Vertigo 1958

Vertigo - Released May 9, 1958. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

A retired detective played by James Stewart decides to help an old friend by keeping tabs on his wife who has begun to wander about San Francisco without logical explanation. He soon is infatuated with the woman, and when she dies by suicide the detective becomes obsessed with remaking another woman (Kim Novak) he has met into the likeness of the deceased woman.

The Story and Plot of Vertigo

The film itself is either a masterpiece or a boring film (I've seen it described both ways from Hitchcock fans), and Vertigo is simply not quite like Hitchcock's other "thrillers." Of the four films that Hitchcock made with Stewart (crowd-pleasers Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the somewhat experimental Rope where Stewart only appears near the end) Vertigo is still the darkest of the lot (which is a feat considering Rope is about the pros and cons of murder when a pair of students kill one of their friends to prove a philosophical point).

Although outfitted with a quintessential Hitchcock plot of identity mystery and time pressures, Vertigo veers off into other areas that are not clearly explained and complicate the tale in ways the usually efficient storyteller Hitchcock rarely pursued with other movies.

There is also a great deal of ambiguity about Stewart's character, a retired detective with a debilitating fear of heights who is pressed into unwilling service helping an old friend keep an eye on his wife. When the woman ends up dead (after he had fallen in love with her), the detective accidentally meets another woman who reminds him of her, and he systematically begins remolding her into the image of his dead lover.

On the surface it is a simple case of obsession gone out of control, and the woman who is being remodeled someone with deep self-respect problems. But behind it is also the detective subconsciously rebuilding the facts of his dead loves death, trying to solve a case that he thinks he has put behind him and was explained to one and all at the inquest. Personally obsessed with a vanished lover, and plodding ahead doing detective work he doesn't realize he is pursuing, the tale pushes to its climax and the twist of identity that calls into question everything the audience (and the detective) know about the cast of characters.

Hitchcock made the remark that the film was about a man in love with death, embodied by the Kim Novak character as the focus. As much as Jimmy Stewart can play a depressed obsessive, Hitchcock's explanation comes across, but probably Hitchcock's summation is best shown via contrast: semi-girlfriend Barbara Bel Geddis' character (Midge) is lively, happy and caring, and Stewart's retired detective just isn't interested. But he falls in love once the morbid "fake wife" appears.

[Below: Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart amid the scenery shots that Hitchcock used generously throughout the movie. ]

San Francisco Scenery and Vertigo

Hitchcock shares most of the stories secrets well before the films conclusion, and the movie is meant to stand on its own as actual storytelling versus plot tricks and twists. Like Hitchcock's 1943 Shadow of A Doubt and its use of scenery as almost a character in the film to present a setting, Hitchcock presents San Francisco and the California coastline in a way that it has it's own (gloomy) identity in the tale.

Hitchcock wants the audience to share in his view of the place, and because of its often people-bereft scenes, it evokes a lonely emptiness which is probably meant to shade the Jimmy Stewart character who is aimlessly wandering in life, though his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) is right at hand, waiting for attention.

Vertigo Story Credits

Although the credits say Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor are the screenwriters using the novel "From Among the Dead" by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau as source, at least two other writers spent time on the screenplay. Angus McPhail is said to have written the scene in which a police officer falls from a San Francisco rooftop, creating the 'vertigo' that plagues Stewart throughout the film. Other sources say Coppel wrote the scene - - perhaps it is an amalgam of the two. Writer Maxwell Anderson was under studio contract to work on Vertigo during 1956 and 1957, but I have not read of what is his contribution to the finished film. Coppel and Taylor fought over the onscreen credit when Taylor tried to claim sole credit, and the whole matter was settled in arbitration through the screenwriters guild.

Vertigo Confusion

Indecision on Hitchcock's part on how to conclude the story has resulted in an unused ending in which Scottie (Stewart) and Midge (Bel Geddes) are together at the end of the film. That cut scene is on the laserdisk and DVD release for viewing. Hitchcock's original version intended for release doesn't include the important scene where Novak's character writes a confession note revealing her role in the deception. Studio pressure caused the scene to be inserted again against Hitchcock's wishes. Nonetheless, these elements of the story are far milder than the original novel, in which the main character brutally reacts to his discovery of the identity deception.

