Page to Screen: Vertigo (1958)

based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

As you can imagine, my film class introduced me to the the supposed greats of cinema—y’all know how I feel about the label “classics”? Yeah, imagine that backed up by the American Film Institute rather than Western academia and you’ll get a sense of how I feel about that. While I’m glad I watched these films for my cinematic education, sometimes I just have to remind myself that it’s okay not to agree with people who have more experience in the field than you know. It’s art, man—everybody’s opinion is, in its own way, right.

So, um, we watched Vertigo and I didn’t like it.

Vertigo concerns retired detective John Ferguson, recovering from a situation where his partner fell to his death and Ferguson developed acrophobia. Ferguson is approached by an old college friend, Gavin Elster, and asked to keep an eye on his wife, the beautiful Madeleine, whom he believes to be possessed by her great-grandmother, the tragic figure Carlotta. As Ferguson trails Madeleine, the two fall in love—but Ferguson has no idea just how twisted things are.

After the tense opening scene, which details the accident that gave Ferguson his acrophobia, we meet the absolute best part of this movie—Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge, Ferguson’s best friend. Something about the wildly unflattering glasses, casual attitude, and their interplay (they were once engaged; Midge isn’t interested in anyone else, but broke off the engagement for unknown reasons) just makes me love and adore her. She’s smart, capable, and looks after Ferguson in an almost motherly way. Bel Geddes and James Stewart have great chemistry, which is part of the reason that Stewart’s romance with Kim Novak as Madeleine falls so flat. I wasn’t expecting it, to be totally honest—well, perhaps from his end. Kim Novak’s Madeleine is gorgeous, especially in that grey suit. (It’s the eyebrows.) But the fact that part of her motivation is being madly in love with Ferguson is, frankly, unbelievable. James Stewart, especially at age fifty, plays Ferguson as a likable everyman that I just don’t buy as inspiring passion in a distant woman twenty-six years his junior. In fact, if you just watch the first twenty minutes after the opening credits, you might think Vertigo is a soft comedy where Midge and Ferguson have madcap adventures as he tries to combat his vertigo and overcome his tragic accident. I’d watch that. In any case, their relationship, which drives a lot of the film, is based on a logical fallacy. It’s odd to me that Hitchcock thought Novak was miscast as Madeleine, rather than Stewart as Ferguson.

As we walked out of class, I commented to a friend, “That movie took three hours!”. It’s a two-hour film that just drags like no other. Our professor introduced the film by asking us to examine whether Hitchcock is merely making a film for sheer sensation or if he has a point about life that he’s trying to make, so I was watching for any conclusions on, well, anything that might crop up. They failed to do so, although I think there might be something lurking in the film’s subconscious about the impossibility of ever truly knowing a human being. But the twist—of course there’s a twist—comes very late in the film, and I think the film would have been better served by pushing it up a little earlier or, at the very least, compressing the first half, which is downright boring at times, as we watch Ferguson tailing Madeleine in her car. I mean, seeing San Francisco in the sixties is a treat for me—I spent my early childhood in California—but it’s not going to be for everyone.

But once they hit that twist, which I’m not going to spoil you for, the film sucks you in. (I did my best during that class to walk into screenings more or less blind; it’s a very rare treat for me to come to a film without any preconceived notions about it.) My class spent the last half of the movie gnawing on their fingernails as you wonder just how much Ferguson knows and what’s he’s going to do with the knowledge (if he indeed knows). That’s the Hitchcock I know by reputation, and I look forward to rifling in his filmography to find more of this deliciously horrifying tension. We watched this film to illustrate cinematography for class, and the shot that most people will walk away from the film remembering is a shot that conveys vertigo to the audience; it’s accomplished by moving the camera forward along a track while zooming out, and Hitchcock uses this as the camera is staring directly down a stairwell. Just thinking about is giving me flashbacks to my first (and last) roller coaster ride. Yurgh.

Bottom line: Vertigo suffers from a cripplingly slow first half and the wildly miscast James Stewart as John Ferguson—but once the twist hits, you start gnawing on your fingernails from sheer suspense, and the camerawork is impeccable. Worth investigating.

I watched this film in a class.

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