AFInity: Vertigo
By Kim Hollis
July 15, 2010

James Stewart and Mel Gibson would really get along.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#9: Vertigo

I had planned on watching a movie from the '60s or '70s for this week's column, but when my TiVo happened to catch the HD version of Vertigo playing on Cinemax for Alfred Hitchcock Month, I thought that now would be as good a time as any to knock this film off my list. You see, my memory told me that I wasn't all that fond of this thriller, and I wondered if my opinion would be different on a second viewing. After all, tastes change. I recently re-read James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, a book I hated when I first read it 15 or so years ago, for a second time. Lo and behold, I liked it a great deal better. Would Vertigo have similarly matured, like a fine wine?

Yes and no. Has the film matured? Absolutely. Is this maturation a positive thing? Not so much.

Despite the fact that Vertigo looks absolutely glorious in HD, with bright colors, luscious scenery and striking cinematography, the movie that many consider to be Hitchcock's best just feels extremely dated today. Obviously, the famed director didn't have access to a lot of the effects that make movies look so effortless today, but when you see a guy fall to his death from a roof, it's cheesy. When the main character is suffering from nightmares and the best way to convey that is to overlay the screen with red and purple filter…well, there's a silliness to it that can't be denied.

The look of the film isn't the only problem, either. There are a number of melodramatic acting moments that, while perfectly acceptable in context with the year the movie was released (1958), seem over-the-top and forced today. Even James Stewart is a little guilty of overdoing it a bit, though overall, as I'll discuss, his performance in this film is top-notch.

My other big problem with Vertigo is that I simply find it boring. I mentioned a similar sentiment when I discussed Psycho last year, and my opinion is much the same with regards to Vertigo. The pacing of the film is extremely slow, and it does feel every bit of its two hours and 15 minutes. In particular, the first hour of Vertigo is both languorous and laborious as the various elements are put in place for the second portion of the movie, which involves main character Scottie's obsession. Long tracking shots and time spent walking on trails make me have the probably blasphemous observation that a good editor might have helped Hitch a great deal in both this film and Psycho.

What's odd here is that it sounds like I'm knocking Hitchcock. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has a couple more movies on the AFI list that I'll be getting to later on in the course of this project, and both are among my favorites ever. I'm also a tremendous fan of To Catch a Thief, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder and any number of others I may be forgetting. It just happens that neither Psycho nor Vertigo really do it for me.

Now that I've gotten all my gripes off my chest, there are plenty of things to admire about Vertigo, I swear. I mentioned how lush and gorgeous the film looks, and this is certainly true. Whether the characters are walking around San Francisco or at the Mission a couple of hours away, there is always some kind of set piece that will take your breath away. Considering that this was filmed more than 50 years ago, the Technicolor is impressive, and the high-definition picture is pristine and near-perfect. It's almost as if Hitch was able to foresee the technological advances that would come much later.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the acting in this film, and though I criticized some of the melodrama, it only occurs a couple of times. Jimmy Stewart is really tremendous here as John "Scottie" Ferguson. His first scene in the film is one of terror, and every emotion is displayed in the lines of his face. When discussing his problems with vertigo after the fact with former girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), he's almost flippant. Their banter is very natural. That mood quickly shifts when he tries to demonstrate how he will conquer his phobia, and finds that it's not as easy as he thought it would be.

Scottie's transformation from "everyman" to a pure obsessive is something entirely on another plane, though. When he takes the assignment to track an old high school friend's wife, he does so almost out of necessity. As Madeleine's story becomes more and more intriguing to him, his visage transforms to something more twisted. And eventually, when he becomes infatuated with a woman who resembles Madeleine, we have no trouble believing the depths to which he'll fall in order to transform her into his ideal of perfection so he can place her on that same pedestal. Stewart displays both extreme passion and complete mania in his portrayal of Scottie. It's exceptionally impacting, but plays nicely off his golden boy persona (though I would argue that there is substantially more depth in his characters in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life than most people realize).

Three different women are part of Scottie’s life during the course of the film, and each of them is distinctly different from the other. Midge is brought to life by Barbara Bel Geddes (who would later be best known as the matriarch in the television series Dallas). She’s clearly smitten with Scottie, though she also seems to instinctually realize they are wrong for each other. Even so, she is the loyal friend throughout the film, the tried and true girl who would do anything to help him. She’s in stark contrast to both Madeleine and Judy, both played by Kim Novak. Madeleine is a mystery, a psychological hot mess, and Scottie can’t help but be drawn to her. Judy, Madeleine’s doppelganger, is down to earth and straightforward, but even she has secrets brimming under her surface. Madeleine and Judy are all smoldering sensuality, while Midge is much more subtle. Midge is the girl who’s right for Scottie, but he aches for the passion. The excellent work turned in by Novak and Bel Geddes has to be credited here.

Finally, when it comes to being a detailed story about obsession and deep-seated desires, Vertigo can’t really be beat. As audience members, we grow very uncomfortable when Scottie’s ever intensifying feelings begin to cross lines. We’re constantly thinking, “Ew, I can’t believe he just asked Judy to do that!” Yet, as voyeurs to his emotions, we’re also inside his head just a bit. We become tense as his anxiety rises.

Still, it’s probably going to be another long time before I ever sit down to watch Vertigo again. I can’t really get past the fact that the first half of the film is almost intolerably boring – I frankly had trouble staying awake, and I was watching the film in the middle of the day. Yes, it’s extremely well acted and it looks amazing, but compared to other Hitchcock classics, it’s just not my cup of tea.