Music and Vertigo

Because of a musicians strike going on in Hollywood at the time, Bernard Herrmann did not conduct the orchestration recording, which was done in London and Vienna as the studio tried to outmaneuver the strike (the London musicians backed out midway through the recording in order to show support for the American musicians on strike). An entirely new recording of the music was done in 1996 by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. In the course of the documentary, film restoration directors James Katz and Robert Harris note that Herrmann's written score actually was not followed entirely correctly in the London and Vienna recordings which were conducted by Muir Mathieson.

Summary and Irony

Vertigo is not Rear Window and it's not The 39 Steps either. It's as if Hitchcock was straining to go in a new direction with a personal viewpoint about relationships and the weight of visual knowledge versus emotional knowledge, and how the two get mixed up in private obsession. Stewart's detective character has a fixed image in his mind like a pagan idolator, with Barbara Bel Geddes at one elbow, and Kim Novak at the other, but he still tragically and relentlessly tries to capture a ghost woman that never really existed.

Bluray Hitchcock Vertigo

Vertigo DVD Release - 2010

This is the most lavish, and the best release yet of the film for home viewing (I checked in June 2011 for news of a Blu Ray release: none yet). The million dollars spent on the original restoration in the 1996 version saved what could have been a major loss in Hitchcock film preservation efforts. The original negatives had shrunken and changed to such a physical extent that they were unusable to strike new prints from, which is usually the death-knell for a film's life outside of surviving circulation prints.

Using computer technology and manhours, Universal has been able to resurrect the film to something like its original release state, which though critically drubbed in many quarters as a 'far-fetched' story when it originally appeared, was nonethless praised for the color and technical presentation. There are legitimate criticisms that the restoration since 1996 may have gone too far, in fact has altered some of the actual elements of the film (sound effects, music, even some voice work) but it appears that even with the alterations this version is still far closer to the original Hitchcock release than the scratched and faded out surviving prints that were all that existed prior to Universal's million dollar investment.

The Two Disk Vertigo Set Extras

Loaded up with extra features, particularly documentaries which dissect the Hitchcock film and go into the details of the restoration process that went into rebuilding Vertigo after the original film elements had deteriorated, this is the best DVD release of the film yet. Apparently more work has gone into reviving the faded out colors of the worn original film negatives, and cleaning up dirt and scratches, since the 1997 widescreen VHS release.

Also on disk is the film audio presented in "Surround Sound 5.1." The rebuilt sound includes new 'foley' work which was used for the original restoration effort that went into the 1996 reissue for movie theatres (which was DTS Digital Stereo on 70mm prints*). Like the earlier single-disk DVD release from Universal, this 2-disk set has the option to listen to the un-reworked soundtrack in original mono (the 'restored' version has much better sound quality but is less than identical to the original 1958 soundtrack). There is also film commentary from Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, screenwriter Samuel Taylor, and William Friedkin.

Vertigo Disk #2

The second disc contains a 30-minute documentary Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Hitchcock's Masterpiece with narration by Roddy McDowall. This is the same doc which was included on the 1997 VHS tape release and was shown on American Movie Classics at the time to promote the 70mm film reissue. Other features on the new DVD set are Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators, a four-part doc which talks about designer Saul Bass, costume designer Edith Head, and music composer Bernard Herrmann. The feature includes interviews with various authorities, particularly Martin Scorsese. Also on the disk are interview excerpts between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. The disk is also filled out with the Alfred Hitchcock-directed TV show episode The Case of Mr. Pelham.

(* Vertigo was originally filmed in 65mm Vista Vision. The 1996 theatrical re-release used "Super Vista Vision" 70mm prints. However, the film was never released originally in 65mm, but was 'reduction printed' to standard 35mm prints.)

Read a review of the remastered The Birds 1963 Here.

Read about Vertigo vs. Citizen Kane here


Vertigo Special 2-disk Edition
Universal Legacy Series dvd

Vertigo DVD Cover

Original page 2009 | Updated Jan 2015

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