Over his long and varied career, Alfred Hitchcock made many films that are now considered to be some of the best of all time. As the years have rolled by, however, one film seems to stand tall amongst the rest. That film is Vertigo.
This Hitchcock masterpiece (of which there are a few) was first shared with the public in 1958. It wasn’t incredibly well received upon release, winning favourable reviews at best. But like many films that have experience a welcome upsurge in public opinion, it has now gone on to become a staple in any “greatest films” list – even topping Sight & Sound’s list of the 50 greatest of all time.
But what makes Vertigo so great? Why has it become so lauded?
Hitchcock’s meticulous attention to detail is certainly one of the key reasons why Vertigo continues to be celebrated. Take his use of colours, for instance. At first glance they may not seem that important, but upon deeper inspection it’s clear that he uses them to convey an intricate array of emotion and feeling. In Vertigo, it’s green and reds that are the key focus, and Hitchcock uses them to convey love, danger, mystery and the uncanny.
Vertigo also has a deep, carefully crafted story. Taken from Boileau-Narcejac’s novel “D’Entre les Morts”, it follows a retired San Francisco cop, Scottie (James Stewart), who suffers from a fear of heights. Although he’s no longer working, he takes up a job for an old friend, Elster (Tom Helmore), who wants his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), followed: he suspects she’s been taken over by a vengeful 19th century spirit. However, Scottie begins to fall in love with Madeleine, which leaves him all the more distraught when he’s unable to prevent her suicide. Around a year later, Scottie, still guilt-ridden and forlorn, begins to date Judy, a young woman who happens to look a lot like Madeleine. As their relationship progresses, Scottie transforms Judy, bit by bit, into the image of Madeleine that haunts his conscience. By the end, not only does Judy look just like Madeleine, but it is revealed that she is Madeleine, and Scottie has become the a tragic byproduct of Elster’s elaborate plan to do away with his wife.
It’s certainly not an easy plot to explain, which is in part due to the film’s slightly bloated length. But if it wasn’t for it’s carefully-woven threads and complex machinations, it wouldn’t be the stand-out flick that it has become. Take for instance the way that the film dupes us, just as if we’re Scottie: at first we think we’re watching a the story of something supernatural, but it eventually transpires that it is a tale of twisted desire that we are baring witness to. Or perhaps consider that it’s not heights that Stewart’s Scottie should fear, it’s the inexorable descent that can come with falling in love.
And that’s exactly why Vertigo is so great. It’s not because it’s a perfect film, but rather the opposite. It’s because so many people can interpret the film in so many different ways on so many different viewings, that it’s core nature is hard to pinpoint, hard to put a finger on. Really, that’s how every masterpiece should be.