AFInity: Vertigo

By Kim Hollis

July 15, 2010

James Stewart and Mel Gibson would really get along.

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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).

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