I’m sure I would have eventually gotten to Vertigo, what many believe to be Alfred Hitchcocks’ masterpiece. Though I’ve yet to be totally bowled over by any of the director’s work, there’s no denying that the rich symbolism in his films, in addition to the staging and technical experimentation, make make for a stunning collection of classic works. In fact, it’s difficult to hold any one of the director’s pictures above the rest because he’s known for so many titles: Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Rope, Strangers on a Train, The 39 Steps, to name a few. Each of these titles are held in equally high regard by the film-going public, and I think it’s safe to say that the director’s consummate professionalism behind the lens and acute sense of what makes for a dramatic narrative are large reasons for his enduring appeal. So, as stated, I likely would have gotten to Vertigo eventually, but the recent announcement that the film had been named the “number one film of all time” in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll (conducted once every decade) certainly made my ears perk up. Citizen Kane has held the top spot for more than half a century (and I’d argue rightfully so), making this change-up a major occurrence.
Admittedly then, I went into Vertigo with this very much in mind; I went in thinking “this is the greatest movie ever made”. Is that unfair? Perhaps so, but I went into Citizen Kane with identical thoughts and at that time I felt it was imperative to keep this label in mind rather than attempt to distance one’s viewing from it. “Just stop and think about that: the best film ever made,” I wrote. “Think about how many movies have been made in the last century alone, how many great films there are.” The question that must be asked in this circumstance isn’t whether the movie is good or bad, but instead whether it truly lives up to the reputation bestowed upon it. I’d argue that the answer, with regard to Vertigo, is no.
Returning to Welles’ film for a moment, I concluded my review with these words: “It’s a dazzling picture, a true five-star film – featuring practically perfect acting, writing, camerawork, editing. Rarely does the movie make a misstep.” I had similar praise for Atonement in my five-star review: “This is an amazing film which rewards repeat viewings, expertly crafted from top to bottom. I have no qualms in saying that Atonement is a perfect film. I can’t think of one thing that the movie does wrong, and about a hundred things that it does so, so right.” The same cannot be said for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which – although brimming with much of the director’s trademark mastery – is cursed with excruciating pacing, a ragged mishandling of its characters, and an incomprehensibly pulpy plot. Sharp work from the leads and the occasionally intriguing image (e.g. the “contra-zoom”, used for the first time in this film to give audiences a sense of the protagonist’s vertigo) help to make the movie good, but it’s far from great.
The plot concerns a retired police detective named John Ferguson (James Stewart) who is called up by an old friend for one last job. It’s worth noting that Ferguson felt compelled to quit his day job after accidentally getting a fellow officer killed during a rooftop chase as a result of his own debilitating vertigo. This prologue to the film is strikingly colored and vaguely surreal. The use of the “contra-zoom” while Ferguson watches a man fall to his death is indeed an unforgettable moment. Now, as for this one last job, Ferguson’s friend would like him to follow his wife, a woman who has not been acting like herself lately, leading her husband to believe that she is… possessed! Ferguson has his doubts, but takes the case nonetheless and begins what ultimately turns into the most unexciting detective work ever put to film. The stakes are perilously low while we watch, from behind the steering wheel, as Ferguson follows Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) driving around San Francisco. She stops, stares at a headstone in a small cemetery for a few moments, then leaves again. He follows. She drives to a museum and sits entranced by a painting. He follows, waiting until her exit and following again – the camera always perched on the dashboard of his car, watching her journey through the city. Building tension by using a deliberately slow pace can be celebrated, but this comes across as though the film is running in place.
As to the matter of the handling of the characters, let it first be known that Ferguson has a friendship with a woman named Midge who serves no purpose in the film at all, except for an uninvolving subplot where she attempts to win Ferguson’s affections in vain. This alone speaks to the missteps of Vertigo, but then Ferguson’s character changes severely from an affable mystery-lover at the outset to deranged psychopath by the film’s finale. One might assert that the change comes as a result of some trauma incurred as a result of his vertigo, but the break in his behavior comes at a peculiar time, after he has finished the case for his friend and seemingly moved on with his life. A late-in-the-game twist makes his actions retroactively understandable, but only barely. Not that there isn’t a lot to love in seeing eternally endearing Jimmy Stewart take a turn toward menacing, thereby shattering his good-guy image, but within the context of the movie it makes little sense.
It does help to sell the sudden blooming tension, however. The plot starts and stops like there’s a student driver behind the wheel, but in the final act things begin to come together in a fascinating fashion. But with the exception of some possible ambiguity, the final moments fail to deliver the crushing blow that was no doubt intended. I can appreciate the supernatural element of the story, but this is abandoned in favor of developing a chemistry between Ferguson and Madeleine. I could appreciate that, but this is then ditched in favor of watching Ferguson’s descent into madness and rage. Any of of these approaches would have been appropriate; mashing them together produces less than spectacular results.
I’m afraid that my true feelings about Vertigo will be misinterpreted as a result of this insistence on discussing the elements I felt did not work, so let me repeat that the movie is in fact good. Stewart and Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge) are all well-suited for their roles, the imagery is often fantastic (a surreal dream sequence is particularly notable, as well as the lighting in scenes taking place at the Empire Hotel), and Hitchcock’s emphasis on symbolism reflects the truth that the filmmaker was in love with his work. Yet it’s less interesting to write about the positive elements in the best film ever made than it is to explain why that title is inappropriate. Vertigo is a good film, but the best film ever made must be a nearly perfect film – masterpiece or not, this movie is not that.