Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a very strangely paced film that constantly changes from one genre to another. As a ride into obsession it’s a very effective direction to take.
The film starts out as a classic Hitchcock thriller, very much in the mould of his previous film Rear Window (1954), especially as James Stewart takes a similar lead role in a similar situation.
After this though the film takes a turn for the weird as Stewart’s Scottie is asked to follow a suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine, it transpires, is slipping into trances, becoming increasingly reckless with her own life, and visiting the grave and portrait of her ancestor during blackouts. An ancestor who she isn’t aware is related to her. This section plays fantastically as an intriguing and exciting ghost/possession story, and it’s the strongest genre Vertigo occupies. Novak is convincingly ethereal in these sequences, but never painting a caricature of a woman possessed, always teetering on the line between supernatural and psychologically disturbed. Stewart is also fantastic here, his naturalism allowing us to buy and identify with a man capable of falling in love with this unusual woman. During this segment it also takes on the genre of a romance, and given the two people involved and their situations, it’s delightfully ambiguous and twisted.
It’s the latter half of the film that spins things into a psychological thriller, with heavy emphasis on ‘psychological’. This whole segment beautifully shows Hitchcock’s impeccable polish. The story and characters combine with the camerawork and music, all spinning around in circles and coming at you from odd yet deliciously foreseeable angles.
Is Vertigo Hitchcock’s best film? No, both earlier Rear Window and later Psycho (1960) are superior, but given we’re talking about Hitchcock, it’s still better than almost every film ever made.
By RJ Bayley