In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo took the top spot in the poll by the British magazine Sight & Sound to determine the greatest film of all time. Previously, Citizen Kane had occupied the top spot in five consecutive polls, which becomes impressive once you realize that the poll happens once every ten years. Vertigo is the sort of film that can occupy that top spot, a beautiful-looking, expertly executed work that aims to examine far greater things than just who done it.
James Stewart plays John “Scotty” Fergusson, a police detective who is forced to quit the force due to a fear of heights and the vertigo that comes with it. He gets drawn into a private investigation by an old friend, who fears that his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) may be going insane. To go much further would spoil too much of this film’s intricate plot, but suffice it to say that Scotty falls in love with Madeline long before he understands what is haunting her.
You can have Cary Grant or Anthony Perkins or Henry Fonda: for my money, Stewart was the best actor Hitchcock ever worked with. Part of that was due to Stewart being a fine actor in his own right. Part of it was due to Stewart’s movies with Hitchcock coming after his service in World War II, where Stewart had probably seen a few things that would make Hitchcock’s particular brand of moral ambiguity appeal to him.
But mostly, it was because Hitchcock knew how to use Stewart’s most prominent trait: earnestness. The same down-home honesty which was put to such good use in Frank Capra’s movies can easily be turned into a more frightening thing, an insistence that the world should be good and honest even when it isn’t. Scotty’s love seems good and decent at the start of the film, but it becomes gradually more sinister, something that he becomes desperate to maintain.
It becomes all the more sinister because it’s not entirely clear what Scotty is trying to control. Novak is superb as Madeline and her various alter-egos, managing to deliver an attraction to Scotty while also maintaining a distance from him. Her performance might well be the best given by any woman in a Hitchcock film; although Grace Kelly is just as natural and real in Rear Window, that is also an easier role.
At a certain point, with the film-noir twists flying fast, the existential question will start to come up: who exactly did Scotty fall in love with? A real person, a character, a ghost? What defines those things in another person’s eyes? Could Scotty have known what was happening to him, or is it impossible to know another person that well? Hitchcock is so obsessed with answering these questions that it’s easy to forget that there is an actual plot to this film.
And, as with most great movies, the answers are not easy. Novak is great at playing her scenes one way, but having small, ulterior feelings; after the film is over, that you realize she was conflicted all along. But Stewart’s obsessive behavior is really what sells the humanist questions here. His obsession with Madeline is occasionally creepy, but occasionally built on a foundation of guilt and pain. The first time one sees this film, it is legitimately unpredictable where Stewart is going to end up: Hitchcock was just twisted enough to turn the most trusted actor in America into a villain, and Stewart plays it like that’s where he may be headed.
Vertigo actually isn’t my favorite Hitchcock – I love Rear Window just that much – so clearly I do not think it is the greatest film of all time. But it would likely be in my top 20, maybe even my top 10. It is Hitchcock’s most ambitious film by far, a thriller in the vein of North by Northwest that also conducts serious examinations on the nature of life and identity. Watch it, think about it, and then watch it again. It’s the sort of movie that rewards that much devotion.
Reviewed by Mark Young