." This is what takes the fairly good book by Boileau and Narcejac with unlikable characters and no real passion, and turns it into a classic of cinema. Hitchcock added mystery to Madeleine by us going with Scottie on his discovery of her "possession." He also gave the characters a love for each other, that made Judy stay for love, not to play out some sick game. But more than anything, with the score and the beauty of San Francisco, we fall under the spell of the story. Instead of watching the headlong rush to oblivion that the book captures so well, we are wound in the web of a story, slowly building and entwining us like the lissajou spirals of the opening credits. Like the book before, being a love letter to Paris, here we have a love letter to San Francisco. This film is the quintessential film of that beautiful city. I don't think that the film would be what it is if Hitchcock himself was not so in love with the city. Plus, there could not be a worse place for an agoraphobic to live, which gives a certain dark jab to the character of Scottie. Of course, I find it interesting how much the film does mirror aspects of Hitchcock's life. His obsession with Grace Kelly could easily be Scottie's obsession for Madeleine. Whatever it was that made the fates align so perfectly for this movie makes me easily proclaim it one of my favorites and now that I've read the book, it's amazing to me how Hitchcock distilled it down and made a classic out of a decent novel.


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