"Alfred Hitchcock, who produced and directed the thing, has never before indulged in such farfetched nonsense." So said film critic John McCarten in The New Yorker when Vertigo was first released in 1958. He wasn’t alone in his dislike for the movie as it received middling reviews and was considered by many to be just another Hitchcock film featuring a convoluted mystery and a twist ending. It’s easy to see why the movie was perceived as such at the time as the director had become seemingly omnipresent where the media was concerned. Not only had he consistently released on average one feature a year but he also came into American homes on a weekly basis thanks to his wildly successful television program “Alfred Hitchcock Present.” So, in retrospect, it seems clear as to why Vertigo was seen as a run-of-the-mill production from the master, as his method and intent had become widely known and anticipated before its release. The fact that the film is so deliberately paced surely won it no fans as well.
And yet, it was named the greatest film ever made by the esteemed cinematic journal Sight and Sound in 2012 in their influential once-a-decade poll of scholars and cinema professionals.
You’ll be able to determine for yourself if Vertigo deserves this accolade or is simply a formula mystery this week at the Art Theater. The film is their late night feature (schedule below) and will be screened in a 35mm format.
Though you may have seen the film before, it’s one the reveals itself over repeat viewings which is one of the reasons its reputation has rebounded since its initial release. In examining it from a thematic point of view as opposed to simply a plot-driven exercise, critics came to realize that Hitchcock was diving into darker waters than he ever had before. More than anything, Vertigo is the director’s most personal film as the main character, retired San Francisco police office Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, in a devastating performance) becomes mired in grief after he witnesses the tragic death of a woman he’s been hired to investigate (a luminous Kim Novak) and become obsessed with. The character’s reaction to this turn of events is disturbing as he goes to great lengths to transform another woman (Novak again) into the image of his lost love. Selfish, dispassionate and abusive, Ferguson changes as well becoming intent on recreating the past at any cost, even that of his soul.
To be sure, the mystery that serves as the movie’s engine is a little hard to swallow but it must be regarded as the end which allowed Hitchcock to explore the film’s darker themes, which become more obvious with each viewing. However, what’s apparent from the first time you see the movie is the strength of the two leads. Stewart delivers the most daring performance of his career, willingly exposing Ferguson’s self-centered and obsessive behavior, fully embracing the character’s faults and bringing them to life without hesitation. It’s a brave and exhausting turn and one of great modernity. Stewart is no movie star here but an actor pushing himself to the emotional limit with profoundly moving results. Novak, who never got the credit she deserved over the course of her career, is very good as well. Ostensibly taking on a double role, she fully inhabits each, realizing two women from different walks of life, investing each with an emotional gravity that serves as the perfect counterpoint to Stewart’s strong work.
In retrospect, what may have initially turned critics and viewers away from the film is its unflinching look at death, its inherent mystery and the lengths we go to in order cheat and understand it. While many of us come to accept that this is inevitable and unknowable, Vertigo dares to give us a character who attempts to circumvent and understand death. That he is blind to see the folly of his actions is the tragedy of the film, a lesson he learns far too late to damning results.
128 minutes – Rated PG
At the Art Theater
126 W. Church St
Fri, Jul 26 at 10:00pm
Sat, Jul 27 at 10:00pm
Sun, Jul 28 at 11:30am
Wed, Jul 31 at 2:00pm, 10:00pm
Thu, Aug 1 at 10:00pm